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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.4 (2002) 673-674
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The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation, ed. Jonathan Rose. (Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book) Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. 314 p. $39.95 (ISBN 1-55849-253-4)
The magnitude of the destruction of so many lives in the death camps of the Nazi era is a focus so riveting that it has been difficult for historians to move beyond this central factual horror in constructing narratives of the cultural dimensions of Jewish community life during the 1930s and 1940s. Jonathan Rose, professor of history and director of the graduate program in book history at Drew University, brings together the work of fifteen authors to explore other dimensions of this story. His focus is the destruction of culture. In this case the willful destruction by the Nazi regime of tens of millions of books. He rightly notes that the central narrative of the Hitler era usually begins with the book burnings and ends with the death camps. The articles collected in this book of essays frame the story of the book throughout the era beginning with the much-filmed burnings of the 1930s and ending with persistent liquidation of errant texts in the post-war Soviet states. In and of itself, the story of the book in World War II was a cultural holocaust often overlooked and subordinated to more horrible, deeply human tragedies.
The varied aspects of the assault on books and culture at this time are numerous and complex. It is clear early on that one book cannot tell the whole story. Thus, the articles selected by Rose really offer themes for further investigation. The destruction of culture is a multi-faceted process that attempts to undermine basic intellectual processes and epistemologies. It begins with destruction but aspires to much more. These articles provide the foundation for probing a very complex story. The first articles describe the extent of the destruction. Leonidas Hill's article describes how the removal of books and/or transfer of valuable texts, the aryanization of publishing houses, and the closing of bookstores were an integral part of a process of removal of all that was "un-German." Cultural destruction meant not only killing humans but also the elimination of their record. This process of elimination took many forms. Articles by Stanislao Pugliese, Yitzchak Kerem, and David Fishman extend the story and the pattern to Rome, Salonika, and Vilna. Arlen Blium (as edited) finds a similar pattern in Soviet anti-Semitism in the 1940s and 1950s. His article underscores the point that book destruction is a tool, though in [End Page 673] the final analysis not a very effective one, of hegemonic regimes in establishing control. It raises important questions regarding the role of the state in defining culture and constructing memory through a selective retention of the products of culture. The articles open up many questions about this process of cultural erasure, begging questions as to how such policies were established, how they were implemented, and how widespread was the appeal of policies of purification. Were these actions against books seen as less wrong than the actions against individuals? This volume focuses more on the tragic results of actions rather than the ominous processes that led to them.
If the aim was destruction of culture through the elimination of printed works, the second section of the book shows that printing was also a form of resistance. Sigrid Perry suggests that clandestine publishing activities arose to challenge Nazi censors. Though it would be interesting to know more about the distribution of these volumes, their very existence and survival more than underscores his point. Similarly Rosemary Horowitz shows the Yisker books, drawn often from archival sources, reveal patterns of reading and writing under tense circumstances. Similarly, as Sem Sutter shows, the traffic in Polish rare books is analogous to the destruction and survival of those who read and treasured them. A sub-theme of the book is that books and reading are a...