Soon after its founding in 1930 by Rabbi Meir Shapira, the Lublin yeshiva became one of the largest such institutions in the world. It also contained a massive library of religious texts, which was long thought to have been burned during World War II. But books bearing the library’s stamp periodically surface at auctions and used-book sales. Piotr Nazaruk explores the library’s history, and tries to solve the mystery of its fate:
This library would not have existed—and certainly could not have been completed so quickly—had it not been for generous donors from all over Poland and abroad. Rabbi Benjamin Gut of the Chasam Sopher synagogue in New York, donated as many as 4,000 volumes and $1,000 dollars to the library. Special committees established throughout Poland sent thousands of books to Lublin, including priceless old prints and manuscripts, which they collected from institutions and private donors. . . . Although by the end of the 1930s the yeshiva probably had not managed to collect the planned 100,000 volumes, it had become one of the largest and most valuable Jewish religious libraries in Poland at that time.
I had a hard time accepting the widespread, but very poorly attested, [account of the library’s books being] destroyed. In fact, the only information about the burning of these books comes from February 1940, when the Nazi youth magazine Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung reportedly published a virulent and boastful note about the yeshiva library being thrown out of the building and burned in a fire that lasted twenty hours. Although the note from Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung is cited by many researchers, no one seems to have seen this newspaper in person.
The Nazis destroyed Jewish and non-Jewish books and relics, but just as often—especially when the items had considerable value—they looted them. [In fact], the head of the German Staatsbibliothek (state library) in Lublin, Wasyl Kutschabsky—hired Aron Lebwohl, a rabbi and graduate of the yeshiva, to catalog the yeshiva’s collection as late as April 1941.
More about: Holocaust, Polish Jewry, Rare books