The Spy Who Came In from the Carrel

In Nazi Europe, countless books were banned. So those who saved books—whether university archivists or Jewish scholars—became smugglers.

In 1942, Dr. Adele Kibre—dark-haired, wicked-eyed, a medievalist by training—began work as an overseas agent for the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications. This Committee was a branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS): the wartime predecessor to the CIA, which sought to acquire documents in Europe that the Allies could use to develop intelligence and plan covert operations. Kibre, a scholar, was now also a spy.

Kibre was an ideal fit for the job. After receiving a PhD in medieval linguistics (University of Chicago, 1930), she had spent almost a decade hopping from archive to archive across Europe, earning cash by taking photographs of rare texts for scholars back home in the United States. In addition to her camera skills, Kibre had a gift for gaining access to closed archives. When Kibre once asked—as Kathy Peiss describes, in a marvelous new book about spy craft and the book world during the Second World War—to view “an unusually rare manuscript in the Vatican,” a staffer explained that Kibre would have to seek permission from a specific cardinal. Unfazed, Kibre, the daughter of movie-set designers, sent a tempting card of introduction up to His Eminence: “Miss Adele Kibre—Hollywood, California.” The cardinal quickly sent for her, saying, “So you are from Hollywood! Come, let’s talk.” Kibre got to see her manuscript, at the price of merely talking for a while with a starstruck European about Hollywood, the “glamour city of the western world.”

Kibre knew, as any dedicated book hound knows, that archives have walls but people have whims. And she also knew that, if you really want to see a manuscript, there are ways and there are ways.

Kibre is one of many memorable characters who appear in two new books about stealing and destroying knowledge in wartime: Peiss’s Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe and Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. As both works show in rich and sometimes horrifying detail (and to paraphrase Robert Darnton), books do not just reflect upon history; books create history.1

On this point, Peiss quotes the poet Archibald MacLeish. As Librarian of Congress during the Second World War, MacLeish recruited scholars to a branch of the OSS—Research and Analysis, nicknamed the “Chairborne Division”—where they read and worked up strategic analyses from the very documents that Kibre found and photographed: “The keeping of these records is itself a kind of warfare,” MacLeish explained. “The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”2

Books do not just reflect upon history; books create history.

As Ovenden describes, the Nazi government’s destruction of Jewish books relied, in part, on the guidance of the so-called Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. This “quasi-academic body” premised its authority to adjudicate the fate of Jewish writings on its own “massive collection of books and Hebrew or other Semitic languages and books about Judaism.”3

The documents that filled out the collections of the Institute and its sister organizations—like the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce, a commission for looting art and texts—came, in part, from the compelled labor of Jewish scholars, who were forced to identify their own cultural treasures in the holdings of libraries and synagogues. In 1941, for example, after the German army captured the Lithuanian city of Vilna—which held “one of Europe’s richest collections of Jewish books”—Dr. Johannes Pohl, a Nazi and book curator who helped to lead the Rosenberg Taskforce, “realised that only Jewish specialists could undertake the task of identifying key materials. He therefore ordered the ghetto to provide him with twelve workers, to sort, pack, and ship materials, and appointed a team of three Jewish intellectuals to oversee the work: Herman Kruk, Zelig Kalmanovitch and Chaikl Lunski. The Jewish guards of the ghetto called the group the ‘Paper Brigade.’”4

The Paper Brigade resisted their task using every stratagem they could. They knew that selecting a small group of texts for preservation meant consigning the other texts to destruction. (“The Jewish porters occupied with the task are literally in tears,” Herman Kruk wrote at the time; “it is heartbreaking to see this happening.” Later, referring to the city’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, he wrote, “YIVO is dying; its mass grave is the paper mill.”5) They slowed their work as much as they could be seen to do, and slowed it still further when their German supervisors were absent. They smuggled books home to the ghetto, concealing the bulk under their shirts and trousers. By the fall of 1943, Ovenden writes, “thousands of printed books, and tens of thousands of manuscript documents, made their way back to the Vilna Ghetto thanks to the astonishing, risky, and dangerous biblio-smuggling of the Paper Brigade.”

