GRAPEVINE: Writing in Jerusalem, Honoring the Holocaust

Some 100 years earlier, German poet Heinrich Heine, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity, wrote that where one burns books, one will in the end burn people.’ It was a fateful prophecy.

Ruben Mass house.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ruben Mass house.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Katamon Books, the tiny store in HaPalmach Street has shelves of books from floor to ceiling, as well as in the central floor space. But somehow proprietor Rachel Linden managed to squeeze in enough chairs to comfortably seat all the people who came for the launch of Brenda Shaw’s timely – or possibly timeless – intriguing book Running Home, which illustrates that Jews simply cannot flee from or turn their backs on antisemitism.
Buoyed by Susan Bellos and Diane Greenberg of the Jerusalem Writers Group, of which she is also a member, Shaw read excerpts from the book, thus allowing her audience to better grasp what she wanted to say. Sometimes at such events, when someone other than the writer reads a chapter here and there, one can see the writer wince at every errant vocal inflection
Shaw (better known to her friends as Brenda Herzberg), was commended as much for her reading as for the content of the book and her descriptive style of writing.
 A psychiatrist by profession who specialized in child and family psychiatry, when asked by someone in the audience what prompted her to become an author, replied that she had always wanted to write, and that it wasn’t all that unusual for people in the medical profession to become authors. She cited as examples Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov and A.J. Cronin.
The book, she said, is not autobiographical, but is a conglomerate of bits and pieces of case histories plus snippets from her own life, which she has blended into a work of fiction with which many readers will be able to identify.
■ PERHAPS BECAUSE this is the 80th anniversary year of the outbreak of the Second World War that led to the Holocaust, and because the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz will be commemorated this coming January, and perhaps because the resurgence of the kind of antisemitism that preceded the Holocaust, Jewish organizations and institutions in Israel and the Diaspora are placing greater emphasis on Holocaust-related subjects.
The National Library, for instance, is sending out notices that its archives contain two pages from the infamous burning of the books in Berlin’s Opera Square, where in May, 1933 at the instigation of Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, that all un-German books be burned, more than 25,000 nooks were tossed into the fire. This, of course, included many Jewish books, both religious and secular.
Some 100 years earlier, German poet Heinrich Heine, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity, wrote that where one burns books, one will in the end burn people.’ It was a fateful prophecy.
Among the throng who witnessed the burning of the books in 1933 was a Jewish publisher by the name of Ruben Mass, who cast his hand into the inferno and rescued two pages charred at the edges. That same year, he left Germany and came with his family to Jerusalem. He was among the first Jews to take up residence in Talbiya, which was a predominantly Arab neighborhood. But his neighbors liked him and made him the mukhtar. He continued with his publishing and book-selling business, but realizing the historic value of the pages he had saved from the flames, he sent them to the National Library. One of his sons, Yonatan, a scientist, in later years was the recipient of the Israel Defense Prize. Another son Danny, who had been an excellent student and was a talented artist, was also an impressive military commander.
In January 1948, Danny was the commander of a group of soldiers who were sent to help defend the besieged settlement of Gush Etzion. They were called the Mountain Platoon and they were sent to deliver ammunition and other supplies.
The plan was to carry supplies on their backs and to find their way at night because there were British police and hostile Arab villages in the area. Originally there were 38 men including Mass. One sprained his ankle and two others accompanied him to the safety of Hartuv. The 35 remaining soldiers were ambushed at dawn. They fought bravely, but were vastly outnumbered and massacred. They were later buried in a mass grave known as the grave of the Lamed Hey. A monument has been erected on the site.
Notwithstanding his grief over his son, Ruben Mass made a distinction between his Arab neighbors and the Arabs responsible for the massacre. In May, 1948, when most of his Arab neighbors fled in response to the Declaration of Israel’s Independence, Rubin Mass did his utmost to protect their homes to prevent a takeover by Jewish squatters, although he was not very successful in this endeavor.