Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Friends Chosen for Exile

"From among my books all of Balzac, Anatole France, Victor Hugo, André Malraux, and Romain Rolland had to be laid aside to send out of Germany. All of Norman Angell, Walter Lippman, Sinclair Lewis, Spinoza, Maxim Gorky, and Edna St. Vincent Millay must be relinquished. To the growing heap I must add the poems of Heinrich Heine; Thomas Mann's A Man and His Dog; a score of Mendelssohn's Elijah; and lastly, Lessing's drama, Nathan der Weise.

          I worked quietly, feeling bereft. Before leaving France I had selected carefully when preparing the boxes of books which were to follow me. A gypsy can carry but a limited library. There were my friends, chosen for my exile. Choking back self-pity, I was silent until I came to Nathan der Weise.


          To part with that slim volume seemed more that I could bear without protest. It is a favorite of mine—one of the stories I like best of all the stories men have told.


          ...I laid my banned books into a box, fitting them so that their corners couldn't get broken, putting my favorite in a snug place...


         The servant of National Socialism brought a hammer and new nails, shining as silver, with which he fastened on the lid of the box that must leave the Reich. His steady, relentless blows shook me as if they closed a coffin, their fall beating a funeral dirge for the Germany whose matchless beauty Madame de Staël heralded in De l'Allemagne.


          Is that Germany dead? Or does she lie as Snow White in a trance from eating a poisoned apple?"


~Nora Waln, excerpt, