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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 May, 2003, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Events mark Nazi book-burning

Ray Furlong
BBC correspondent in Berlin

There could hardly be two more different diaries than those of Anne Frank and Joseph Goebbels: one a testament to humanity, the other to barbarism.

1933 book-burning
Works by Jews, Communists and 'degenerate' authors were burned

Yet extracts from the two are being merged together to musical accompaniment on Berlin's main street this weekend - just one of the many events marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi book-burning.

There are lectures, exhibitions, discussions and of course, readings. The burnt works of many familiar authors will be read out - Albert Einstein, Bertold Brecht, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Mayakovski, to name but a few.

But there are also lots of new works read by their authors.

"This is the victory of the books. They were not destroyed. The decline of culture didn't happen," says writer Steffen Mensching.

All the authors that we had treasured - and of course still do treasure - were suddenly supposed to be valueless
Elfrieda Bruenning, aged 93

He's been reading from his latest novel 'Jacob's Ladder' which aptly enough traces the fates of Germans who emigrated to America in the 1930s - and the books they took with them.

"For me this is the only way to celebrate this anniversary," he says. "To read, to read for people, or to read just for myself."

The book-burning took place just months after the Nazis took power in 1933. The SA cordoned off the main courtyard of Berlin's Humboldt University, stacking high piles of books by Jewish, communist, or 'degenerate' authors, and then setting light to them.

This year is probably one of the last "round" anniversaries where eye-witnesses are still around to recount what happened.

Surviving tradition

"Heine said: if you burn books today, you burn people tomorrow. But we never imagined what was to come," says 93-year-old Elfrieda Bruenning.

She was a member of the banned Proletarian Revolutionary Writer's Union at the time, and watched the burning with horror.

The lesson is - don't burn ideas, even if they're not good ideas you don't have to burn them
Berlin man

"All the authors that we had treasured - and of course still do treasure - were suddenly supposed to be valueless. We couldn't understand it at all. It was terrible for us."

The idea of marking the anniversary with public readings is not new. Irene Runge, from the Jewish Cultural Association, says it's one of the few traditions of the former East Germany that have (in some form) survived the reunification.

"Every year, 10 May was when book week opened. All over the country libraries, bookshops and so on would talk about it, present new and old books, writers would travel from one place to another," she says.

Israeli artist Micha Ullmann created a brightly lit subterranean room with empty book shelves
Berlin's 'Submerged Library' monument to 1933 book-burning

In any case, the events are going down well with the public. "Why not take it as a day for readings, to show what heritage there is?" said one woman on Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard.

"The lesson is - don't burn ideas," said another man, "even if they're not good ideas, you don't have to burn them."

There are also extra efforts to get children involved. Celebrities and politicians are reading from children's books, and 14,000 children have taken part in a project to write 'the longest story in the world'.

But there's also smaller scale work going on. Actor Frank Sommer tries every year to find different ways to get kids interested.

This year he was holding a reading of Brecht with 14-year-olds, sat around a great pile of banned books and charred papers.

"I try to make it more tangible for the young people," he says. "They read out of the books, they hear the books, and they see what kind of literature was forbidden."

The BBC's Ray Furlong
"The names of the writers are now re-emerging from the ashes of history"


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