Maybe November is the wrong time to visit Germany. The sky, on my recent vacation there, was relentlessly gray; the air, bitter cold. But climate is all relative: when I was living in Boston I would refer to such temperatures (hovering just above freezing) as brisk; 20 years of California’s disavowal of weather have spoiled me, or thinned my blood, as my mother would say. So, for me, Berlin was bitter cold.
Perhaps the weather predisposed me to find the city sad. The overcast sky seemed to bleach any color from the streets. I felt at times as if I were in a black-and-white movie, or living in another era. Berlin, to me, carried the full weight of history on its shoulders. Despite the vibrant nightlife, its role as the economic powerhouse of Europe, I had a hard time seeing beyond Germany’s tragic and nightmarish past.
Like any major city, of course, Berlin has its tourist attractions: the stunning antiquities collections at the Pergamon and the Neues Museum; the charming village of Nikolaiviertel; the imposing Brandenburg Gate. But the sights everyone most wants to see are remnants of a darker history: pieces of a city torn apart first by the Nazis, later by the wall that cut through it like a scythe.
So I took the requisite tour. I saw the pieces of the Wall that remain, ironically graffitied into emblems of protest and whimsy. I visited the Reichstag, which had been set on fire by Hitler as a ploy to blame the communists and solidify his own power, now gloriously transformed by a beautiful dome whose glass structure proclaims the promise of a transparent government. I passed by buildings that still bear the pockmarks of gunfire. I visited the Jewish Museum, an architectural triumph whose very walls can break your heart. And I went to Bebelplatz.
As a writer, as a lover of words, I had to visit Bebelplatz. It was a pilgrimage. On this spot, between Humboldt University and the State Opera House, in May 1933, Goebbels and his crew of thugs set fire to more than 20,000 books.
The memorial to that horrid event isn’t a statue hovering over you, or a tower you gaze up at. To see this memorial, you have to look down.
We were there at dusk, and I was a bit worried that I’d have trouble finding the spot in the encroaching darkness. But suddenly, my eyes were drawn to a light that came up through the ground, turning the surrounding cobblestone an almost cobalt blue. And there it was, a square of glass framed in white, a window to the underworld. Inside, like a basement apartment silently awaiting its next inhabitant, was an empty room—bright white and hollow, the walls covered with row upon row of empty bookshelves. Enough shelves to hold 20,000 books.
It’s one of the most elegant memorials I’ve ever seen—in its way as simple and devastating as the coffin-shaped pillars that take up a city block across town at the Holocaust Memorial. The books, of course, were a test run for a greater horror.
Not surprisingly, the first books on the pyre were pulled from the library at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institue for Sex Research. It was in those volumes that two of the Nazis’ greatest enemies could be found: homosexuals and intellectuals. They didn’t stop there, of course. Books, to a tyrant, are an enemy unto themselves. Books represent freedom of thought. That’s the last thing any tyrant wants to see.
Gazing down at those empty shelves, I tried to imagine a world without books—a world without Whitman and Woolf, without Morrison and Roth, without Homer and Joyce and Mishima. Books were my first friends. Books allowed me to escape the constraints of my world, and introduced me to new worlds where I could feel I belonged. Books are transgressive. Books save lives.
I took a photo of the memorial, that room as white and terrifying as Melville’s whale. It’s a talisman for me now, an inspiration. With each blog, each story, each novel, I’m reminded of those empty shelves. They need to be filled.