Fahrenheit 451

Hitler's first official act against the Jews was burning their texts, 75 years ago this month.

book burning 88 (photo credit: )
book burning 88
(photo credit: )
Historians assume that the first official act of the Nazi government directed against Jews was the boycott of Jewish enterprises on April 1, 1933. This claim is based on pronouncements of Nazi leaders in German newspapers, like the Volkischer Beobachter of March 31, 1933: "At 10 a.m. Saturday, April 1, the defensive action of the German people against the criminal Jewish world will begin. A defensive fight begins, such as never has been dared before throughout the centuries... National Socialists! Strike the world enemy!" The beginning referred to twice in the above newspaper quote was, however, preceded by an order Hitler issued upon being appointed chancellor of the Reich on January 30, 1933. That order was far more encompassing than the economic boycott enacted on April 1, but was not acted upon till May 10, 1933, owing to the meticulous preparation it demanded. It intended to save the whole German culture - not the economy alone - from negative Jewish influence. Consequently, Hitler's first aim upon assuming power was the destruction - burning, - of Jewish books. The act of burning books is not merely symbolic. Human beings differ from the animal world in their ability to transmit information from generation to generation. Conceivably some animals can also communicate information to their offspring, possibly even to the third generation. Humans, in contrast, developed the ability to produce symbols in writing that have allowed them to transcend time and transmit knowledge over hundreds and even thousands of years. Hence the book becomes the main civilizing agent of humanity, the depository of its accumulated information, experience and knowledge, and the main key to the safeguarding of a group's culture, basic traits and unique personality. Book burning, therefore, is not merely an attempt at vandalizing the resources of a group, the treasures of a people. Book burning aims to cut off transmission from generation to generation and, by terminating the group's culture, cut off the safeguards that preserve its unique personality, and ultimately bring about the complete termination of the group. Judaism is so highly conscious of the unique role of the written word that our people bestowed a sacred character on its books that transmit elements vital to its survival. BY HITLER'S ORDER, throughout the spring of 1933 student organizations, professors and librarians were working hard on compiling an extensive list of "degenerate" books that must not be read by decent Germans. When the list was ready, it included 250 authors, among them such well-known names as Franz Werfel, Erich Kaestner, Arnold and Stefan Zweig, Ferdinand Lassalle, Erich Maria Remarque, Lion Feuchtwanger, Walter Rathenau,Thomas Mann - guilty because he was married to a Jewish woman - Emile Zola - because he defended a Jew - Heinrich Heine - whose youthful conversion to Protestantism didn't wipe off the stain of the Jew - Helen Keller and Jack London. Germany no longer had room for the works of Sigmund Freud, Einstein's formulas or Mendelssohn's music. The Nazis prepared the event with characteristic German thoroughness. Armed with the list that was in preparation since Hitler's rise to power, university students and members of the SS began the "cleansing" action on May 10, 1933, when they descended upon libraries and homes and began carting off books to designated public squares. William Shirer writes, evidently in total amazement: "Some four and a half months after Hitler became chancellor, there occurred in Berlin a scene which had not been witnessed in the Western world since the late Middle Ages." The Frankfurter Zeitung reported next day: "Yesterday toward midnight, the Berlin student body carried out their intention of publicly burning those books that they had taken out of the lending libraries in their action against the un-German spirit.'" The action was carefully scripted. The often rapturous public was offered organized Wagnerian spectacles, formidable and impressive torchlight marches, accompanied by enthusiastic singing of spirited party songs and ringing declarations of the reasons for the event. The staging required a virtually ritualistic performance. Students took turns in explaining why they were burning a particular author. One student called out: "Against class warfare and materialism, for the people's community and an idealistic lifestyle, I deliver to the flames the works of Marx and Kautsky." Now another student took over and shouted: "Against decadence and moral decay, for discipline and morality in family and state, I deliver to the flames the works