Digital Projects

On Hitler’s Balcony: Koppel Pinson and the Rescue of Jewish Books in Post-War Germany

Koppel S. Pinson (Postawy, Russian Empire, present day Belarus, 1904 – NY, 1961), a professor at Queens College of the City University of New York, was a historian who specialized on the origins of German nationalism. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and at Columbia University, and taught at the New School for Social Research, and at Queens College of the City University of New York from 1937 until his death. At the end of the Second World War, Professor Pinson joined the U.S. Army, and actively participated in the efforts to help Jewish survivors of the Holocaust living across Europe in Displaced Person’s camps managed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

Between 1945 and 1946, Koppel Pinson left New York City and lived in Germany, working in Offenbach, near Frankfurt am Main. There, under the command of Colonel Seymour J. Pomrenze, he was charged with sorting through the millions of Jewish books, in Hebrew, English, and other languages, that had been looted by the Nazis during their occupation of Germany and had been gathered in the “Offenbach Archival Depot.”

Koppel Pinson’s work, and that of his staff and of German volunteers, was to identify the books and their original owners, so that the restitution process could take place, and these valuable cultural assets could be repatriated. Thousands of books, however, could not be identified, and in many occasions their legitimate owners had been murdered in the course of the Holocaust. The managing staff of the Offenbach Archival Depot thus struggled with how to best dispose of them. In addition, Pinson worked closely with the administration of the many DP camps that had been established in Germany, and provided adult and child survivors with Jewish books, helping them to receive a Jewish education and assisting their return to society after many years of persecution.

Professor’s Pinson’s papers are kept at the New York Public Library, and in the collections of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History. The activities of the “Offenbach Archival Depot” have been researched by historians worldwide, and have been the object of books and exhibitions in America and Europe.

In 1991, Mrs. Hilda Pinson, who after the death of her husband had relocated to Oakland, California, donated some additional documents belonging to Koppel Pinson to The Magnes in Berkeley. The “Koppel S. Pinson Collection” of the Magnes includes two scrapbooks, which contain photographs and annotations, official documents and personal letters, documenting dr. Pinson’s life in Europe in 1945-1946.

These documents present us with a unique insider’s look into the daily life at the Offenbach Archival Depot, the experience of relief organization workers and, most importantly, with the material and emotional landscape of post-war Europe, when a world that had been undone was being rebuilt, piece by piece, by the concerted effort of committed individuals. A world in which a Jewish professor from America could stand on what had been “Hitler’s balcony,” in Berlin, and help repairing what had been broken.

This online presentation was created by An Paenhuysen, PhD, who participated in the Magnes internship program in 2008 under the direction of Francesco Spagnolo.

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