A book that was stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust has been finally reunited with its rightful owner by the British Library.
A copy of Die Goldenen Waffen (The Golden Guns), a play by Hans José Rehfisch, had been at the central London library since 1988, when it was purchased second-hand.
But an intriguing chain of events was set in motion when a member of staff responded to a “fairly routine” enquiry.
Susan Reed, lead curator for Germanic Studies at the library, said that she was contacted by a descendent of Rehfisch, who was particularly interested by a newspaper cutting inside the book.
The cutting was a review of another of Rehfisch’s plays, Doktor Semmelweis, performed in 1934, and this sparked their interest in the book’s former owner.
Reed explained in a blog: “The British Library’s ownership stamp showed that we had purchased Die Goldenen Waffen second-hand in July 1988, and I knew that, for a book of that period, our archives would probably reveal little more than bookseller’s name and the price we paid, with no provenance information.
“However, not liking to give up on an enquiry, and noticing the bookplate of a K. Mayländer pasted inside the front cover, I decided on the long shot of searching online for the name, just in case this former owner was famous in some circles.
“Rather to my surprise the name brought up a number of hits about a Dr Karl Mayländer, whose bookplate was the one in our book. But my initial satisfaction in finding this information turned to concern when I realised why Dr Mayländer’s name was in the public eye.
“He was a Viennese art collector and a victim of the Holocaust – the exact date of his death is unknown, but he was deported to Łodz in October 1941 – whose surviving heir had been involved in a long-running and recently-settled cultural restitution claim over five drawings by Egon Schiele (an artist whom Mayländer knew and supported) in the Leopold Museum in Vienna.”
Reed continued to look into the case of the drawings and discovered that Mayländer’s collection was plundered by the Nazis before he was deported to the ghetto in German-occupied Poland.
A number of works which had belonged to him had already been returned to his heirs by the Austrian National Library in 2005, she found.
The British Library then contacted the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde in Vienna, which represents the city’s Jewish population and offered to return the volume.
At last, on 2 December, Kristian Jensen, head of collections and curation at the British Library, handed the book over in person to a representative of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde so it could at last be given to its rightful heir.
Reed said: “Perhaps this seems like an excessive amount of care over what was on the face of it a slim volume of comparatively small monetary value. When we think of cultural spoliation and restitution, we tend to think of famous, unique or valuable items.
“But in recent years both governments and cultural institutions like the British Library have become more aware of the issues and responsibilities relating to the spoliation and restitution of cultural artefacts, not just from the Nazi era, Second World War and Holocaust, but also from more recent conflicts.
“By recognising that our copy of Die Goldenen Waffen was a part, however small a one, of a collection taken from its owner under duress, and by offering to make good the loss to his surviving heir, we are also recognising and demonstrating how seriously we take our responsibilities in this area.”