of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeder and Erich Kaestner." And thus it continued, students and crowd enthusiastically committing masterpieces of literature to huge bonfires. Thirty-four public book burnings were staged throughout Germany in the spring and summer of 1933. The largest of them, outside Berlin, took place in Essen where 18,000 books were burned. At the Berlin Opernplatz, more than 20,000 volumes were delivered to the flames in one night, amid orgiastic spectacles fully covered by the German and foreign press. THESE VAST book-burning ceremonies of 75 years ago, barely two months after the Reichstag vested Hitler and his government with dictatorial powers, is the great 20th-century example of a gruesome attempt to eradicate the Jewish people not only physically but also spiritually. Enemies of the Jewish people were apparently aware that its survival depends on the transmission of its heritage. From the days of the Maccabees (168 BCE) they periodically instituted regulations forbidding the teaching of the Torah on pain of death. Roman Emperor Hadrian did the same in the wake of the Bar Kochba Revolt (132 CE). The Byzantine Emperor Justinian followed suit in 553. But it took almost 700 years for the Church to resort to the method of book burning. The first recorded book burning in the Western world was ordered by Pope Gregory IX, who in the year 1239 consigned the Talmud to the flames to chasten the Jewish people and erase a blemish they inflicted on the Church and its faithful flock. As usual, the Jew does not have to look for his most destructive enemies outside of his camp. The great conflagration of the Middle Ages was produced by a Jew who deserted the ranks of our people. Donin was a man of considerable talmudic learning in northern France, who was apparently excommunicated by the French rabbis because of doubts he voiced. In revenge, he converted to Catholicism, took the name Nicholas, and denounced the Talmud as a code blasphemous to Christianity. In a memorandum he submitted to Pope Gregory IX, he stated that the Talmud contained blasphemies of Jesus and Mary, insults to Christianity, distortions of the Holy Writ an hostile statements about non-Jews; that it allowed for dishonesty and duplicity in intercourse with Christians, and was the greatest obstacle to Jewish conversion to Christianity. His memorandum, containing 35 charges against the Talmud, prompted the pope to order an examination of the Talmud by ecclesiastical authorities. On the first Saturday of Lent, while the Jews were gathered in their synagogues, all Jewish books were to be confiscated. The pope instructed the kings and temporal authorities to fully cooperate with the servants of the Church in taking all Jewish books under surveillance and assuring that they be duly delivered to the examiners as demanded. He further instructed the Dominican and Franciscan orders in Paris that "those books in which you find errors of this sort you shall cause to be burned at the stake." France was the first country to comply with the papal decree. King Louis IX, referred to as Saint Louis in French history for his great zeal on behalf of Christianity, called for a public debate where Jews would have a chance to disprove the imputations leveled against the Talmud, or else confess the truth and make appropriate amends. Since the judges at the debate were the bishops of Paris, Dominican friars and the royal family, its outcome was a foregone conclusion. The disputation ended with a solemn condemnation of the Talmud by the inquisitorial committee, which complied with the papal request that the Talmud be burned at the stake. The first auto-da-fe of the Talmud took place in June 1242. Twenty-four wagon loads, containing thousands of volumes, were assembled in an open square in Paris and committed to the flames. To appreciate the meaning of the event, it needs to be recognized that in those days the Talmud could not yet be printed, and the volumes were all precious handwritten works. The sheer quantity of books gathered in that square demonstrates the literacy of the Jewish community in Paris, the love of books in the Jewish world and its dedication to Jewish learning. A young student called Meir was present as the executioner performed his task with great relish. Under the impact of the event Meir wrote a kina (elegy) similar to those that were written for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; it is recited to this day on Tisha Be'av ("You who are consumed in fire, inquire about the well-being of your mourners"). The young witness to the tragedy became the renowned Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, leader in the Jewish community of Germany, who spent his last seven years in prison for attempting to leave