I have a personal library with a large number of books that deal with the Holocaust. These books tell of the rise of Hitler and the “Final Solution,” and tell of the evil that we human beings are capable to bringing upon each other. But they also tell of people’s efforts to remain human and hopeful, even in the death camps.
Yes, I have read a lot about the Holocaust. I have spoken with countless survivors and heard their testimonies about the suffering they endured. I have visited the sites of concentration camps and learned of the evil that occurred at each one. But I recently learned about an episode of this horrible time with which I was not familiar. In May of 1933, thousands of Jewish books were collected in Berlin’s Opera Square for an event called Feuerspruche, or “Fire Incantations.” This was a pet project of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s propaganda chief, who understood how important books were to Jewish culture and identity. Burning Jewish books, in his warped opinion, was an ideal form of “bloodless torture” that was imposed upon the Jews of Germany. Estimates of the number of books that were burned on that night range from twenty-five thousand to ninety thousand.
The Feuerspruche had a party atmosphere, with dancing, singing, and live music. That same night, similar events were held in Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt and Breslau, and more than thirty other Feuerspruchestook place in towns throughout Germany over the next year. And it is estimated that the Nazis destroyed more than one hundred million books during their twelve years in power.
To witness the destruction of books was especially painful for Jews, who have long been known as “the people of the book.” Judaism considers books sacred, and our most sacred book, the Torah, is the most revered of all. When religious books wear out, they are buried and receive a funeral service. Jews believe that books are more than just printed documents; we believe that books serve the purpose of elevating and enlightening humanity.
This Monday is designated by the United Nations as Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is intended to be, not only a day for remembering the atrocity that was the Holocaust, but an international day to affirm our stance against various forms of callous evil that our world knows.
I think of my granddaughter and how much she treasures her books. They open her imagination to new worlds and ideas. Books challenge her to grow in mind and heart. Yes, the Nazis understood the potency and value of books, and realized our enduring Jewish attachment to them. And if you haven’t already, please visit our extensive temple library. You will surely find many books that enlighten and inspire us.
Shabbat Shalom, and may our remembering lead us to a more gentle and humane world.
Rabbi David Greenberg