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Barancik, Pfc. Richard M. | Bencowitz, Capt. Isaac | Bilodeau, Pfc. Francis W.


Bencowitz, Capt. Isaac  

Captain, U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)

Born in Unitcha, Russia, Isaac Bencowitz immigrated to the United States and attended the University of Chicago, receiving his Bachelor of Science in chemistry in 1921. He attended Columbia University, earning his Masters Degree in 1922, and his PhD in 1924. Bencowitz then attended New York University on a fellowship and was an assistant at the Rockefeller Institute from 1927 until his retirement in 1961. In 1927 he moved to Houston, Texas and began a thirty-four year career with Texas Gulf Sulphur Company. Bencowitz was a member of the American Chemistry Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineering and the New York Academy of Sciences. He served and was wounded in both World War I (1917-1919) and World War II, and received several Purple Hearts during his service.

He began work at the Offenbach Collecting Point as an intern in April 1946, after serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, and quickly expressed interest in serving as the successor to Monuments officer Capt. Seymour Pomrenze, director of the Collecting Point from March to May 1946. Bencowitz was particularly qualified for this position, as he was fluent in Russian and familiar with several other Eastern European languages. Bencowitz’s PhD in chemistry proved indispensable in the treatment of damaged books and documents. As director of the Offenbach Collecting Point from May to November of 1946, Bencowitz developed an innovative system of identification and sorting in order to aid the restitution of artworks and cultural artifacts.

The Bencowitz 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 books 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 an easy way to identify items. Books were documented in at least thirty-five different languages and over half of the 4,000 ex libris markings were of eastern European origin. The charge of 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.”[1]

Bencowitz left Europe on leave in the fall of 1946 and was succeeded as director of the Offenbach Collecting Point by Monuments officer 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 3rd 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 [Offenbach Archival Depot] were the most engrossing and of more lasting significance.[2]



[1] Leslie Poste, “Books go home from wars,” Library Journal, Vo. 73 (December 1948) 1703.
[2] United States Holocaust Museum
http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/oad/images/section3/30481.htm
 

 


Copyrighted by Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art