The poet Abraham Sutzkever, one of the smugglers in the Paper Brigade, acquired a permit to carry home scrap paper to light the ghetto’s ovens. What he really carried home were treasures to be saved: letters, diaries, drawings, books. A poem he wrote in 1943, “Kerndlekh Veyts” (Grains of Wheat), imagines a day when these texts’ intended readers would be able to read them in the open: “And I dig and plant manuscripts / … Perhaps these words will endure, / And live to see the light.”6

Ultimately, most of the workers for the Paper Brigade were murdered. Even so, you can visit many of the documents that Sutzkever and others saved in archives in New York City.


The Spy Who Read Me

By Katherine Voyles

During those same years, Maria Josepha Meyer—an American who had worked before the war for the publisher Hachette in Paris—worked on behalf of the Library of Congress in occupied France. Meyer’s job was to gather sensitive texts, especially underground literature and titles on the constantly updated lists of banned books, before the occupying German forces could seize them. She sent reports of raids on bookstores to Archibald MacLeish, which he passed on to President Roosevelt.

Meanwhile, Adele Kibre ran a document-gathering operation in Stockholm that was so effective that it drove her superiors a little crazy. Nobody could figure out her methods. She sent to Frederick Kilgour, her superior in London, photographs of underground newspapers, of technical manuals, of government statistics, of air raids in Estonia and sabotage by the Resistance in Denmark. She sent photographs of Industrie-Compass 1943, a German manufacturing directory that the Nazis had locked down because it held “information of value to the enemy and therefore of interest to spies.”

Kilgour begged Kibre to reveal how her operation found these items: “Do they indulge in any underground work or is everything obtained through ordinary bookstore channels? I wish that sometime you would write me a very garrulous letter describing the set-up in Stockholm and the people with whom you work.” Kibre never answered.

As Peiss suggests, Kibre’s methods were likely, when considered in the context of library collections and acquisitions, quite mundane. Yes, rumor had it that she sometimes stole into occupied France on a fishing boat. But she also made herself a favored customer at local bookstores, made friends with local scholars, and obtained borrowing privileges from lenders that included Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, a civil statistics office, and a medical-school library. She subscribed to a lot of newspapers. She worked every source she could: for example, she was on good terms with the Norwegian underground, and her own notes suggest that she schmoozed with a Nazi propaganda minister in order to procure valuable documents.

The Nazis hid whole libraries’ worth of literary treasures, just as they had hidden paintings and statues stolen from Jewish owners.

Eugene Power—a microfilm expert who had given Kibre’s name to the OSS as a promising recruit—later explained his recommendation. What Power pointed out was that Kibre had been using archive hunting to satisfy a taste for intelligence gathering: “I recalled that she liked to talk about international intrigue and espionage … . She was a real Mata Hari type.”7 It was no coincidence that, when war broke out and Mata Hari types were needed, so many were to be found walking around libraries.

After the war, document hunters sought to recover stolen treasures, to gather information that would support the new mission of denazification, and to help future historians make sense of the horrors in Europe. Max Loeb—a US Army private, refugee from Nazi Germany, and former book publisher—won renown as a brilliant interrogator of “prisoners of war knowledgeable about libraries, publishing, and the book trade.”

In his interviews, Loeb learned about hundreds of sites that the US military could target to find useful documents, and about much more besides. The director of Research and Analysis in Europe praised his ability to pile discoveries on discoveries: “From the outset, it became apparent that he was obtaining … information on personalities, relocation of government and party headquarters, and industrial targets far beyond the scope of his immediate interest.”

In the process, Loeb learned the locations of literary treasures—whole libraries’ worth—that the Nazis had hidden, just as they had hidden paintings and statues that they had stolen from Jewish owners, in castles, monasteries, salt mines, and caves. One POW explained that German military engineers had dug a system of tunnels for this purpose near the Mosel River. Another recited the location of a chain of sites that hid stolen valuables; he had helped his father to string telephone wires between them. If you liked The Monuments Men, you’ll like this book.8

Peiss’s and Ovenden’s books are at once too much and too little, in a good way. Information Hunters, at 291 densely packed pages, covers its subject matter thoroughly; at times, you can almost picture the author tipping boxes of archival notes onto the page.

