The Holocaust and the book

It has been estimated that approximately 100 million books were destroyed by the Nazis in Europe between the years of 1933 through 1945. Some historians argue that this period represents the most devastating literary holocaust of all time (Rose, 2001, p. 1). For European Jews, the destruction of texts was especially critical, as the book was the foundation of Jewish theology and culture. Often called “the people of the book,” Jews depended on texts for religious and academic study; the printed word was essential to Jewish identity. Throughout the Holocaust, books suffered fates similar to those of the European Jews: they were relocated, censored, and destroyed.


“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image;

but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.”

– John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)



Some of the most notorious Nazi actions against the written word were the book burnings of 1933. On 10 May 1933, German students organized the “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” in which they burned more than 25,000 books that were deemed “un-German” in an act of “literary cleansing.” From 10 May 1933 through 21 June 1933, books were burned at thirty universities around Germany. Those who planned the book burnings were conscious of the historical precedents, including Luther’s destruction of the papal bills. In fact, the students created and chanted their “Twelve Theses against the Un-German Spirit” at the rallies. At the time the book burnings were dismissed as student hijinks, but in hindsight, the destruction of texts was foreshadowing of the fate of the European Jews.

The images below show students at the 10 May 1933 book burning in Berlin.

Photo credit: USHMM / National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved from

Photo credit: USHMM Collection / National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved from

The banner in the photo above reads, “”German students march against the un-German spirit.”


The video below offers a glimpse into the fervor of the book burning ceremony.

Source: dizzo95. (2009, January 8). Nazi book burning rally. Retrieved from


The video of the speech can be viewed in its entirety here.


Transcript from Goebbels’s speech below:

In Berlin as in other university cities of Germany, “un-German” and immoral books were gathered and burned by students. The bonfire at Opernplatz in Berlin. Reich Minister Dr. Goebbels addresses the youth.

“My fellow students, German men and women, the era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The triumph of the German revolution has cleared a path for the German way; and the future German man will not just be a man of books, but also a man of character and it is to this end we want to educate you. To have at an early age the courage to peer directly into the pitiless eyes of life. To repudiate the fear of death in order to gain again the respect for death. That is the mission of the young and therefore you do well at this late hour to entrust to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past. It is a strong, great and symbolic undertaking, an undertaking, which shall prove to all the world that the intellectual basis of the November Republic is here overturned; but that from its ruins will arise victorious the lord of a new spirit.”

Source: USHMM. (n.d.). Book burning: Historical film footage. Retrieved from


Below: A cartoon illustrating the American response to the Nazi book burnings.

Photo credit: USHMM collection, NO8546. Retrieved from


The Nazis encouraged literature that promoted their ideology of romanticism, nationalism, social Darwinism, and anti-modernism. Texts promoting rationalism, materialism, pacifism, egalitarianism, and modernism were confiscated or destroyed. Authors were attacked and arrested and blacklists of condemned ideas, authors, and books were created and distributed by the Nazi regime. Jewish and leftist authors tried to protect themselves by preemptively burning their papers and libraries. Many authors and publishers emigrated to other countries due to constant harassment, but others were exiled, committed suicide, or were “relocated” to concentration camps. By 1937 Nazis had confiscated or liquidated all Jewish-owned or politically suspect publishing houses and there were only twenty-seven Jewish publishers left in Germany.



The Nazis viewed libraries as especially dangerous to Hitler’s ideology. Wolfgang Herrmann, a Nazi librarian, called lending libraries “literary bordellos,” proclaiming that they spread a “dangerous infection with their immoral, sexually explicit, and trashy books” (Hill, 2001, p. 14). Two Nazi agencies central to the theft and destruction of libraries during the Holocaust, Einsatzsabo Reichsleiter (ERR) and Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), plundered libraries in Germany, Poland, Amsterdam, Belgium, France, and the Soviet Union, confiscating novels, historical works, short stories, newspapers, and religious works from Jewish archives and relocating them to the Nazi’s “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question,” while destroying the rest. After the war, only a small fraction of the plundered books were salvaged from Germany.

Below: 18th century Hebrew texts recovered in Heidelberg, Germany after the war.

Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md. (NARA-111-SC-342901). Retrieved from



Many Jewish intellectuals risked their lives to rescue Jewish books and documents. In Vilna, the YIVO archives, too large for a single raid, became a Nazi processing center. The papir-brigade (Paper Brigade), a YIVO “work group,” used a variety of tactics to save books and documents from destruction, smuggling the texts into the Vilna Ghetto or hiding them with non-Jewish friends. However, this was very dangerous and only a small fraction of the archives actually survived the war.

In Poland, the most important holdings from the National Library in Warsaw were smuggled out of the country before German occupation. The Pelplin copy of a Gutenberg Bible, one of only nine in 15th century bindings, was sent to Canada for safekeeping. In 1959, the Bible returned to Warsaw to the rebuilt National Library.


