The People behind the Books: Adele Sperling

At the ‘Library of Lost Books’, the real story isn’t just about the books – it’s about the people who have interacted with them. In this sense, the books, as interesting as they are in themselves, are merely a means to an end for us. What we want is to learn more about the people through whose hands these books have passed, and the circumstances under which they have lived. In the section “The People behind the Books,” we introduce some of these individuals.

At the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, books were used for research and teaching. However, apart from the readers of the books – the students, lecturers, and researchers at the Higher Institute – there is probably no other group of people who had as much to do with the books as the librarians of the Higher Institute. Today, we will discuss one of these librarians: Adele Sperling.

Adele Sperling, born on April 5, 1915, in Berlin, worked as an assistant in the library of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies. During the increasing repression against Jewish people, she supported the library’s director, Jenny Wilde, in maintaining the library’s operation. This commitment ensured that Jewish readers continued to have access to books despite the spreading restrictions – which was anything but a matter of course at that time.

From 1933, the Hochschule and its library encountered a series of escalating challenges under the Nazi regime. Initially, the Hochschule experienced a significant boom, as students and lecturers who were no longer allowed to study or teach elsewhere joined the institution. Others enrolled to prepare for emigration. Consequently, the diversity of subjects expanded as lecturers from various disciplines joined. However, the Nazi pressure to push German Jews to emigrate was successful, resulting in a steady decrease in the Hochschule population until it was forcibly closed, with only a handful of students, teachers, and employees left in the summer of 1942.

Until at least 1941, the library could still be used. Maintaining operations required immense improvisation. Obtaining new books became increasingly difficult. One of the reasons was the Nazi-imposed ban on Jewish book production after 1938. Book acquisition was further complicated by Germany being at war, resulting in the breakdown of trade relations with enemy nations. This issue also affected non-Jewish German libraries.

Furthermore, the library faced a space problem. Many fleeing Germany were forced to leave their private libraries behind, either donated or left on consignment to the Higher Institute, resulting in a large storage of books. So many books accumulated that, according to lecturer Ernst Grumach in 1940, there was: “a Babylonian confusion” in the library. Books were not only in the reading room and storage, but also in the attic, basement, and faculty room. Many of the donated books were irrelevant to the Higher Institute. These unused books were utilized as a resource to exchange for books more suitable for the collection. With no means available to buy new books and the access to the book market limited as it was, the librarians of the Higher Institute relied heavily on these exchanges.

In the context of Nazi persecution, ensuring Jewish readers had access to books was a significant accomplishment. It was a subtle form of resistance, maintaining a vital intellectual lifeline in a time of widespread cultural suppression.

Little is known about Adele Sperling, with hardly any primary sources available but two photographs of her. However, we do have one account from Wolfgang Hamburger, one of the last students of the Higher Institute, which sheds light not only on Adele Sperling’s work at the Higher Institute, but also on a major unresolved mystery: why the Higher Institute was able to operate much longer than similar institutions. Then and now, it is unknown why the Higher Institute in Berlin was able to continue operations until the summer of 1942, while other rabbinical seminaries in the German Reich were shut down already by the end of 1938 following the November Pogrom.

Due to the lack of archival sources this question has remained unanswered. However, according to Wolfgang Hamburger’s recollections, Adele Sperling might have played a role in it. In his memories, Hamburger writes about the aftermath of the November Pogrom of 1938:

“Even though regular academic operations at the Institute were suspended in the first weeks after the violent events of the night, in which synagogues were burned down and Jewish property destroyed, the library remained open. The young assistant Adele Sperling was working in the reading room when a Gestapo officer entered and inquired about the nature of the organization housed in the building. Her response, that it was a school, satisfied him, and he left the building, as this was a time when Jewish schools were being established throughout the country to accommodate Jewish students expelled from public schools. It is said that the ignorance of a Gestapo officer and the librarian’s vague answer saved the institute for a few more years.”

In the time following the November Pogrom of 1938, the Higher Institute’s prolonged existence provided temporary protection from deportation for its staff. With the closure of the Higher Institute in the summer of 1942, Adele Sperling and her colleagues lost this protection. On March 1, 1943, Adele Sperling was arrested, deported to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, and murdered. The last address attributed to her was the apartment of library director Jenny Wilde, who had taken in her young colleague.

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