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The Rescue and Triumph of Burned Books

By Jeanine Parisier Plottel

Eighty years ago, on May 10, 1933, students from the Wilhelm Humboldt University in Berlin tossed thousands of books into flames. These included Jewish authors such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, and Stefan Zweig, as well as German and other writers deemed subversive: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Rainer Maria Rilk, and Emile Zola.  Some of the most important literary, scientific and philosophical works published in the modern era were torched as Nazi songs and a speech by Joseph Goebbels accompanied the bonfire.

The earliest to voice a strong objection in print to the book holocaust seems to have been the well-known Bavarian writer Oskar Maria Graf. An apprentice baker famous for genre stories of Bavarian folk life, his tales were absconded by the Nazis as idyllic odes to their ideology. In a comment reacting to Nazi praise of one of his books, Graf chose the side he wanted to be associated  with by stating “Verbrennt mich” (“Burn me,”) and grieved that his work had not been condemned to the flames. His protest published in the Winer Arbeiter Zeitung on May 11, 1933 was widely circulated, including two days later on May 13, in The New York Times:  “What have I done to earn this disgrace? Burn my books! I would consider it an undying mark of shame if my books were not burned by you […]”

The following year journalist Alfred Kantorowicz, who had left Germany in 1933 as soon as Hitler came to power (and who would be the editor of the  International Brigades newspaper Le volontaire de la liberté during the Spanish Civil War,) founded a library in Paris.  Called the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliotek, or German Freedom Library, it was located at 65 Boulevard Arago in the Cité fleurie, home to the studios of artists including Gauguin and Modigliani. The library, a collection of the books burned the previous year as well as four hundred newspapers and magazines, some of which were covertly smuggled to the Third Reich, was inaugurated on May 10, 1934.  André Gide, Romain Rolland, H.G. Wells and Lion Feuchtwanger were honorary presidents, and Heinrich Mann was President. Here is how the New York Times of May 10, 1934 described its holdings:  “The burdened shelves bear silent witness to the high distinction of the works which good Hitlerites must not read. Here side by side are classic works by such writers as Heine, Lessing, Voltaire, Einstein and Freud.  There are shelves filled with the writings of the great Socialists from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels down, and other rows by such authors as Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Lion Feuchtwanger, Jacob Wassermann and Emil Ludwig.”

A different flame was burning bright, destined to triumph over the darkness…

  • 9 May 2013