Clandestine printing

Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, but clandestine presses continued to publish literature under Nazi rule. As Horowitz (2001) notes, “Besides the dual function of documentation and testimony, reading and writing were important for survival and communication” (p. 137). According to Perry (2001), nearly one thousand items were published in the Netherlands during German occupation (p. 108). Much of what was printed was intended to strengthen the spirit and morale of the Dutch people, but others were used as tools of the resistance. Dutch printing houses printed and distributed many different types of texts and images during Nazi occupation:

De Blauwe Schuit [The Blue Ship]

o   Designed and printed illustrated printlets

o   Used a complicated process that demanded multiple impressions and limited the editions of the work

o   Published works that documented the current struggle against oppression and works which linked current oppression with previous ones

In Agris Occupatis [In the Occupied Country]

o   Printed wallet-sized books of poems

De Bezige Bij [The Busy Bee]

o   Printed poems, stories, calendars, postcards, and caricatures that focused on the struggle for dignity and freedom versus oppression

o   Strongly tied to resistance

o   Printed both new Dutch literature and translations of foreign works


o   Printed armbands, newspapers

A.A. Balkema

o   Printed travel essays, short stories, novels, reprints, and poems

Vijf Pounden Press [Five Pound Press]

o   Named for the 2.5kg maximum paper weight allowed for unofficial printing

o   Printed satirical rhymes and reprints of international authors, including Dickinson, Kafka, Blake, etc.

Alexander Alphonse Marius Stols

o   Especially secretive; published fictitious imprints, issued incorrect publishing dates, and invented pseudonyms for fictitious printers

Mansarde Pers [Attic Press] (changed name to Final Stage Press in 1944)

o   Printed the works of Dutch poets with illustrations

o   Printed essays on paintings; included reproductions of images

Olmert (1992) notes, “Printers are perhaps more aware than the rest of us the inherent power and danger of books…When books cause trouble, the person who set the type and printed the sheet is often found just as culpable as the writer” (p. 136). Printing was difficult and dangerous due to Nazi edicts and restrictions, as well as shortages of materials. Printers used any means available to distribute their publications: brown wrapping paper and pages torn from other books when paper became difficult to find, printing presses were disassembled, moved, and reassembled to avoid discovery, errors were ignored if raids were imminent, and when thread and staples were limited, printers issued pamphlets or folded sheaves. Clandestine printers went to great lengths to continue to provide materials to strengthen the morale of the Dutch people and to advance the resistance.


Ghetto archives

While in the ghettos, some Jewish groups ran illegal presses and published illegal newspapers.

Below: The cover of an underground Yiddish newspaper, “Jugend Shtimme” (Voice of Youth). The writing on the bottom of the cover reads: “Fascism must be smashed.” Warsaw ghetto, Poland, January-February 1941.

Photo credit: USHMM / YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York. Retrieved from

Archivists in Warsaw, Vilna, Lodz, Lublin, and Bialystok hid materials in order to gather evidence of the persecution of the European Jews, but also to reaffirm a sense of community and pride.

The ghetto archives often included the following:

  • Diaries and memoirs, which provide internal perspectives, observations, and personal narratives
  • Literature from ghetto poets;
  • Printed appeals, reports, and letters from the ghetto underground press, some calling Jews to arms for resistance;
  • Ghetto newspapers, which were the only way of transmitting information;
  • Readings and writings from religious services and academic study taking place within the ghetto; and
  • Permits, newsletters, announcements, and phony identification cards.

Below: Books for sale in the Warsaw ghetto.

Photo credit: USHMM / Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Retrieved from

The best-known of these archives is that of the Warsaw ghetto, founded by historian Emanuel Ringelblum. Some of Ringelblum’s archive was recovered after the war and it provides an invaluable addition to the study of the Holocaust. Post-war Yizkor (memorial) books have been created to commemorate the dead and to memorialize the political, intellectual, artistic, professional, recreational, and spiritual organizations of European Jewish societies that were destroyed by the Nazis. Much of what is included in the Yizkor books (reproductions of diary entries, poems, false identification cards, newspaper clippings, etc.) came from ghetto archives.


