It’s somehow fitting.
The sweeping square is shrouded in silence, but for the dime-size drops of rain slapping the neatly laid cobbled stones under my feet. The typically bustling quad is empty too, except for the line of bicycles strung along the façade of the Alte Bibliothek (Old Library) and three tourists hunched under wide-domed umbrellas staring at the ground.
I’m watching the young men from the west side of the Berlin Opera House, waiting for them to move on so that I might have a second of solitude on my own to pay my respects to a moment in history that must never be forgotten so that it might never happen again.
One evening in spring, just three-quarters of a century ago, it was raining, too…except on that night in May, Bebelplatz was called Platz am Opernhaus and throngs of people gathered around a bon-fire on this very spot. Music blared from live bands while towering flames licked the night sky, fuelled by gasoline and more than 25,ooo “un-german” books – works authored by Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Rosa Luxemburg, August Bebel, Victor Hugo, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and many more. Children’s book author Erich Kästner, recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1960, witnessed the nightmare until he was recognized by someone in the frenzied crowd.
A dear friend, Daniel Cohen, docent at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reminds us that “It was often university students and their teachers who were burning books under Goebbels directions. Of course the university teachers had their jobs on the line if they did not participate and the students their stipends from the government. Complicated stuff for sure.”
On this wet day in May 2018, I don’t have to wait long for the young men to move on. Driven by raindrops now the size of pennies, I pull my hood closer and cross the square remembering the first time I’d been introduced to the infamous site. It was during the seven years we’d lived in Berlin after the wall came down. The underground memorial designed by artist Micha Ullmann was the first stop on my eleven-year-old’s class trip. It still calls to me whenever I visit Germany’s capital city.
Under a thick glass plate, a library is set into the ground. It’s shelves – empty.
A bronze plaque embedded in the cobbles commemorates the event.
The righthand inscription states: “In the center of this square, on May 10, 1933, national-socialist students burned the works of hundreds of independent authors, journalists, philosophers, and academics.”
The prophetic message on the left quotes a line from German poet Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play “Almansor”: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”
Besides the obvious, the memorial always reminds me of the USA’s Banned Books Week… the week in September dedicated to celebrating the freedom to read and learn from all books without censorship. It’s about choice and respecting one another’s right to choose what s/he wants to read. This year it runs from the 23rd until the 29th. FYI the 2017 top 10 most challenged books and the reasoning behind them can be found HERE. And if you are interested in classic children’s books, HERE. But I digress…
Before long, the pelting rain turns to a light drizzle and eventually tapers off to a fine mist. As I struggle to stare through the gun-metal grey clouds’ reflection sliding across the glass plate at my feet, I think of my favorite books that have been listed as banned and removed from libraries, schools, and even universities in some places in the United States. In another time and place, would they too have been turned to ash?
The clouds continue to thin. A warm, light breeze dries the pavement in time for a deluge of tourists to storm the square and huddle around the sight…my cue to move on.
But as I exit the square, cross to the center median of Unter den Linden, and stop to admire the craftsmanship of Frederick the Great astride his great bronze steed, I can’t help but notice how the King of Prussia’s head is facing away from Bebelplatz prompting the question, “How many of us turn our heads from things we don’t want to acknowledge?”
Just an observation.
Now I think I’ll grab my copy of Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” and see if the kerfuffle over banning it “for portraying child abuse as well as its dark theme and mystic aspects” holds any weight.
❤ Thank you for stopping by today ❤
The human race contains many people with small minds. Always has. Always will. It’s scary. The Heine quote is correct.
Take care —
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The Heinrich Heine quote is chilling. As is book banning of any kind. Banning says more about those who ban and their creeds than the so-called dangerous books. I haven’t read all of the books on the Washington Post list and think I must make a point of doing so. Loved the Sherman Alexie book. It is incendiary. (Pardon the pun) And it should be. What we have done to indigenous people is criminal, not the telling of it.
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(I have no idea if this comment is posting or not) but I am shocked to learn Where the Wilds Things Are is on the list. Thank you for putting this in perspective.
It is a head-scratcher for sure and you are so welcome, Ellen. Write on!