Censorship of Jewish Books: Remembering Kristallnacht

Gouache painting by Charlotte Salomon depicting Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938 (via Wikimedia).
Gouache painting by Charlotte Salomon depicting Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938 (via Wikimedia).

Censorship is an important topic in library science. Whenever persecutors of the Jews arose, these “enemies of the Jewish book” also vented their destructive hate on the Jewish texts. In the time of the Macabees, Antiochus Ephiphanes burned Jewish books.  The Mishnah (an early Talmudic Tractate on Fasting, Tannait 4:6) notes “among the five calamities that befell our people on the 17th of the Hebrew month Tammuz was the burning of the Torah scroll”.

In the days of the Hadrianic persecutions Torah study was forbidden and the Talmud (Tractate on Forbidden worship, A.Z. 18a) records the fate of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon who was one of the 10 Holy martyrs murdered by the Romans as memorialized on Yom Kippur in the “These I will remember prayer.” Roman soldiers  took hold of him, wrapped him the Scroll of law, placed bundles of branches around him and set them on fire. They then took tufts of wool which they had soaked in water and placed them over his heart, so that he should not expire quickly but have a more prolonged and protracted execution. His daughter exclaimed: “Father that I should see you in this state!” He replied: If it were I alone being burnt it would have been a thing hard to bear, but now that I am burning together with the Scroll of the Law, He who will have regard for the plight of the Torah will also have regard for my plight.” His disciples then called out: “Rabbi what seest thou?” He answered them, “the parchments are being burnt, but the letters are soaring on angels wings high to heaven”.

In the medieval ages, in June 1244, 24 cartloads of Hebrew books were committed to the flames in Paris. This holocaust was eulogized by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, on the 9th of the Hebrew month called Av. The poem  lament (kinnus) opens, “O, ye who are seared in the flames, pray for the peace of thy mourners!” The Spanish Inquisition further burnt many Jewish books as recounted by eyewitness Rabbi Abraham Sebag who notes that possession of a Jewish book warranted execution.  Many Jews owning Hebrew books were burned at the stake. In Rome, Italy on The New Year (Rosh Hashanah) 1553 all found tomes of the Talmud were set to flames at Campo dei Fiori, as recounted by  the eyewitness of Rabbi Judah Lerma in his book titled “The Bread of Yehudah” (Lehem Yehudah, Sabionetta, 1554).

In Nazi Germany, less than 5 months after the Fuhrer became chancellor of Germany, on the eve of May 10th, 1933 he ordered the Hitler youth to make a great conflagration of more than 25 thousand Jewish books, in the Square in front of the University of Berlin. Not only were medieval manuscripts burnt, but also recent works branded “decadent Jewish literature,” by Freud, Stephen Zweig, H.G. Wells, and philo-semites Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. Similar book burnings were staged throughout Germany which were a prelude to the burning of synagogues on Kistallnacht, on Nov. 9th, 1938, which was  named a “birthday present” to Martin Luther’s call to burn down synagogues and murder the Jews found in Luther’s hateful anti-semitic works, The Jews and Their Lies (Die Juden und Ihren Lugen), and “The Tetragramaton (Shem HaMephorash). As Nazi hordes took over occupied lands in a campaign of pillage, robbery, confiscation, and Nazi mobile murdering units (Einsatzgruppen) shot Jews into pits, also setting aside some Jewish books, for a future “Museum to the murdered Jewish race.” After WWII this collection of Hebrew books at the Offenbach Depot was confiscated by the allies, and the scholar Gershom Scholem was sent to salvage and bring back to the Jewish National  University Library in Jerusalem precious tomes.

In the Former Soviet Union, for many decades, there was a ban on printing, distributing, or owning Jewish books. As Rabbi Yitzchak Zilber notes, learning Hebrew and Rabbinic texts had to take place in secret. During the Stalin regime, the purge of Jewish intellectuals, poets, writers, and philosophers who were often murdered or sent to Siberia, also involved the confiscation of Jewish literary treasures.

The Koran calls the Jews, “the people of the book” but indeed the Jews are “the people of the books” and Jewish survival is inextricably linked to the preservation, learning, and internalization of the contents of those sacred texts.  As the poet Heinrich Heine noted, “when books are burned, people often will be burned” and this is what happened during the Holocaust.​

Contributed by: David B. Levy, Librarian, Lander College for Women

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