Journalist ReturnsGestapo’s Booty

It took close to 70 years, but the books that the Gestapo confiscated from Dr. Caesar Hirsch have been restored to his descendants and donated to the UCLA library, thanks largely to the persistence of a German journalist.

Hirsch was a prominent otolaryngologist, a specialist in ear, nose and throat disorders, in the city of Stuttgart, who had served as a medical officer in the German army in World War I. He had amassed a 1,400-volume library, including a large number of books and journal titles in his medical specialty, in five languages, among them valuable historical works.

As soon as Hitler assumed full dictatorial power in March 1933, friends warned Hirsch that he was on a Nazi blacklist and that his life was in danger. The next day, he put his three children on a train to Switzerland, staying behind for a few hours to perform an operation on a seriously ill charity patient.

The family left behind all their belongings, which were confiscated within a few weeks by the Gestapo and the library later was sold to the University of Tübingen for a token payment.

There the books rested unmolested until 1999, when Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang, a historian and editor of a Tübingen daily newspaper, stumbled across the Hirsch books while digging for a story on a completely different collection.

Lang set about trying to locate the Hirsch family, which had immigrated to the United States. He learned that Hirsch, nearly penniless and deeply depressed, had committed suicide in 1940.

However, through an Internet phone directory, Lang was able to track down Hirsch’s son, Peter, living in Oxnard, even though his name had changed from Hirsch to Hearst.

After many months of correspondence, the University of Tübingen agreed to turn over the collection to Hearst. Hearst — whose three sons are all graduates of UC campuses, two of whom received medical degrees from UCLA and UCSF — and his sister, Susa Kessler of Baltimore, decided in turn to donate the books to the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at UCLA.

Earlier this month the end of "The Incredible Journey of the Medical Library of Dr. Caesar Hirsch," as the invitation read, was celebrated at the Biomedical Library with the donation of 191 book titles and 37 journal titles, the latter filling 773 bound volumes.

After Hearst spoke, it was Lang’s turn. The historian expressed his satisfaction that he had been able to restore to its owners a tiny part of the estimated 9 million books looted by the Nazis, first from German Jews and then from libraries and archives in the occupied countries of Europe.