The library in the Vilna ghetto

The fact that there were libraries in the various sealed ghettos further illustrates the importance of the written word to the Jewish people. In Vilna, the library provided the only means of escape for the inhabitants of the ghetto. Dina Abramowicz, an employee of the Vilna Ghetto Library, and Herman Kruk, the head of the Library, have both written about their experiences working in the library in the 1940s. According to Abramowicz (2001), there were several categories of readers: society ladies (who read sentimental novels), children (who read fantasy), and workers (who read about social issues) (p. 167-168). She notes the most popular books were Russian sentimental novels, children’s books (Around the World in Eighty Days, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer), How Steel was Hardened (popular with adolescents), The Wars of the Jews, and The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (both popular with workers) (Abramowicz, 2001, p. 167-8). Kruk (2001) states that the collection was difficult to maintain, as Germans plundered the library in September of 1941 and many patrons and materials would “disappear” (p. 192). He explains the need for the library as a way to escape and maintain a sense of normalcy, noting “A reader could thus tear himself away from his oppressive isolation and in his mind be reunited with his life, with his stolen freedom” (Kruk, 2001, p. 192). Kruk kept careful records of library activity, observing that it circulated 88,697 books from October 1941 through October 1942 (Kruk, 2001, p. 175).


Writing about the Holocaust: Memoirs

After the horrific events of the Nazi genocide many survivors were left in silence. There was much resistance to survivor testimony immediately after the war, both in America and abroad. In Europe, and especially in Germany, the population wanted to forget about the destruction of World War II and move on. They did not want to be reminded that they had participated in or been bystanders to atrocities. In America, the population was celebrating the defeat of the Axis powers. Americans were filled with feelings of victorious pride and were not ready to listen to the survivors of the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in America and some of the feelings of resentment and fear of “the other” carried over to the post-World War II era and influenced the reception of Holocaust memoirs following the war. Despite the unwelcomed reception, some survivors, like Elie Wiesel (in 1955) and Primo Levi (in 1947), wrote very soon after the war. They felt the need to share their experiences in order to prevent genocide from happening somewhere else. Others wrote later or not at all. Those who wrote immediately following the end of the war often had difficulty finding publishers who wanted to distribute their memoirs. Some publishers were reluctant to print such horrific stories immediately after the war. Later, publishers grew tired of reading survivors’ accounts; they had become old news. Joseph Horn describes the reaction of a representative of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee upon his arrival in the United States in 1947:

Her first question was about the brown manila envelope I clutched under my arm.“It’s a manuscript,” I said, “It describes my experiences in the concentration camps.”Her face went blank, and she gave me a dismissive motion with her arm. “Oh, another one of those.” (Horn, 1996, p. 9)

Survivors were often told to move forward, away from the past. They met with outward resistance from their audience, as well as resistance from within themselves.  Some survivors felt shame and guilt (for surviving when others did not) or embarrassment (for being thought of as a victim). Others struggled with the difficulty of incommunicability; there were no words to describe what they had experienced. Many struggled with a fear of disbelief from their audience. Nevertheless, many have chosen to write about their experiences.

Today, Holocaust memoirs are used as tools to assist in our understanding of the Holocaust. Wiesel’s Night and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl have become part of the American literary cannon. Though memoirs will undoubtedly always be subjective, their importance to our study of the Holocaust is indispensable. The individuality of every survivor’s unique experience adds to the goal of the dissolution of anonymity in numbers. In order to bring six million closer to a graspable number, we must examine individual experience. The fact that some Holocaust memoirs may be better written than others does not detract from the individuality of particular experience. Every survivor-author adds to our knowledge of the Holocaust, no matter how many awards his or her text receives. Because much of the physical evidence has been destroyed, first person narratives are often the most concrete verification of the crimes perpetrated against humanity during the Nazi genocide. Though the memoirs of survivors do not tell the complete story of the Holocaust, the gaps within them do not discredit the validity of their accounts. The contribution of Holocaust survivor memoirs is indispensable to the review of human history.


Writing about the Holocaust: Scholarly historical texts

Peter Novick (1999) notes that between the end of the war and the 1960s, the Holocaust scarcely makes an appearance in American public discourse (p. 103). There were only a few books that addressed the subject and few of those had a significant number of readers, including

  • Reitlinger’s The Final Solution (1953)
  • Poliakov’s Harvest of the Hate(1956)
  • Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960)
  • Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963)

Novick (1999) argues that the 1961 Eichmann trial, along with the controversies stemming from Arendt’s book “effectively broke fifteen years of near silence on the Holocaust in American public discourse” (p. 144). From the 1960s onward, the Holocaust has remained a significant part of the historical study of human history and thousands of texts have documented this study. Though it would be impossible to name all historical texts related to the Holocaust, the most comprehensive include, Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1967), Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War (1985), Leni Yahil’s The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945 (1990), and Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (1975).


