Seymour J. Pomrenze: A National Archives Monuments Man
The forthcoming movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II. Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so it focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett, respectively. Over the course of the next two months, I thought it would be illustrative to discuss some of the lesser known individuals.
This post focuses on one of the Monuments Men who was a National Archives archivist, Seymour J. Pomrenze. This is the third in a series of blogs on the Monuments Men.
Several years back Seymour J. Pomrenze called me to discuss some reports he made at the Offenbach Archival Depot in Germany in 1946. During the course of our conversation he asked me whether he had done a good job. Assuming correctly that he was referring to his tenure as the depot’s first director, I said “Colonel Pomrenze, given the trying circumstances under which you labored, you did a most admirable job.” I then informed him about National Archives Microfilm Publication M1942, Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): Offenbach Archival Depot, 1946-1951, which consists of 13 microfilm rolls documenting the four years of operations of the depot, during which time it handled some 2.5 million items of cultural property. He seemed pleased with what I had said, and we continued having a nice chat.
I regret now not having taken the time to ask him a bunch of questions about his career. But fortunately, many questions I would have wanted to ask are documented in the holdings of the National Archives and his papers at the American Jewish Historical Society.
Sholom (Seymour) Jacob Pomrenze was born in Brusilov, Ukraine on September 1, 1916. His father was killed during the 1919 pogroms, and he and his older brother came with their mother to the United States. A three-year journey took them to Chicago, where many extended family members had settled. Pomrenze, naturalized in 1937, received a Masters degree in history at the University of Chicago, and began working toward a doctorate in Jewish history. During 1940-1941, he served as the supervisor of the Works Progress Administration historic records survey in Chicago. From July 1941 to May 1942, he took a job at the National Archives as a reference assistant. Then he joined the United States Army. From 1944 to 1945 he served with the Office of Strategic Services in the China-Burma Theater.
In December 1945, the Archivist of the United States asked Pomrenze to go to Europe and help reorganize German archives. He took a position as a military archivist with Office of Military Government, Wurttemberg-Baden, and began surveying the archival situation. On January 15, 1946, after several weeks of surveying German archives he wrote to Oliver W. Holmes at the National Archives that he was encountering difficult challenges. “But one must fight to attain anything worthwhile and I am not discouraged—yet.”
While Pomrenze was undertaking his survey a situation developed that would lead to Offenbach and a new duty. This situation had its origins, according to Pomrenze, as a result of the fact that the collections of books, archives, and Jewish items, which were, since the autumn of 1945, housed partly at the Rothschild Library Building in Frankfurt and partly at a building within the IG Farben manufacturing plant in Offenbach, had been neglected by the officers responsible for the two facilities. He placed part of the blame on the fact that these officers were bewildered by the mass of books in all European languages, most of which they could not read. According to Pomrenze, because of the neglect, the books deteriorated more and more and a thousand Jewish scrolls of law (Torah scrolls) were “miserably neglected; religious items were allowed to lie around the floor and open shelves.”
The whole thing, Pomrenze wrote, blew up in the face of the MFA&A people when General Lucius Clay ordered a loan of 25,000 unidentifiable and not valuable Hewbrew, Yiddish and other language books made available to the American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC). For a month practically nothing was done since nobody could come and inspect the items.
Meanwhile the AJDC representative in Germany persuaded the occupation authorities to appoint an MFA&A officer to be responsible for the task of establishing a collecting point at Offenbach that would house looted and German-owned libraries, archives, and Jewish cultural and religious items. Paul Vanderbilt, Technical Advisor, MFA&A Section, Headquarters, United States Forces European Theater, Office of Military Government OMG (U.S. Zone) was assigned to get the project off the ground and find a director for that job.
It appeared that Pomrenze had the all the prerequisites considered necessary for handling the Jewish materials, as well the hundreds of collections of books and archives. After all, in addition to possessing archival experience, Pomrenze was a student of Hebrew and Jewish lore and knew German, Hebrew, and Yiddish.
Pomrenze was not thrilled with the possible assignment. He wrote a personal letter to Holmes at the National Archives on February 23, in which, after explaining his survey work in Wurttemberg-Baden, he wrote that there was:
…pressure from the boys in Land Greater Hesse (the fine arts people) to make me the Director of the Offenbach library collection. These people refuse to consider any difference between a librarian and an archivist; furthermore the Offenbach job needs a good storage and quartermaster officer. Well I am trying to fight it and I think that Paul [Vanderbilt] and the others will help me-but I may get stuck with it and then I am lost to the Archives people since the whole Offenbach institution has no archives in it at all and all the effort to get me here for an archival job, on your part and the part of the Archives people here, will be lost. But such is life and one must make the best of a situation.
Pomrenze was appointed as the first head of what would be eventually named the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD), and he departed for his new assignment on February 26. Upon arriving in Offenbach, Pomrenze was struck with the enormity of the job. On March 13, in a personal letter to Holmes at the National Archives, he wrote that he found upon arriving that for the past eight months, “huge, ill-assorted, piles upon piles of books and other library materials have been found in the Frankfurt vicinity until we now have 5 floors of a building [initially termed the Offenbach Central Collecting Point] a half a city block long of boxes and loose stacks of about 2 to 3 million books.”
After describing his work in getting the building in suitable storage condition and describing his work of getting a handle on the mass of material, he wrote Holmes, “All I can say is that this is one of the nastiest assignments I have ever had and in a way will, I hope, be one of the most soul-satisfying when I clean the place up — but mind you it is a library problem and do not let the name Archival Depot fool you.”
On March 22 Pomrenze wrote Holmes again, reporting that “production at this place is moving along rapidly.” He added, “as you know it is quite a job to administer such an institution—especially when one is the only American who can get other American outfits to do anything for us.”
One part of Pomrenze’s responsibilities, a major one, was restitution. The Offenbach Archival Depot was declared a first priority for MFA&A restitution efforts and thus became a first priority for him, and he immediately set about establishing procedures for accomplishing that task. The first restitution was made on March 12 when 371 crates of material departed for the Netherlands on a Dutch barge. During March the depot shipped out 242,840 items. The restitution effort continued in April. On April 6, nine railroad freight cars departed for France. A second Dutch barge left the OAD on April 11 loaded with Dutch and Belgian material. Capt. Isaac Bencowitz, who would become the second director, arrived at the OAD on April 13.
Pomrenze would leave the OAD at the end of April and return to the United States on May 8. He was discharged from the Army in June.
During 1947 throug 1949, Pomrenze worked as a consultant with the National Archives, and then in 1950 joined the Departmental Records Branch of the Army’s Adjutant General’s Office. During the next 26 years he worked for the Army as a records manager. Although a civilian for most his army career, he returned to active duty when he visited Vietnam in 1970 though 1971. At retirement, he was a Colonel and Archivist of the Army.
He received the 2007 National Humanities Award from President George Bush in the White House for his part in rescuing important materials, documents, Torah Scrolls and works of art looted by the Nazis across Europe and restoring them to their rightful owners. He would pass away in 2011.