COLUMN: If all the world’s shelves were empty

By Karin Schimke

In Berlin, in a public square in Mitte called Bebelplatz, you can walk right over a memorial, one of the most haunting ones I have ever seen. Sunk into the ground is a chamber lined floor-to-ceiling with empty bookcases, which you view through a glass “paving stone”.Denkmal_der_Buecherverbrennung
Alongside it are words from a Heinrich Heine play he wrote a century before the infamous book burnings that took place here in May 1933. The words are: “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, vebrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”. They mean: “Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.”
Around 20 000 books were burnt here by Nazi students and Hitler youth groups.
History teaches us much, but we learn little, I fear.

Last week I spoke to pupils at my old school in Pretoria about poetry, freedom of expression and popular protest. In the class with us was the history teacher Izak Kruger, who started teaching the year I was in matric. Although I knew that I was speaking to young people, the past has a tendency, in middle age, to feel close, and I forgot to imagine that the pupils with us have no sense of what it means to not be able to say what you wish to say, to protest against that which feels inhuman. They were truly shocked to imagine that in a time not long before their births – when Izak and I were around their age – South Africans had severe restrictions on what they were allowed to utter in public.
harewithambereyes-paperbackThis month I read The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, a book published in 2010 and which I have been straining to get to. It’s hard to classify the book: part biography, part history, part – almost – memoir. De Waal sets about uncovering the history of his family – entrepreneurial Jews who moved from Odessa in the 19th century to Paris and Vienna and who became assimilated there.

His story revolves around an inheritance of “netsuke” – small Japanese carvings of ivory and boxwood. De Waal is a potter – he makes things, he touches things – and his inheritance sparks in him some sense of the line of ancestry of things, and he sets about researching his family’s past. The research is distilled into a narrative that is both rich and pared down, loving, yet unsentimental.

The book is a wonder. I am not averse to reading pure history, but have to admit that I have gleaned most of my knowledge of the past from novels. Here history is presented as a story but the characters were real. Through De Waal’s eyes, I was able to imagine the sharpest edges of anti-Semitism and the scope of uncertainty and chaos that preceded and followed Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria. I felt the loss of things, ways, people and connections personally. I felt, most viscerally, the loss of libraries and art works collected by the family as it rose from merchants to rich bankers.

In the final chapter, De Waal writes: “I think of a library carefully sorted into netsuke1boxes. I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and of people from their families and families from their neighbourhoods. And then from their country.” He meditates on things – trinkets, bibelots, books and clothes – and their meaning: “Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matter.”

Is there a telling more stark than a chamber of shelves empty of books? –

  • This column first in the Cape Times in March 2013.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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