But no book can include everything, so the analysts who made use of the documents that Kibre and her colleagues tracked down rarely appear as characters. We also see glimpses of figures—like Sherman Kent, the father of modern intelligence analysis—whose importance to the world of intelligence receives no mention, presumably for lack of space. And readers hoping for a thriller in the vein of the late John le Carré won’t find one here. (That doesn’t mean it can’t inspire one. I beg the creatives out there to read these books, and write a dramatic miniseries about bookish spies during the Second World War.)

Burning the Books addresses the whole history of book destruction in the West. This ranges from the military destruction of a great library in Nineveh in the seventh century BC through the British attack on the Library of Congress during the War of 1812 to digital attacks on archived datasets today. The book opens with a bonfire in Berlin in May 1933, in which a band of students burned thousands of books from an academic library in front of a whooping mob of 40,000 people; it ends with a warning that to this day, the destruction of knowledge is often used for political ends: “the preservation of knowledge is fundamentally not about the past but the future.”

For Ovenden, the imperative to preserve libraries draws moral force from the memory of oppressors who have tried to obliterate all memory of the oppressed: “Nazi attacks on Jewish and ‘un-German’ literature were a warning sign of their policy of genocide against the People of the Book.”

That framing seems right. So much of the modern discipline of book history—the moral urgency, the desire to recover lost worlds from the documents those worlds left behind, the libraries in the United States and elsewhere that rose to world-class status by acquiring materials confiscated in wartime, the structures of attention and funding within what the historian Arno Mayer and others have called “the military-industrial-academic complex”—derives from the legacy of the Holocaust and the Second World War, as both Peiss and Ovenden note.9 (Ovenden describes his encounter with YIVO’s archives of rescued books and manuscripts in New York City—which include documents that the Paper Brigade rescued—as “one of the most extraordinary” experiences of his research.)

Today, as we deal with questions that concern the restitution of stolen cultural treasures, the decolonization of the archive, the tenuous preservation of knowledge in digital and “hybrid” archives, the creation of banned-book lists that may include both books that preserve the best of humanity and books that encourage the worst, the lessons of this chapter of library scholarship and book history remain as pertinent as ever. The keeping of records remains itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.


This article was commissioned by Leah Priceicon

  1. Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus, vol. 111, no. 3 (1982), p. 81.
  2. On the Research and Analysis branch of the OSS, see, for example, Elyse Graham, “The P Source: How Humanities Scholars Changed Modern Spycraft,” Princeton Alumni Weekly (December 2020).
  3. The leader of the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question was a former librarian. Richard Ovenden, Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge (Harvard University Press, 2020), pp. 122–23.
  4. The pile of books to be sorted was immense; it included the 40,000 books in the Strashun Library. “The hunt for Jewish books became increasingly aggressive; at one point the floor of the reading room of Vilna University Library was ripped up to look for Jewish books that may have been hidden there.” Ovenden, Burning the Books, pp. 127–28.
  5. YIVO stands for Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut.
  6. Abraham Sutzkever, “Grains of Wheat,” in Sutzkever, Selected Poetry and Prose, translated from the Yiddish by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav (University of California Press, 1991), pp. 157–78. See also Frieda W. Aaron, Bearing the Unbearable: Yiddish and Polish Poetry in the Ghettos and Concentration Camps (SUNY Press, 1990), pp. 66–67.
  7. Ibid., 43; Eugene Power, Edition of One: The Autobiography of Eugene B. Power, Founder of University Microfilms (University Microfilms, Inc., 1990), p. 138.
  8. Robert M. Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Center Street, 2009); The Monuments Men (2014), directed by George Clooney.
  9. Personal communication with Arno Mayer, June 2018. Separately—one of my professors, a giant in the field of book history who lost family members to the Second World War, once mentioned that he had nightmares as a child about Hitler climbing in through his bedroom window. He mentioned this by way of explaining that yet another giant in book history was likely morally motivated in his work by the Second World War. The past is not even past.
Featured image: Stack Maintenance (detail) (1948). Photograph via New York Public Library / Unsplash