Writing about the Holocaust: Denial

Beginning as early as the 1940s, there have been some who have claimed that the Nazi genocide never took place.  Of course the first true Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves, who disguised their evil deeds with euphemisms and lies. Denial ideology emerged in Europe as a continuation of the German denial during World War II, and reached America in the late 1950s, becoming widespread by the 1970s. Early denial texts include Arthur R. Butz’s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case of the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry (1976) and Journal of Historical Review, a quarterly created by the Institute for Historical Review in 1980 devoted to exposing “the myth of the six million” (Novick, 1999, p. 270)

Denial texts “explain” that there is no eyewitness testimony of the murders in the gas chambers, and argue that the charge of genocide cannot be proved. The real crimes, they argue, were committed by the Allies and the Jews, who were trying to take over the world. Those who deny the Holocaust often call themselves “historical revisionists,” which can seem to legitimize their arguments. Deniers operate under the guise of truth, and often misquote historians and falsify statistics in order to “prove” their theories. Because of this, one could possibly mistake their opinions as valid historical discourse, but as Deborah Lipstadt explains, their arguments are neither scholarly nor historically correct. She writes, “How can a group that did not witness what happened claim that the perpetrators are innocent while the perpetrators acknowledge their guilt?” (Lipstadt, 1993, p.22). Revisionist texts include Jürgen Graf’s The Giant With Feet of Clay: Raul Hilberg and his Standard Work on the ‘Holocaust,’ and Carlo Mattogno’s Auschwitz: The Case for Sanity: A Historical and Technical Study of Jean-Claude Pressac’s “Criminal Traces” and Robert Jan van Pelt’s “Convergence of Evidence,among others.

Denial and revisionism texts are not only abusive toward survivors; they are also an assault on humanity as a whole and a threat to human history. Though there is not a large following, one should not dismiss denial lightly. So-called “revisionist” texts should not be considered a part of scholarly historical discourse, for even the smallest hint of denial can lead to an unfair and unrealistic rewriting of history. From significant political figures like Pat Buchanan to lesser-known individuals like Hutton Gibson, denial has gradually spread throughout the world. According to Novick (1999), a 1993 public opinion poll reported that 22% of the American public doubted that the Holocaust had really occurred (p. 271).  It is the job of scholars, educators, historians, and more generally, the duty of responsible human beings, to ensure that Holocaust denial and so-called “revisionist” history does not enter the realm of scholarly historical discourse.



Since the end of World War II, historians have paid special attention to the genocide against the Jews, and there is great debate over its uniqueness. There is a paradox in the study of the Holocaust: though the genocide was particular to the conditions in Germany and almost exclusively targeted the Jews, the lesson to be learned from the atrocities is universal. The Holocaust is symbolic of what ordinary human beings can do to other human beings, and therefore represents a universal phenomenon. But despite its universality, there is also a particular aspect about the Nazi genocide that cannot be diluted. One cannot dismiss the Holocaust as simply another instance of human suffering. The calculated destruction of approximately one third of the world’s Jewish population cannot be equivocated with any other historical event.

It is the responsibility of all humans to be aware of the Nazi attack on humanity and to “never forget” the Holocaust. Though this stance has been repeated many times, it is necessary to stress its importance. The Holocaust was a particular series of events that happened at a particular time in a particular region. This does not mean, however, that an atrocity such as this could never happen again. Inasmuch as the Holocaust was unprecedented, it can also be repeated. In order to prevent atrocities like these from repeating themselves around the world, human beings have a responsibility to learn about the horrors of genocide and speak out against oppression. Folk singer Ritchie Havens once said that history moves in a circle. If this is the case, there is even more of a reason to fear a recurrence of atrocities like the Holocaust. One cannot dismiss the Holocaust as being too far removed from our reality, for no culture is immune to genocide. Humans must study and make sense of the past to ensure that history will not repeat itself.


Vox audita perit, littera scripta manet:

The spoken word passes away, the written word remains.

– First found in Caxton’s Mirrour of the World (1481)

There has been great debate among scholars and historians over the best way to comprehend the Holocaust. Though there have been other examples of genocide before and after the Holocaust, at no other time in human history has a genocide been so calculated and specific as the Nazi genocide against the Jews. One cannot dismiss the Holocaust as something too huge or too complicated to understand; however, the present American consciousness is not one of mass suffering, but rather one of prosperity and hope.  So, if this is the case, how can a non-survivor identify with those men and women who lived through and beyond the Holocaust? How can we possibly begin to comprehend what life was like for Jews in Europe from 1933 to 1945?

One of the best ways of understanding the Nazi genocide against the Jews is through the study of the printed texts and images of the Holocaust. Printed text and images have a profound influence on how we understand the atrocities of that took place in Europe from 1933-1945. The Nazis used printed propaganda to promote their anti-Semitic ideology, dominate their enemies, and turn ideas into actions. In fact, printed propaganda was an instrument that enabled the Holocaust to take place. Study of the many forms of printed propaganda (newspapers, posters, advertisements, books, etc.) and awareness of the history of anti-Semitism helps us to understand how the German public easily accepted Nazi ideology. Learning about the ways in which the press reported the atrocities of the Holocaust helps us to understand America’s role in the Holocaust. The Nazi genocide was not only an attack on European Jewry; it was also, as Primo Levi states, an assault on humanity. The study of the Holocaust is essential to the study of human history, not just the history of the Jews.

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