The Monuments Men

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Leslie Irlyn Poste ( 1918-1996 )

Archivist and librarian Leslie Irlyn Poste was born in St. Catharines, Ontario on August 26, 1918. When he was only four months old, his family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York. He received degrees in library science from Wayne State University in 1940 and Columbia University in 1942. He worked in the libraries of Columbia University until the outbreak of World War II forced him to put his promising career on hold.

Poste enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 1943 and served in Military Intelligence for two years. Soon after the end of hostilities, he was selected for service with the MFAA as a Libraries Specialist Officer assigned to Regional Military Government for Wuerttemberg-Baden. Stationed at U.S. Seventh Army Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, Poste was central to the restitution of looted books, manuscripts, and archives to the countries from which they had been stolen. At that time, various library collections from Hungen, Bavaria, Hirzenhain and other German repositories were stored at the Rothschild Library in Frankfurt for sorting and cataloguing. However, the number of items deposited at the Rothschild Library soon became so great that the need arose for a larger building. Poste suggested the operation be relocated to the five-story I.G. Farben Building in Offenbach. From July 1945 until June 1949, the Offenbach Archival Depot served as the central storage depot for approximately 2.5 million looted books and manuscripts from over sixty libraries across Europe and Russia.

In addition to his work at the Offenbach Archival Depot, Poste made regular trips to investigate claims of looted archival material. He conducted a thorough investigation at Schloss Warsberg in Neckarsteinach, Germany, which had been vandalized by troops of the U.S. 65th Infantry and later used as a motor pool by the 309th Medical Battalion. Poste placed the castle’s chapel off limits and advised the commanding officer to nail the doors and windows shut for added protection. In March 1947 he discovered fifty cases of books belonging to the University of Munich and the Ahnenerbe Library at the Gasthaus Stern in Oberkirchberg, Germany.

In March 1946 Poste was present for the grand opening of The American Library in Stuttgart, one of several U.S. Information Libraries which were established as gestures of peace to the German public. In Poste’s own words, the library’s opening “reminded librarians that frontiers still exist in library science and that a courageous handful serve as ambassadors of culture in the American Zone of Occupation in Germany.”

Upon his return to the United States in late 1947, Poste taught at the University of Kentucky and the University of Denver before earning his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Graduate Library School in 1958. His dissertation, The Development of U.S. Protection of Libraries and Archives in Europe during World War II, was directly based on his service as a Monuments Man. From 1958 to 1978 he was a professor of library and information science at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo. His devotion to books endured into his retirement, which he spent as an expert antiquarian bookseller in the New York area.

Leslie Poste died in Geneseo, New York on July 23, 1996 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.