The Story of the Second Slap in the Face and the Tides of the World
I come home, my lips still stained with black chocolate icing, a splotch of golden pudding adorning my cheek and an overlooked streak of cherry juice remaining on my face, and I find the doors of the big bookcase in the living room wide open. Books and folders are spread all over the floor, knee-high in places, and Father sits at the center of the pile, his collar open, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows; he takes a break in the middle of his cruel and radical revision of our bookshelves. He is not capable of speaking. Mother goes to sit down next to him, her blue skirt spread wide under her like a pool under a nymph, and she takes turns caressing the book covers and my father’s spindly arms.
“Certainly not Stefan Zweig?” he asks, despair in his voice.
Yes, Zweig, my mother says without making a sound.
“What about Remarque? Döblin? And the brothers Mann? And Kästner?”— my favorite book, Emil und die Detektive, lies on the floor, thrown off the shelf in haste, its corners bumped, its cover torn—“And the Mendelssohn scores? Egon Erwin Kisch’s pamphlets? And Freud? And Marx? Tucholsky too? Tucholsky too. Flaubert? Proust? Proust, of course. Les Temps Perdus!”
It seems that Germans are allowed to keep almost no books, except the One, the One that describes the struggle. That is the Book. From now on, all personal quests into the roots of the world, and all free research into the limits of morality will be illegal pursuits. What are we to do with the books that need to be discarded? Giving them away would just displace the problem. We can’t just throw them out either; that big stack of paper in the trash room would attract attention—what if one of our brand-new patriotic neighbors started sniffing through the garbage cans and traced the forbidden works back to their origin?
We could burn them. The weather has turned. It is rather chilly out; a slow drizzle darkens the sky. One could light a fire without raising suspicion. My mother takes her place at the hearth; my father, in his shirtsleeves, labors by the sweat of his brow—a scene that would certainly please any National Socialist. We could burn the books. See how assimilated we are? Righteous Jews so respect the name of G*d that they do not dare pronounce it or write it down without at least censoring the vowels, and they never throw away even the smallest slip of paper for fear it might carry the Lord’s name and that they thereby are destroying a piece of YHVH Himself. In the Jewish archive in Cairo everything gets saved: marriage contracts, love poems, bookseller’s catalogues, everything, including shopping lists. In the shtetl, in the eastern lands, every synagogue has a big wooden vat in the back where the faithful deposit their old books and newspapers. The vat is emptied from time to time but the paper is stored indefinitely in the temple’s basement. Jews love books, they thrive on words. Read all those old Jewish stories from the Talmud and the kabala and the folktales from Poland and Russia: Long-lost books reappear in hidden caves, letters rise up from the page, names are etched into foreheads. The correct pronunciation of a word can make the difference between heaven and hell. Burning a book means more than giving up a part of one’s possessions: it means selling one’s soul to an evil spirit. Today our bookcase will go up in flames, today we are selling our soul to the demon Hitler.
Father has a Heine book in his hands. He opens it and reads out loud. “This was merely foreplay. Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings. Here,” says Father. “Look at an open book with your eyes level with the tabletop—feel free to kneel—what you see is an angel, its wings spread wide, ready to fly. Each book is an angel that takes you, naïve Argonaut, on a journey. (And just remember, not every angel is benevolent). A book is a membership card to a secret society—a society of minds, with manifold interpretations and moods and intentions. You enter that society, the book’s lines imprint on your retina, and your brain will never be the same. Every book is ready to burst wide open. Here! Take this one. Open it up. What does it say? In the beginning … This book is bursting, I tell you! Ready to burst open! Burst! Burst!”
In the beginning . . . Here they come, the schwankende Gestalten, we observe them with sad and troubled eyes. Mother is ripping pages out of a communist treatise, it will make good kindling. I carry the books to the fireplace in the small stacks that fit my small arms. I walk carefully, because I love those books. I do not want to hurt them unnecessarily. Their death has to be short and merciful and I want to make their final journey soft and light. I want to carry them to their final resting place, to their ultimate transformation, so softly that the clueless heroes and heroines between the cardboard covers do not feel anything at all. This also spares, I hope, the overblown yet fragile egos of the authors whose pictures grace the back covers.
It is not an easy task, burning books. And I don’t just mean emotionally, though it is gruesome watching even a lifeless object get punished for something it did not do. And I don’t just mean theoretically, either—even though burning vessels of ideas is certainly a powerful gesture. I mean it in the most practical sense: Paper, cardboard, and glue are harder to destroy than one would think. You have to break the books’ spines, you have to dismantle them before committing them to the flames. Is it blasphemy to say that this is also true for humans? But when the fire has finally caught on, it cannot be contained. If self-reproduction is the main characteristic of life, then fire is a living thing. When the theory of the proletarian revolution starts attacking degenerate prose, when a tongue of fire greedily licks a page until that page grows its own eager tongue, a cycle starts that will only come to an end when all books in the world are gone. From the fire, black butterflies leap into the chimney, each butterfly carrying a fragment, a word or a part of a sentence or maybe just a single letter, a charred cipher that once might have meant the world to whoever wrote it, to whoever read it. Words precious to us, to Father, Mother, or myself. Words that gave direction to our life. As so often my father’s hand hesitates—whenever he recognizes a text as a dear old friend with whom he does not want to part, he starts trembling—and I, the little one, have to pull the book out of his hands. Destruction has to be blind; you can never look your victim in the eye. I tear at the pages until they loosen under my fingers like a cancer patient’s hair.