Rare texts and images from early modern France
Earlier this year, I was following via the Internet a book auction held in Génicourt, a village northwest of Paris. Having bid successfully on a copy of the 1670 Histoire de l’état présent de l’empire ottoman (the duodecimo version, with illustrations by the great Sébastien Leclerc), I looked for another lot to add to my shopping basket and noticed a copy of the first edition of Voltaire’s La Ligue ou Henry le Grand, an epic poem better known under its definitive title La Henriade. Printed in Rouen in 1723, with the fake address “Genève: Jean Mokpap,” this edition is not especially rare today but at a price of 60 euros it seemed an excellent bargain. The description in the auction catalog indicated a few minor defects and did not mention any provenance.
When the two books arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find in La Ligue a bookplate featuring not only a charming image (the open trunk of a bouquiniste on the banks of the Seine, with Notre-Dame in the background) but also a somewhat familiar name: Georges Ascoli.
I knew Georges Ascoli as a Sorbonne professor and author of books on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French literature, including one on Boileau’s satires that I had consulted not too long ago. I did not know that he was a bibliophile, nor any other element of his biography. The fortuitous acquisition of a volume from his library forced me to repair this ignorance and to confront his (and its) story. This blog post is a simple attempt to present some facts and questions, and to increase awareness of the particular fate of Ascoli’s books.
Born in Paris in 1882, Georges Ascoli quickly showed his talent for literary studies and followed the typical steps of a French academic career: École Normale Supérieure, agrégation, teaching in various lycées. His advancement was interrupted by World War I, during which he fought with distinction and was injured three times. After the war, he was appointed to university positions, first in Lille, then at the Sorbonne, where he was named professor in 1931. Between 1932 and 1937, he spent many months in the USA as a visiting professor at Middlebury College and Columbia University. At the beginning of World War II, he was mobilized (at his own request) and promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In June 1940, he became a prisoner of war and spent a year in a prison camp in Germany. After his return to France, the antisemitic legislation of the Vichy regime banned him from teaching and effectively led to his exclusion from the Sorbonne. In February 1944, Georges Ascoli and his wife Marianne were arrested by the Gestapo and transferred to the Drancy internment camp. On March 7, they were deported to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival.
In the summer of 1944, French movers commandeered by the German authorities proceeded to empty the Ascoli home, located in Sèvres outside of Paris. What happened to Georges Ascoli’s library is in part known from a letter to his sons written after the war by Marcel Lob. Lob, himself a normalien, agrégé, and teacher revoked by Vichy (known for having facilitated Samuel Beckett’s wartime stay in Roussillon), was also arrested and transferred to Drancy, but escaped deportation because his wife was not Jewish. Instead, he was sent to work in a camp/warehouse near the Gare d’Austerlitz to help process the masses of pillaged books. “One day in July of 1944,” remembers Lob, “I received the library and papers of Professor Ascoli, whom I knew by reputation.” He tried to salvage the “papers, notes for courses or books, index cards, etc.” by hiding them in some old bags but could not do the same with the books, some of which he heard were sent to “Drouot” – probably to be auctioned off there. Lob managed to rescue only one book, a finely bound copy of Le Chemin des saisons by the poet and professor Auguste Angellier.
Following the war, some efforts were made to record and repair the Nazi looting of French institutional and personal libraries. Led by the librarian Jenny Delsaux, they are documented in volume VII of the Répertoire des biens spoliés, which includes an entry for Georges Ascoli.
Archival sources concerning the restitution of stolen property indicate that 16 books were returned to Ascoli’s heirs in 1948, and another 25 books and brochures in 1949 – that is, 41 volumes out of a total of 5-6000.1
Having gathered the preceding information from various publications, I felt unsure and uneasy about the status of my copy of La Ligue: what had been its history during and after World War II? who should be considered its rightful owner? On Geneanet, I found the Ascoli family tree and contacted Béatrice Hérold, owner of this tree and granddaughter of Georges Ascoli. She graciously provided further explanations as well as a photo of the manuscript ledger in which Ascoli recorded his acquisitions and which has mercifully survived.
The register demonstrates that he purchased La Ligue in October 1906, as a 24-year-old student. That he not only bought but also read the book is attested by a note published by him in February 1907 in the journal L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux. A few pencil annotations suggest that he may have later used this copy in his teaching, where Voltaire figured prominently.
Béatrice Hérold also sent me a book by Claude Singer, Un universitaire face au destin: Georges Ascoli (1882-1944), published in 2000 by the association of former students of the École Normale Supérieure. Quoting from Ascoli’s correspondence with his cousin (and fellow bibliophile) André Schück, Singer shows that he continued to collect books in occupied Paris, with a focus on rare editions of Romantic literature. He also reveals that in those years part of Ascoli’s collection was stored not in his house in Sèvres, but in the basement of the Sorbonne librarian Jean Bonnerot. In October 1945, one of Ascoli’s sons – orphaned and dispossessed of almost their entire property – came to Bonnerot’s house with a bookseller to catalog this surviving portion of their father’s library and prepare it for sale.
Was La Ligue one of the volumes sheltered by Bonnerot and retrieved by the family? As the first edition of an important work by Voltaire, studied and annotated by Georges Ascoli, it must have been rather dear to him. But many other books in his collection, such as those in fine bindings or enriched with autographs, were certainly more rare and valuable. Today, it seems impossible to determine which of Ascoli’s books were discarded or sold for profit by the Nazis in 1944, which ones were safely recovered in 1945, and which ones were restored in 1948-49.
In 1947, the library of the French literature department at the Sorbonne was named Bibliothèque Georges Ascoli. At its entrance were installed a commemorative plaque and photograph, which were vandalized during the anti-establishment student protests of May 1968. Eight decades after his death, books with the bookplate of Georges Ascoli continue to circulate, more or less visibly, in libraries, dealers’ stock, and at auctions. Irremediably dispersed but obstinately durable, bearing the name of their past owner and other marks of their history, may these volumes serve as mobile Stolpersteine for whoever stumbles upon them, like I did this summer.
December 31, 2023
Middlebury College Bulletin, April 1933