On the evening of May 10, 1933, a large procession of German students marched to Berlin's Opernplatz, the State Opera square, along with trucks loaded with over 20,000 books, and accompanied by torchbearers, bands playing German folk songs, and flags, as well as journalists and photographers.
Nine members of the Deutsche Studentenschaft (the German Student Union) opened the book-burning ceremony by reading aloud the names of authors, and the reasons for destroying their books. These "un-German" books thrown into the bonfire were by communist, socialist, liberal and anti-government writers -- most of them Jews.
Berlin was just one of 93 other book burnings that took place during 1933 at 70 other universities and cities throughout Germany.
At the end of the evening, Joseph Goebbels, the newly appointed Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, congratulated the students who supported the revolutionary ideas of the new government. Goebbels declared the Nazi revolution victorious, stating, "The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end... thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past."
The Library has discovered that a day before this terrible event, on May 9, 1933, a letter from the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig was received by Max Brod, the editor of an important newspaper in Prague (who later became known as the friend who saved the writings of Franz Kafka that are now at the National Library).
In his letter, Zweig proposes that some well-known Jews should petition in protest against the antisemitic acts of the Nazis. Zweig also asks Brod to send photographers to the planned book-burning event in Berlin, so that they could be distributed to the international media. This indeed drew attention both in Europe and the U.S. Zweig continued his initiative to warn against the oppression of Jewish intellectuals but in 1934 fled to England, then the U.S. and finally to Brazil.
In addition, the Library will present several charred pages that were not consumed in the fire. The person who pulled the pages out of the fire was a 21-year-old Jewish man named Rubin Mass who worked at a Jewish book publishing house in Berlin.
In 1933, immediately after the shocking book-burning event, Rubin Mass left Germany and set up a publishing house in Jerusalem. Upon his arrival in Israel, he gave the pages to the director of archives at the National Library. Written on the envelope in which the pages were preserved: "Given by Mr. Rubin Mass, who pulled them out of the fire with his own hands."
Rubin Mass was also the father of Major Daniel "Dani" Mass, commander of the Haganah Convoy of 35 (Lamed Heh), all of whom were killed in 1948 en route to resupply the blockaded Gush Etzion settlements.
The Library has invested a great deal of time in ascertaining the book from which those pages were taken, and believes they are from a book by the Jewish-German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who was among the pioneers of the study of sexuality and one of the first activists for LGBT equal rights.
On Tuesday, May 16, 2023, to mark the 90th anniversary of the burning of books in Nazi Germany, the National Library of Israel will host a live event (in Hebrew) entitled "Letters Rising In the Air" at the National Library of Israel, Givat Ram Campus, Jerusalem.
The event will open with a presentation by curator Yigal Zalmona about two sculptures by artist Micha Ullman: The Empty Library in Berlin and Letters of Light, a new environmental work now being erected at the new National Library of Israel building in Jerusalem.
The presentation will be followed by a discussion conducted by journalist Asaf Lieberman, with poet Agi Mishol, Rabbi Benny Lau, and historian Prof. Fania Oz-Salzberger, about the role books play in shaping the human spirit in general, in Jewish and Israeli culture in particular, the public perception of writers, poets, and intellectuals at that time, and their role in Israeli society today.
The evening will be moderated by Curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library of Israel, Dr. Stefan Litt, with readings by actor Yehoyachin Friedlander.
"Letters Rising In the Air" – Marking 90 Years To the Berlin Book Burning will take place on Tuesday, May 16 at 20:00 - 21:30. The event is in Hebrew. Entry is free of charge. Advance registration is required. Details on the National Library website.