The Holocaust is most notorious for the Nazis’ inhumane treatment of other people. But a new exhibit in the Jewish Community Center’s American Jewish Museum aims to highlight an aspect of Nazi destruction often overlooked: widespread book burnings.
“Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings” is an exhibition created by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and brought to the city in collaboration with The Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. With a series of videos and vividly illustrated panels, the exhibition debuted at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2003. A traveling version began circulating the country in 2004 and visited 34 cities before stopping in Pittsburgh. The exhibition will be on display in Pittsburgh until Dec. 31.
While Holocaust education is always timely, now is a particularly relevant time to learn about Nazi literary atrocities, said AJM Director Melissa Hiller.
“We have people threatening to burn the Koran; Salman Rushdie is still under death threats. People threaten to burn ‘Harry Potter’ books,” said Hiller. “These are issues we take for granted, that our right of free speech is just a protected privilege. It’s easily made vulnerable by radicalized groups.”
Beginning in 1933, the book burnings were led by Nazi-supported German students trying to eradicate literature they believed was “Un-
German.” That list included many literary giants, including Ernest Hemingway, and social revolutionaries such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
“Some of the books that were banned or burned are surprising,” said Hiller. “Like Helen Keller; she’s such a hero to Americans, but was banned by the Nazi regime because she was a pacifist and didn’t espouse war. That’s how fragile free speech can be.”
“Fires of Hate” highlights different works that were banned and burned by Nazis, but also explains how, unlike Nazi death camps and ghettos, book burnings were widely covered by the American media. In fact, Newsweek Magazine called the book burnings “a holocaust of books,” seemingly foreshadowing the holocaust of people that was to come.
A quote from Freud in 1933, emblazoned on one of the exhibition’s panels, reads, “Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them.”
Across the hall, a devastating photograph of the destruction of Pearl Harbor lies under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous saying that “A war of ideas can no more be won without books than a naval war can be won without ships.”
Juxtaposed with images of actual war violence, this notion of a war against books takes on a grave new meaning — the Nazis’ attack on ideas may not have ended lives, but it attempted to stamp out imagination and art, thereby killing what makes us most human: the ability to think and feel.
It’s those core human values in the exhibition that appeal most to Hiller.
“What I like about having these exhibitions is that we do a good job of bringing up universal issues that get people thinking more deeply,” she said.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)