During the course of the Second World War, the Nazis infamously plundered archives and libraries across Europe. The most notable group involved in this widespread program of looting and plunder was the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the task force under the leadership of the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. The ERR brought historical records and other materials back to Germany, mostly to Frankfurt, for his program of “research” at the planned Hohe Schule, an institute for training Nazi leaders. The Germans most famously looted historical materials in eastern Europe, e.g. YIVO’s libraries and archives in Vilnius. However, they also targeted materials from the west as well, such as the files of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris and elsewhere.
In the course of the war, as the Soviet Union marched westward, they also followed a looting program with their so-called “trophy brigades.” As a result, some of the records and archives which the Nazis looted, were also looted by the Soviets — what historian Patricia Kennedy Grimsted has termed “twice-looted archives.” As a result, a wide range of historical materials (both relating to Jewish history, and also to other historical issues, topics, and locations not related specifically to Jews) made their way to Russia.
In 1946, these “captured files of foreign provenance” were placed in state archives and centralized in Moscow, mostly in the Central State Special Archive (Tsentral’nyi gosudarstvennyi osobyi arkhiv Soiuza Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, TsGOA SSSR), and subsequently its successor, the Center for Preservation of Historico-Documentary Collections (Tsentr khraneniia istoriko-dokumental’nykh kollektsii, TsKhIDK). The TsGOA remained closed to research until the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1990, details of these files were first revealed, and in 1999 most of the ERR files (as far as it is known) were transferred to the Russian State Military Archive (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi voennyi arkhiv, RGVA).
During the 1990s, the Russian government warmed to the idea of restituting these archives and other cultural treasures stolen by the Soviets. This led, for instance, to the return of the AIU files according to a 1992 agreement (they were transferred in 2001). However, the rise of Vladimir Putin and the concomitant shift in the Russian political stance has meant that the Russian archives are generally less accessible for research, and also that Russian archival and museum leaders are not particularly inclined to continue the process of archival return.
Large portions of the files in Moscow, about 70%, were also microfilmed and are available at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, e.g. RG 713, Berliner Zionistische Vereinigung (Berlin Zionist Organization).
A selection of the records and collections that are known to be in Moscow include:
- Record Group (RG) 44, Keren Kayemeth Leisrael, Paris [Jewish National Fund, Paris] — 932 files from the years 1909-1940
- RG 45, Association des Juifs polonais de France, Paris [Association of Polish Jews in France, Paris] — 17 files from the years 1938-1940
- RG 58, The Rothschild family — 1395 files. Most likely put together by the Nazis from various archives, with papers of 28 members of the French branch of the Rothschild family.
- RG 100, Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), Paris 458 files from the years 1860-1940
- RG 104, Ecole normale israelite orientale, Paris [The AIU Teachers’ Seminary, Paris] 49 files from the years 1892-1939
- RG 115, Fond de Reconstruction de la Palestine (Keren Hayesod) de France, Paris [Jewish Foundation Fund (Keren Hayesod) in France] 121 files from the years 1924-1940
- RG 139, Consistoire israelite de Gironde, Bordeaux [Jewish Consistory of Gironde, Bordeaux] 72 files from the years 1906-1940 but some documents dating from the 16th century on
- RG 707, Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, Wien [Jewish Community of Vienna] — 281 files from the years 1782-1940
- RG 721, Zentralverein deutscher Staatsbuerger Juedischen Glaubens, Berlin [Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, Berlin] — 4,370 files from 1869-1938
- RG 722, American Joint Distribution Committee; Executive Office for Europe, Paris 685 files from the years 1913-1941
- RG 1190, Executive Committee of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), Paris 948 files from the years 1896-1940 (bulk: 1936-1940)
- RG 1194, Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden (Sammlung Neuman), Berlin [General Archives of German Jews (Neuman Collection), Berlin] 383 files from the years 1811-1918
- Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, “Reconstructing the Record of Nazi Cultural Plunder” (2011), available via archive.org. The updated ERR project website no longer includes the Russia guide.
- Patricia Kennedy Grimsted. “Pan-European Displaced Archives in the Russian Federation: Still Prisoners of War on the 70th Anniversary of V-E Day.” In Displaced Archives. Routledge, 2017.
- Patricia Kennedy Grimsted. “Why Do Captured Archives Go Home? Restitution Achievements under the Russian Law.” International Journal of Cultural Property 17, no. 02 (May 2010): 291–333.
- David E. Fishman, et al, eds., Nazi-Looted Jewish Archives in Moscow. A guide to Jewish Historical and Cultural Collections in the Russian State Military Archive. Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2010.
- David E. Fishman, recorded book talk: “Nazi-Jewish Looted Archives in Moscow”