Book Review 400: The Holocaust and the Book

THE HOLOCAUST AND THE BOOK: Destruction and Preservation, edited by Jonathan Rose. 314 pages, illustrated. Massachusetts

Just days after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, university students organized a series of book collections and carefully staged burnings across the nation. This was not a project of the government or even, directly, of the Nazi Party. It was a bottom up protest against “unGerman” writing — mostly but not all Jewish.

World opinion was shocked, not least because although libraries had been burned since there were libraries, in Europe the burning had been done almost entirely as a Christian project. Secular book during as something new.

Although, like most Nazi programs, the robbery and destruction of cultural records and art was uncoordinated and haphazard, it eventually accomplished a lot. Some estimates say the Germans burned (or, in their thrifty way, pulped for paper) 100 million books — half in Ukraine.

Books could be reprinted, but the Nazis also sought to destroy government records, manuscripts, anything that would show that Jews had once been there. The Poles got the same treatment.

The Jews resisted. The YIVO project had begun in 1892 to collect Jewish records, and libraries had been established around the world, so a tradition of collecting and caring for records was in place. It quickly established itself in several ghettos, notably Vilno.

Part of the story of “The Holocaust and the Book” concerns the heroic effort to save records and give doomed Jews something to read. They preferred the Yiddish or Russian equivalent of Harlequin Books.

Some collections were saved but more often most of what was assembled was eventually destroyed.

The Germans did try to pick out the most valuable items for a projected huge research library on judaism.

Then after the war there was the problem of returning the items. Jews generally opposed returning specifically communal material to places that no longer had any Jews, so some of the archives were sent to Israel and other countries.

The most important of the Polish treasures ended up in Canada, where there was a long struggle over whether they should go to a now-communist government. Eventually, they were returned.

The longest essay concerns the question of how to view the contribution of Nietzsche’s writings to the Shoah. American scholar John Rodden considers that Nietzsche was unfairly used the the Nazis, but he was used. Rodden carries the dispute into the postwar, where Nietzsche became an unperson in East Germany in order to serve a myth that the East Germans had been antifascist. As with the Polish treasures, Nietzsche was eventually, if uneasily, restored.

Although burning books –or, strictly, a community’s cultural records — was declared a war crime after the war, that did not prevent the Serbs from committing the largest book holocaust in history at Sarajevo in 1992. The Croats also participated, both acting against the Muslims, although as it turned out, the Serbs and Croats burned each others’ books when they got the chance.

In a way, a tradition was restored, since the standard was not race but religion.

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