Saturday, 10 May 2008

On the pyre

It was 10th May, 1933. 20,000 books were burned. The loss of the pages that matters less than what was on them. The act indicated a closing of thought and imagination.
The writer Erich Kastener watched as students seized his books from library shelves and threw them on the bonfire. They declaimed the Fire Oath: "Against decadence and moral decay! For discipline and decency in family and state!" The words of the Fire Oath don't sound so different from the words of many politicians today.

There's a long history of book-burning and many books have been lost for ever. Writers too are imprisoned and killed - we don't know how many.

The poem that follows is by the radical Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose books were burnt even though he had died in 1856. In this poem of exile, "In der Fremde" (Abroad) he writes of his longing for Germany.

Ich hatte einst ein schönes Vaterland.
Der Eichenbaum
Wuchs dort so hoch, die Veilchen nickten sanft.
Es war ein Traum.
Das küßte mich auf deutsch, und sprach auf deutsch
(Man glaubt es kaum,
Wie gut es klang) das Wort: »Ich liebe dich!«
Es war ein Traum.
I once had a beautiful fatherland.
The oak
Grew there so high, the violets gently nodded.
It was a dream.
It kissed me in German, it spoke in German
(One can hardly believe it,
It sounded so good) the phrase: "I love you!"
It was a dream.
Heine's poems survived. Many had been set to music before the Nazis started their book-burnings. Kastener wasn't so lucky. Much of his work was lost when his flat in Berlin was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1944.

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