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Library exhibit recalls the Nazi war on literature
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Library exhibit recalls the Nazi war on literature

An Office of War Information poster used the book burnings to expose “the nature of the enemy.” Photo courtesy the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/FDR Library
An Office of War Information poster used the book burnings to expose “the nature of the enemy.” Photo courtesy the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/FDR Library

In 1933, when the Nazis unleashed a massive burning of “un-German” books, many by Jewish authors, it sent a chilling warning signal of what was to come and horrified the democratic sensibilities of Americans.

From June 12 to Aug. 10, the New Brunswick Free Public Library will host a traveling United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit on the burnings, its first-ever appearance in New Jersey.

“Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings” is being presented in cooperation with Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. It uses photographs, text, and computer displays to portray how the American public and media responded to the Nazi assault on ideas, said Laura Szalaj, the library’s coordinator for the exhibit

Steven Luckert, curator of the permanent exhibit at the Holocaust museum in Washington, said the exhibit looks beyond the implications for Germany.

The burnings became “a kind of iconic symbol in the democratic West of intolerance, censorship, and persecution that really resonated with American and British people and has left a legacy that continues today,” said Luckert. “For many it became a symbol of the strength of democracy.”

In a phone interview from Washington, Luckert said the museum coincidentally opened its doors in 2003 on the 70th anniversary of the May 10, 1933, incident in which German university students launched an “Action Against the Un-German Spirit.” They targeted authors ranging from Helen Keller and Ernest Hemingway to Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, destroying 25,000 books.

Framed in “virulently anti-Semitic terms,” the burnings came in the immediate aftermath of a series of actions against German Jews. The book burnings were quickly condemned in the United States, spawning rallies and outcries. The Office of War Information was still referring to them a decade later to stir support for the troops.

American-Jewish organizations also responded; the American Jewish Congress coordinated nationwide street demonstrations against the Nazi persecution of Jews and the burning of books.

The protest in New York drew about 100,000 people — then the largest demonstration in city history — to a six-hour march.

On June 15, Luckert will speak at an opening reception, focusing on Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, who described the book burnings as a kind of “liberation” for German literature. Dr. Douglas Greenberg, executive dean of the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences, will also participate.

The exhibit is also being made possible through Magyar Bank, the Kiwanis Club of New Jersey, and members of the New Brunswick chapter.

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