The Monuments Men

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Isaac Bencowitz ( 1896-1972 )

Chemist and engineer, Isaac Bencowitz was born in Unecha, Russia in 1896, but later immigrated to the United States. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I before completing a B.Sc. in chemistry from the University of Chicago. He continued his scientific studies at Columbia University, where he earned a Master’s Degree in 1922 and a Ph.D. in 1924. He then attended New York University on a research fellowship with the National Research Council while working as an assistant at the Rockefeller Institute. In 1927 he moved to Houston, Texas and began a thirty-four year career as a chemical engineer with Texas Gulf Sulphur Company.

In 1942 Bencowitz again enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Europe until 1945. He began working with the MFAA as an intern at the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD) in April 1946. The following month, he was selected to succeed Monuments Officer Capt. Seymour Pomrenze as Director of the depot. Because of his fluency in Russian and several other Eastern European languages, as well as his deep knowledge of chemistry, he became an indispensable part of the conservation of thousands of damaged books and documents.

As Director of the Offenbach Collecting Point from May to November 1946, Bencowitz developed an innovative system of identification and sorting. His system of identification was based on photographic records of the ex libris – bookplates, stamps, and other markings – found in each book. The photographs were then indexed by country and sorters were assigned and responsible for three or four ex libris. Books and documents were sent down conveyor belts and sorters removed those marked with their assigned ex libris, thereby organizing objects by their places of origin. This system proved extremely valuable as it provided sorters who were not familiar with many of the Eastern European languages with an easy way to identify items.Books were documented in at least thirty-five different languages. Over half of the 4,000 ex libris markings were of Eastern European origin.

Sorting through the thousands of documents and cultural artifacts left behind after the mass genocide of European Jews proved to be emotionally taxing as well as technically difficult. Bencowitz said “I would walk into the loose document room to take a look at the things there and found it impossible to tear myself away from the fascinating piles of letters, folders, and little personal bundles. . . . There was something sad and mournful about these volumes . . . as if they were whispering a tale of yearning and hope long since obliterated.”

Bencowitz left Europe on leave in the fall of 1946 and was succeeded as Director of the OAD by Monuments Officer Lt. Theodore Heinrich. Written on an archival photograph of Bencowitz taken upon his departure is the following statement:

During his tour of duty, in the wake of the U.S. Third Army, he buried thousands of dead horses, provided food, shelter, clothes, etc. for French Belgians, Luxembourgers, Germans, and thousands of DPs. He supervised almost every function . . . Yet, he finds, that the last seven months with the OAD were the most engrossing and of more lasting significance.

Isaac Bencowitz was a member of the American Chemistry Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineering and the New York Academy of Sciences. A veteran of both World Wars, he was the recipient of multiple Purple Hearts. He died on October 28, 1972 in Houston, Texas.