Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stolen Words

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books, by Mark Glickman

[Aside before this Very Serious Book Post: Last time I blogged, over a week ago, I was all pleased because I had actually cleared my desk of books to write about -- for the first time in at least a year.  Then I had a busy week that involved a whole lot of driving around.  I even went out of town for a few days, which was fun, especially since I really had nothing to do except deliver a kid and then listen to her perform two days later, so I went to a bookstore and generally goofed off.....and now I have six books on my desk and haven't posted a thing for days.  Summer is eating up my time in an even more odious manner than usual; I'm not working, there's no school, and yet I have less free time than before.  How does that work?  We haven't even gone swimming yet!  Well, anyway...]

We all know that the Nazis had every intention of destroying all vestiges of Jewish culture and influence, and in early days they would collect 'Jewish' books and stage book-burnings.  Book-burnings were a lot of fun and made great night events, but had the disadvantage of drawing the scorn of every civilized nation and showing the Nazis up as brutish thugs -- plus books are hard work to burn anyway.  So their ideas changed a bit, and -- here is the bit you probably didn't know -- they decided to collect Jewish books instead and build massive libraries which were going to showcase the great culture conquered and demolished by Aryan might.  So as Nazis plundered treasures and artworks all around Europe, they were also deliberately plundering Jewish libraries and making Jewish books of all kinds disappear.

Glickman starts out with a short history of Jewish literacy and writing, starting with Moses.  In a fascinating couple of chapters, he'll whisk you through a few thousand years of Torah scrolls, Maccabee revolts, rabbinic teachings, amazing books combining texts and commentaries -- conversations that stretched over centuries -- and the constant threat of losing those books when various powerful types decided that Jewish learning was dangerous stuff.  (NB: In one of those coincidences that pop up in a reading life, I learned that the extremely pious French king Louis IX planned to burn Jewish books at the pope's behest, was dissuaded by a sympathetic cardinal, and then did it anyway after the cardinal dropped dead, since that was obviously a sign of God's wrath.  Louis IX, and his psalter, is also the subject of Picturing Kingship, the book Harvey Stahl, Jewish himself, spent his life writing.  I have it right now on ILL, though it's much too large and scholarly for me to really read properly.  And of course, I got it after reading Last Things a few weeks ago.)

After this introduction, we move on to Nazi theory and the importance of Jewish books.  The Nazis started off with lots of emotional appeal and mob action, and early book-burnings were part of this, but even more than they wanted to be masters of whipped-up mobs, the Nazis wanted very badly indeed to be modern, respectable, and above all, rational and scientific.  So pretty soon, they turned from haphazard, slapdash book-burnings to systematic, intellectual efforts to justify anti-Semitism.  They would use anthropology and biology to design "a science of supremacism."  This was hugely appealing to an awful lot of people, who jumped right on the bandwagon, and it gave rise to two organizations within the Nazi power structure (which was in fact not rational at all, since it was based around vying for Hitler's attention) which focused entirely on collecting Jewish books for a massive institute of anti-Semitic research.  Even as the war machine ripped through Europe, officials came right behind them and packed up innumerable Jewish libraries for shipping back to Germany.

Plate tipped in to repatriated books
OK, I'm getting waaaay too wordy here, but the rest of the book is just as gripping as the first few chapters.  Hiding books in ghettos!  Post-war warehouses of books to sort through!  How do you repatriate a library, and what if that library's former home is now in Stalin's also-anti-Semitic grasp?  Hannah Arendt!

I found this book to be utterly fascinating; it illuminated a corner of World War II that few noticed at the time, but which had massive cultural reverberations.  It's well-written, and I kept reading bits aloud to whoever was handy; my 16-year-old daughter was quite intrigued as well.  I do kind of wish I'd read this book before I read Outwitting History, because chronologically they would have gone better that way, but it doesn't really matter.



3 comments:

maphead said...

Excellent! I'm so glad you not only read this but enjoyed it just like I did! Funny, I was just getting reading to do my review of this book but then you mentioned on my recent post that you've also read Stolen Words.
I LOVED Outwitting History! So glad you've read it too!!

Jean said...

At this point we probably oughta start the Jewish History Fanclub with two members... :D

maphead said...

I'm in!!