In October 1943, the Nazis began the systematic plunder of Rome’s massive Jewish library, composed of some 17,000 volumes, including rare 15th-century editions from the earliest days of Jewish publishing and even rarer manuscripts. Some books from the collection have resurfaced and made their way to academic libraries, but the fate of most remains a mystery. Michael Frank writes:
[One] reason that [these] books present a particularly challenging case has to do with where their confiscation fits into the timeline of one of the most brutal seasons in two millennia of Roman Jewish history: they were taken two weeks after SS Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler demanded that the community produce a tribute of 50 kilograms of gold within 36 hours, in exchange for which, he assured them, no harm would come to the city’s Jews, and two days before—despite the gold having been delivered—the first deportations began. Understandably more significant matters than stolen books were on the minds of the witnesses and, after them, survivors, detectives, archivists, and scholars.
Because there were so many books . . . the Germans were unable to complete their pillaging in one day. It is possible that they ran out of time; but it is also possible that they were aware that more urgent dislocations were to follow two days later, namely the first roundup of Roman Jews. Nevertheless the books were not forgotten: on December 23 the officers returned to finish the job. . . .
[In response to researchers’ request for information], the Italian State Railway . . . was unable to offer any documentation on the subject—though a postwar report by American officers who visited the Hungen depot [to which the books were most likely sent] in April 1945 states that a trainload of materials from Italy had been expected but never arrived. A train departs from Italy, yet never reaches its destination in Germany, and there is no record of its destruction? Curious.