Book Burning

By Laura Müller-Hennig

We have carried a whole century. Hauled here, piled high and intertwined, we were supposed to make an impression on people. And we did. We could be seen from afar, coming from the Ostertor, a gate to the city. It is still possible today. Trace along the edges once. Slip your fingers into our uneven surface. We are the foundation, wall and protection, we form the bridges and balconies, gables and oriels, we hold the windows. We know what belongs in this place.

As you enter the building, you can hear your footsteps somersaulting on marble, against the glass ceiling and back. You can turn into the library, wander among shelves, and search for something to read. You may ask yourself what is left of the past, in this place, still reveals itself to this day. We could tell it all: what lies between these walls. The ghosts. The stories. How we became what we are today. No longer just stones, no longer a police station, but a forum. And in our midst the books.

We could speak, for example, of May 1933. About a young man, Horst Hackenbroich, and how he walks through the streets. Not here, but in the west of Bremen. His father sent him to deliver more fish. How he sees flames flaring up at the end of the street, on the Danziger Freiheit, playground, schoolyard and marketplace at the same time. As a five-yearold, he had spent every free moment frolicking here. On weekdays, his parents sell smoked fish.

As he gets closer, he sees between 20 and 30 men standing around a pyre, uniformed SA, civilians and students. A human doll burns on top of it, and books below. How they throw the books into the fire, one after the other, with a festive chant, amid booing and loud swearing. He fears what Heinrich Heine knew a century earlier: that was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will end up burning people. And so he leaves, quietly, and escapes for the moment.

Each of these books is on a blacklist. Used to be in a library, a bookstore, a room. Is collected or delivered. There is no rain, and the fire can burn. Three weeks later every private library has to provide details on their inventory to the police. Try to imagine it: how a person, here, in front of the main entrance, enters through the door, in their pocket the copy of a book register. But that was only a prelude.

The blacklist grows. Books are sorted out. Even at the predecessor of today’s library, back then at the train station. The inventory is practically reduced by half, with only a few books being moved to the attic. They call it the poison room. The rule is to read only what is necessary. And those who write the books struggle to survive, words stashed in the shadows, tucked under the tongue. To darken the intellectual life is to prepare for war, Peter Suhrkamp will write. Later.

Later we withstand the bombs, also an explosion in the courtyard. By then the war is already over, an accident while loading the shells. Books move from the attic back to the shelves. Decades pass, the police move out, and we transform into a forum. The library moves in, with all its books, including the burned ones. Books, we now know, cannot be burned, Erich Kästner wrote.

But who will ever know what was lost after all, never written, never read.

The places of the burnings no longer exist. Instead a park or residential area now. At the train station, where once a library building was, a large movie theater has been erected.

We remained, and the words came to us. Strung together, layered and intertwined, like ourselves. We believe they are here with us. In our midst the books.

We could tell many stories.
To be stone on stone, and guard what is entrusted to us.

Translated by Monika Zobel