Seymour J. Pomrenze (1916-2011)
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 accompanied their mother to the United States. A three-year journey took them to Chicago, where many extended family members had settled. Pomrenze became a naturalized citizen in 1937 and received a Master’s degree in history at the University of Chicago before working toward a doctorate in Jewish history. He was familiar with German, Hebrew, and Yiddish. During 1940-1941, he served as the supervisor of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) historic records survey in Chicago. From July 1941 to May 1942, he took a job at the National Archives as a reference assistant.
After joining the U.S. Army, Pomrenze served with the Office of Strategic Services in the China-Burma Theater from 1944 to 1945. In December 1945, the Archivist of the United States asked Pomrenze to go to Europe to help reorganize German archives as a military archivist with the Office of Military Government, Wurttemberg-Baden. On January 15, 1946, after several weeks of surveying German archives, he wrote to Oliver W. Holmes at the National Archives of his difficult challenges, but determinedly added that “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 a new assignment in Offenbach, Germany. Since autumn 1945, stolen collections of books, archives, and Jewish items had temporarily been housed, partly at the Rothschild Library Building in Frankfurt, and partly at a building within the I.G. Farben manufacturing plant in Offenbach. According to Pomrenze, the mass of books had been neglected by officers too bewildered by languages they didn’t understand to properly sort and conserve them. Subsequently, many of the books had deteriorated due to neglect. Pomrenze noted that more than 1,000 Jewish Torah scrolls had been “miserably neglected; religious items were allowed to lie around the floor and open shelves.”
Meanwhile, a representative of the American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) in Germany persuaded occupation authorities to appoint an MFAA officer to establish a collecting point at Offenbach to house looted and German-owned libraries and archives, as well as Jewish cultural and religious items. Paul Vanderbilt, Technical Advisor, MFAA Section, Headquarters, United States Forces European Theater, Office of Military Government U.S. Zone (OMGUS), was assigned the task of finding the best officer to undertake such a monumental task.
Pomrenze was initially reluctant to accept the position. He wrote a personal letter to Holmes on February 23, 1946, 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."
Nevertheless, Pomrenze ultimately accepted the task and was appointed the first director of what would become the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD). He departed for Offenbach on February 26. But, upon arriving, his fears regarding the enormity of his task were realized. In a personal letter to Holmes posted on March 13, Pomrenze wrote that during the previous 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.”
Subsequent letters to Holmes describe his work locating and requisitioning the mass of materials necessary to converting a depot into a suitable location for the storage of delicate printed works. With time and devotion to his task, Pomrenze had soon wrangled the mess into organized functionality. His March 22nd letter to Holmes reports that “production at this place is moving along rapidly” and adds, “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.”
Perhaps the most crucial part of Pomrenze’s responsibilities was the restitution of stolen objects to their rightful owners. The OAD had been declared a first priority for MFAA restitution efforts and, thus, Pomrenze immediately established procedures to aid in this mission’s completion. The first restitution was made on March 12, 1946 when 371 crates of material departed for the Netherlands. During March alone the depot shipped out 242,840 items. During the month of April, nine railroad freight cars departed for France and another barge loaded with Dutch and Belgian material began its journey home.
Pomrenze was succeeded by Monuments Man Capt. Isaac Bencowitz in late April 1946. By that time, he had supervised the return of hundreds of thousands of archival materials. Following his return to the U.S., Pomrenze worked as a consultant with the National Archives from 1947 to 1949. In 1950, he joined the Departmental Records Branch of the Army’s Adjutant General’s Office. The next twenty-six years of his career were devoted to managing the Army’s administrative records. He later returned to active duty in 1970 when he visited Vietnam for one year. At the time of his retirement, he had risen to Colonel and Archivist of the Army.
Col. Seymour Pomrenze attended the 2007 White House ceremony at which President George W. Bush presented the National Humanities Award to the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. Pomrenze was deservedly recognized for his determined effort to rescue materials, documents, Torah Scrolls and works of art looted by the Nazis and to restore them to their rightful owners. He passed away in 2011.*
*The Foundation wishes to express thanks to The National Archives and Dr. Greg Bradsher, longtime friends and supporters, for their contribution to this biographical profile.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.