Exhibition in Pittsburgh Focuses on Book Burnings

"... Where one burns books, one soon burns people. ..."

By Mary Thomas
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | October 13, 2010

Monticello Book Burning, 1982

Reports last week of the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa invariably mentioned that 1,000 copies of his first novel, La Ciudad y Los Perros (The Time of the Hero), were burned by the Peruvian military, which found the book offensive.

A Florida pastor almost caused an international meltdown recently by threatening to burn copies of the Koran. In 1988 a fatwa declared by an Iranian cleric threatened the life of author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses.

Book burnings and denouncements are not a thing of the distant past, and that is one cautionary of the exhibition "Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings," which opens today at the American Jewish Museum, Squirrel Hill.

The show was organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C,, and at 7 p.m. Tuesday Tim Kaiser, the museum's director of educational resources and Wexner Center, will give a free talk, "Behind the Scenes: Background and Development of Fighting the Fires of Hate."

In 1933 German students, instigated by the Nazi party, infamously began burning books considered to be "Un-German." Among authors' works put to the fire were those by playwright Bertolt Brecht, writer and suffragist Helen Keller, author Ernest Hemingway, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and social philosopher Karl Marx.

Worse was, of course, to come, an atrocity presaged by 19th-century German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine who warned: "Where one burns books, one soon burns people."

By addressing American response to the book burnings, the exhibition points out how offensive such actions are to persons having democratic values. Powerful posters with fiery rhetoric like "The Nazis burned these books but free Americans can still read them" were created by the Office of War Information during World War II. Also exhibited are newsreel footage, video and archival documents.

Contemporary examples remind of the slippery slope that freedom of speech resides upon.

"What stands out for me, because this is an art museum, is how important expression and the freedom of expression is to everything I do. I never think of censorship," said AJM director Melissa Hiller,

Because the objects in the exhibition are black and white, from Europe and the 1930s and '40s, "it seems like such old history. And that's so not the case." Ms. Hiller said, adding that she regularly exhibits divergent viewpoints on religion, politics, even sexuality.

"Projects like this make visible issues that I have the privilege of not having to think about very often."

The exhibition continues through Dec. 31 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. Admission is free. Hours are 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, 1 to 7 p.m. Saturdays, and 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Information: 412-521-8011 or www.ushmm.org.


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