The May 1933 book burning in Berlin is remembered by many as one of the key events of the early days of Nazi Germany. It is tempting to view the symbolic moment as foretelling of what was to follow during 12 years of Nazi rule; its significance amplified by Heinrich Heine’s famous quote, proclaimed more than 100 years earlier.
Though the book burning at the Opernplatz was not an isolated event, it is likely that a person with a heightened sense of historical awareness would have recognized its symbolism and significance. Such a person was indeed present at the book burning – a publisher by the name of Rubin Mass.
The name may ring a bell for those of you who are familiar with Hebrew books, as the publishing house established by Mass still exists today in Israel, its books still appearing on the shelves of bookstores across the country. Rubin Mass Publishers and Booksellers is one of the oldest publishing houses still operating in Israel, founded by Mass in Berlin back in 1927. In his shop in Germany, customers could find Hebrew newspapers, books and practically any item printed in Hebrew and published in Israel, Poland, the United States and elsewhere.
After arriving in Mandatory Palestine in 1933, Mass became well-known for other reasons; he was among the first Jews to settle in Talbiya, a Jerusalem neighborhood then mostly populated by Arabs. His son, Daniel Mass, was the commander of the famous “Convoy of 35” (Lamed He) and was killed in the notorious battle on the road to Gush Etzion during Israel’s War of Independence. Following his loss, Rubin Mass served as the chairman of Yad LaBanim (Israel’s commemoration organization for fallen soldiers) and was particularly active in commemorating those who died in battle.
It is therefore no surprise that a man who had earned his living since the age of 21 by dealing in books would truly comprehend the significance of the unbearable event. That is precisely why Mass made a point of going to watch the massive burning which was publicized in advance through the Nazi party’s various propaganda platforms. When the flames that lit up the skies of Berlin died out, Mass approached the charred remains of the 20,000 books that had been thrown into the bonfire; he retrieved two half-burnt leaves of paper from the pile, a total of four pages, from a book written in German – historic remnants, literally snatched from the fire.
As mentioned above, Mass made Aliyah later in 1933. It seems he understood the status of Jews in Germany would soon greatly deteriorate, and that the Nazis would not be satisfied with the annihilation of books. When he moved to Israel, Mass deposited the pages for safekeeping at the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel). Rubin Mass indeed possessed a heightened sense of historical awareness. The pages were kept in an envelope, on which Abraham Yaari, then the director of the Library archives, wrote: “Delivered by Mr. Rubin Mass, who pulled them from the fire with his own hands”.
As the years went by, the pages remained in the archives. The Library only began to keep a record of its archives around the same time as their arrival. Thus, the pages ended up in a collection with the curious title, ‘Miscellaneous Items’, along with various writings and items that did not quite fit in with the Library’s existing collections. To this day, the scorched pages remain somewhat of a mystery. Over the years, the Library’s top experts and researchers have attempted to decipher which book the pages belonged to and so far a final conclusion remains elusive. It appears that the book was dedicated to psychoanalysis or sexual education – subjects that were considered “Jewish” by the Nazis and worthy of being cast into the fire. Still, we do not have an exact identification of the book that was destroyed over 86 years ago in central Berlin. Perhaps you, our readers, might have a clue?
Update: We have received many suggestions regarding the book’s identity. It is highly likely that this was a copy of Sexualpathologie, written by the Jewish German physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld was a world pioneer in sexual research and among the first to advocate for LGBT rights. He founded the Institute of Sexology in Berlin, which was the source of the majority of books burned by the Nazis on the infamous night of the 10th of May, 1933. Please comment below and offer your thoughts.
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