Biblioclasm now equated with iconoclasm

Jan 15, 2012, 11:03 IST | Kanchan Gupta

Every visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has been a revelation for me.

Every visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has been a revelation for me. The sprawling Holocaust memorial,  perched between two hills, brings alive like no book or film can the soul-searing horrors of what the Nazis did to the Jews. But it's impossible to absorb it all in one go. On each visit I have discovered something that I missed the last time I walked through, with leaden feet, the zig-zag maze of the Holocaust relived.

And so it is that on my last visit to Yad Vashem I stumbled upon, quite literally, a pile of books on the stone flagged floor of the memorial. The display marks an important milestone in the transmogrification of the Nazis into beasts: The burning of books that were considered 'Un-German' and the cleansing of libraries with fire.

That was in April 1933 and Hitler was yet to start implementing his 'final solution'. But that act was a precursor to what was to follow. Heinrich Heine, the celebrated German critic and poet, had written in early-19th century that "When books are burned in the end people will be burned too." His words proved to be eerily prophetic some 100 years later.

Last October, on a wind-swept grey afternoon, I stood at Bebelplatz in Berlin, in front of St Hedwig's Cathedral, trying to recreate in my mind the April evening in 1933 when students, enamoured of Hitler's demagoguery, had gathered there and made a bonfire of books after ransacking one of the largest libraries. The building still stands, magnificent yet melancholic, at the edge of the square. The spot where the bonfire blazed now has a plaque recording the shameful event.

Joseph Goebbels, spitting fire and brimstone, had egged on the vandals: "No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaser, Erich Kastner... The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path..."

As we all know, that path led to history's most hideous mass murder. Even suckling infants were not spared. Heinrich Heine foresaw the crematoriums at Dachau and other concentration camps. We also know that that the path ultimately led to the destruction of the Nazis and all that was glorified by Goebbels. Not very far from Bebelplatz lies the bunker in which Hitler committed suicide.

To be fair, the Nazis weren't the first to seek to reduce to ashes, albeit in vain, ideas and opinions that militated against their ideology. Human history is replete with tales of books being burned by rulers, conquerors, dictators and men of faith in robes.

The Qing dynasty would routinely burn books; modern day rulers of China continue with the practice. The Bishop of Alexandria ordered monks to burn everything that remotely questioned doctrinaire faith; a mammoth library stands there now. Bakhtiyar Khalji sacked Nalanda and set fire to its library which is believed to have burned for three months; the ancient university will soon rise from the ruins that remain.

In more recent times, on January 14, 1989, copies of Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, were consigned to the flames at a protest in Bradford. That act of biblioclasm drew attention to a book that few had read till then, triggering a fatwa (issued by none less than Ayatollah Khomeini) demanding the author's head for which a reward of $1 million was offered. India notoriously became the first country to ban the book.

The abiding shame of that act still hangs heavy on us, partially redeemed by the NDA Government's decision to issue Rushdie a PIO card which allows him to visit the country of his origin without any let or hindrance. But shame is alien to those who live in the joyless world of fatwas and decrees; it means nothing to those who wear intolerance on their sleeves.

Hence the demand by Deobandi muftis that Rushdie shouldn't be allowed to enter India. Strangely, the demand continues to find a resonance among those who pose as 'liberals' and preach tolerance. In the land of Charvak, biblioclasm is now equated with iconoclasm.

Which takes me back to where I began: Yad Vashem. As name after name is read out of 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust in the unlit Hall of Remembrance where a single flickering flame is reflected 1.5 million times, I once again ask myself: How could they do this?

Stepping out and walking down the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, shaded by cypress trees, each honouring a non-Jew who, like Oscar Schindler, defied the Nazis, my spirits lift. All is not lost in this wondrous world of ours. 

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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