On the eve of World War II, the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin embodied an avant-garde era for the study of modern Judaism and philosophy. Students at the institution studied, among others, the leading thinker Leo Baeck, the Czech-Jewish writer Franz Kafka, and the first female rabbi, Regina Jonas.

It was also home to one of the world’s largest and most important Jewish libraries—some 60,000 volumes of theology, history, and literature that reflected the diversity of German-Jewish society before the Holocaust. Few traces remain of the institution, known in German as the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, and its legendary bookshelves: the Nazis closed the Hochschule, murdered many of its members, and looted its library. After Germany’s defeat, its books were scattered around the world.

But one group of researchers believes they can track down those lost books — with help from the public. The Library of Lost Books, an international project of the Leo Baeck Institute, has created a series of online and physical exhibitions aimed at recruiting citizen scientists. The latest pop-up exhibition launched last month at the Vienna Holocaust Library in London, following similar events in Berlin and Prague, and runs until July 10.

“It is a very important part of the whole project to involve the public in this search for the books looted by the Nazis,” Bettina Farack, a researcher at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Experts have been trying to find these looted books for the past 20 years, and although our colleagues have put a lot of effort into it and have found quite a few books, there is still so much more to do that cannot be done by a handful of experts.”

So far, Farack and her colleagues have found 5,000 of the Hochschule’s 60,000 books. They are virtually uniting the volumes in a digital library, leaving the physical copies where they were discovered in institutions in Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Israel, the United States, Mexico and South Africa. Without a successor from the Hochschule, there is no one to whom the books can be returned.

The Hochschule, which operated from 1872 to 1942, was a pioneer in the field of Jewish studies as a research discipline alongside rabbinical study and training. Previously, Germany had seminaries dedicated to ordaining rabbis, but no place for academic study of Jewish history and culture.

“That was partly because of the reluctance of German public universities to integrate Jewish studies into their curriculum,” Farack said. “You could of course study Christian theology at the universities, but there was no way to study Jewish studies. And so you needed an institution that actually offered that possibility.”

The school’s vast library supported its intellectual reach. Works on both Jewish and Christian theology were available to students researching the relationship between religions. Readers could enjoy contemporary literature, close to rare manuscripts. The reading room was a social space filled with intellectual debates and sometimes even a dance floor.

The Hochschule also fostered the modern movement of liberal Judaism in Germany, known as Reform Judaism in the United States. Its professors taught rabbinical students about Judaism as a channel for questions of universal ethics, philosophy, and social change.

Among the students was Leo Baeck, who was ordained as a rabbi there in 1897. Baeck became a defining liberal Jewish theologian and the last leader of German Jewry under the Nazis. He continued his writings and lectures while imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He survived the Holocaust, moved to London, and in 1955 became the first president of the Leo Baeck Institute.

A book burning in Germany in 1933. Early in their rule, the Nazis burned what they saw as “degenerate” books, but later began to catalogue Jewish books as relics of a bygone past. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Women at the Hochschule set new standards as educational and religious leaders. Jenny Wilde, who became the library director in 1926, was probably the first woman to head a scientific library in Germany. Student Regina Jonas graduated in 1930 with a thesis entitled “Can Women Hold Rabbinic Office?” She answered her own question in 1935, when she was ordained as the first female rabbi in history. She was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.

Kafka also attended the school, took Hebrew lessons, and studied Talmud while living in Berlin for the last year of his life. He wrote to a friend in 1923: “For me the Academy of Jewish Studies is a refuge of peace in wild and woolly Berlin and in the wild and woolly regions of the mind.”

Looting Jewish libraries became a crucial part of Nazi Germany’s project to control narratives about Jewish history and culture. While the Nazis are perhaps better known for burning books than stealing them, book burnings occurred earlier in their regime and were typically propaganda stunts to destroy books they believed had little value. Later, they developed an infrastructure of anti-Semitic studies, establishing research institutes, departments, and universities that allowed Germans to rewrite Jewish history—and they needed primary sources.

“There was actually an academic discipline in Nazi Germany to ‘study the enemy,’” said Kinga Bloch, deputy director of the Leo Baeck Institute in London. “There were many young scholars who used these sources in what they considered at the time to be academic research into the ideological enemy of Nazi Germany — or what they considered their enemy, the Jews.”

The Wiener Library exhibition shows how the London institution has become intertwined with the history of the Hochschule, says Barbara Warnock, senior curator at the Wiener Library. Founder Alfred Wiener was himself a student at the Hochschule. Like Baeck, he was expelled from Germany to Britain by Nazism and arrived as a refugee in 1939. During preparations for the exhibition, researchers found documents from the Hochschule in the Wiener Library collections, including an original call-up form from the Hochschule library.

The exhibition commemorates the Hochschule and its vanished library through photographs, original documents and a model of the original building. But it also teaches visitors, including young students, how to identify Hochschule books by studying library stamps and other unique markings.

“There’s a notebook that we give people for free that has instructions on this, and pencils and pens,” Warnock told JTA. “And then there’s information about some of the missing books, like reproductions of front pages.”

On the Library of Lost Books website, participants are instructed on how to share evidence of books believed to have been stolen by the Nazis. (Screenshot)

The Leo Baeck Institute joins other groups trying to restore fragments of Jewish culture destroyed by the Nazis. In Poland, researchers from the Grodzka Gate-NN Theater Center are searching for the missing library of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, another famous Jewish school whose books were looted and its students murdered. They have catalogued 850 books from around the world, including 10 volumes that have actually been returned to the building of the former Lublin Yeshiva.

But unlike the Lublin researchers, the Leo Baeck Institute does not seek to physically reunite books from the Hochschule library. According to Bloch, their relocation is an important part of their story.

She hopes that visitors to the exhibition will be inspired not only to document the missing books, but also to follow their journeys—the historical winds that blew them—with looters, refugees, and restitution organizations around the world. Even though the Hochschule is gone, she somehow believes that detectives tracing the books’ paths can bring the school back to life.

“The more books we can find, the more we strengthen the Hochschule as a space, even though it no longer exists,” says Bloch.