Germany and settle in the Holy Land. The gigantic fiery spectacle in Paris did not satisfy King Louis. He was intent on winning, or forcing, the Jewish community over to Christianity. Among his pious deeds were his personal presence at the baptism of Jewish converts, of whom there were precious few, liberating Christian subjects from repaying a third of their indebtedness to Jews and leading a crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of infidels. Faithful to his religious convictions, Louis duly proceeded with confiscations of Jewish books and their burning beyond the confines of Paris, a policy also adopted by his successors. A notable burning of books took place in Toulouse in 1319, where the inquisitors added to the condemned list the works of Rashi, David Kimchi and other commentators. THE FRENCH example was enthusiastically emulated in other countries. A truly sensational and destructive book burning took place in Rome. Once again, with the connivance of apostates, the Talmud was condemned for containing matter offensive to the Catholic Church. On Rosh Hashana 1553, with the sanction of the pope and the College of Cardinals, a huge bonfire was set up that turned to ashes invaluable Jewish treasures, forcibly taken from Jewish homes and synagogues. The flames of Campo de' Fiori in Rome spread all over Italy, of which the pope was not only spiritual but temporal ruler over sizable segments of territory. For more than 150 years, the papal possessions burned the highly treasured and beloved books confiscated from the Jews. According to eyewitness accounts, in Venice alone over 1,000 complete copies of the Talmud, 500 copies of Alfasi's code and innumerable other works were destroyed in the fire. The last of the Talmud burnings took place in Poland. Once again, a split in the Jewish camp produced disaster. The so-called Frankists, a spin-off of the followers of the false messiah Shabtai Zvi, denounced the "heresies of the Talmud" to the Church. The local bishop ordered a disputation in Kamenetz-Podolsk in the fall of 1757, between the heads of the legitimate Jewish community and the heads of the Frankist movement. The bishop ruled in favor of the Frankists. All copies of the Talmud, commentaries and rabbinic writings were searched out, confiscated and consigned to the flames. Thus, the medieval era of the burning of the Talmud, which began in Paris in June 1242 with the help of the apostate Nicholas Donin and the Dominican executioners, came to an end in 1757 at Kamenetz-Podolsk, where the flames were kindled by the apostate Frankists under the benevolent guidance of Bishop Nicholas Dembowsky. The medieval autos-da-fe of the Talmud served as a fitting prologue for the gigantic spectacles of book burning that were to initiate the Hitler era. There was, however, one difference. The Church, by means of fire and sword, humiliation, persecution and torture, aspired for hundreds of years to destroy the Jewish soul, hoping to bring the Jews to the baptismal font. It did not succeed. Hitler and the Nazis, in the course of 12 short years, aimed at the total destruction of everything that carried the imprint of the Jew. At the very beginning - lighting up the horrific path down which millions would be marched to be drowned in blood, burned to cinders and turned to smoke and ashes - stood the spectacular bonfires produced by millions of Jewish books. At one of these midnight spectacles, Goebbels - watching how the fires consumed the expression of the Jewish spirit - triumphantly proclaimed: "The soul of the German people can again express itself. The flames not only illuminate the final end of our era, they also light up the new age." Nobody seemed to remember Heinrich Heine's dictum that "where they burn books, in the end it is men that they will burn." The world chose to live complacently and not pay attention to singed pages and parched scrolls. Six years later, in 1939, the burning books turned into pyres of anguished humanity facing carnage. Few - certainly not the Church in the Middle Ages and not Hitler in the 20th century - chose to pay attention to a magnificent midrash. The sage and teacher Hanina ben Teradyon was condemned to die by fire, having the scroll of the Torah wrapped about him. As the flames were leaping skyward his teary-eyed disciples asked him: "Our teacher, what do you see?" Out of the fire came the response: "The parchment is burning to cinders, the letters are flying high." Throughout the ages bitter enemies aimed at the destruction of the Jewish people. They repeatedly managed to mangle our body, but our spirit continues to fly high and is indestructible. The writer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Bet Israel and director of the Olim Outreach Program Shearim Netanya.