It began with internet sleuthing 6,000 miles east of Westwood, and the spotting of a telltale purple ownership stamp.

It was the unmistakable ink mark of the Jewish Community Library in Prague, Czech Republic, hiding in plain sight on the title page of Hebrew-language religious books that had been digitized by the UCLA Library for the benefit of scholars worldwide.

For two decades the Jewish Museum in Prague, or JMP, has undertaken a global search for lost publications from the city’s Jewish Community Library, which was looted and shuttered by Nazi occupiers during World War II. With the recent emphasis on digitization of collections by academic libraries, including UCLA’s, the museum’s work has become a lot easier and more fruitful. The JMP’s efforts to repatriate these stolen items have increased in intensity as anyone capable of using an online search tool can access these vast online repositories.

UCLA Library is one of the earliest and largest contributors to one such repository, the HathiTrust — a collaborative of academic research libraries that have thus far digitized 17 million volumes and made them full-text-searchable.

“In June 2021, the curator of rare documents at the Jewish Museum in Prague, Ivan Kohout, sent me an email explaining that by using HathiTrust they discovered three items in our collection with the Jewish Community Library in Prague’s pre-WWII ownership stamp, and gently inquired about restitution,” said Diane Mizrachi, UCLA’s Jewish and Israel Studies Librarian.

Jaroslav Olša Jr. and Ginny Steel
Todd Cheney/UCLA Symbolic handover of Judaica books between Consul General of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles, Jaroslav Olša, Jr., (left) and Ginny Steel at a ceremony in the Charles E. Young Research Library.

After investigating the provenance of these late-19th century books — on topics ranging from Biblical philosophy to Kabbalism — three more were found bearing the Jewish Community Library in Prague’s imprint seal and accession numbers matching those in its 1939 catalog. Why these particular texts were kept instead of destroyed is unknown, however the Nazis developed an “academic” plan in which Jewish works were to be studied and interpreted from their own perspectives, proving “scientifically” the superiority of the Aryan race.

The return of these treasures — believed to have been acquired by UCLA Library from booksellers in Israel and elsewhere during a major purchasing campaign to expand its Judaica collection in the 1960s — culminated with a ceremony on May 11 in the Charles E. Young Research Library. Ginny Steel, the Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian, symbolically handed over the books to Jaroslav Olša, Jr., consul general of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles, while JMP executives spoke via recorded video remarks. The books are now being carefully packaged for repatriation.

“We are fortunate to have this opportunity to return these materials to their rightful caretakers at the Jewish Museum of Prague,” Steel said. “At UCLA Library, we seek to make measurable progress in restitutions through education and action.”

This 80-year journey from and back to Prague — through Nazi hands to library shelves at UCLA — raises broader questions about the responsibility of libraries and archives to proactively seek out items of questionable provenance in their collections, Steel said, particularly as they re-surface during ongoing digitization efforts.

Such legal and ethical duties, as well as the often-complicated issues of when and to whom cultural heritage materials should be returned, will be explored during “Contested Collections: Grappling with History and Forging Pathways for Repatriation,” a four-part online symposium hosted by the UCLA Library. Mizrachi will be joined by the JMP’s Jewish Studies Researcher Michal Bušek and others for the opening session on May 17. They’ll use the case study of Nazi-looted Judaica books (plus an accompanying digital exhibition) as a springboard for exploring approaches to restitution globally.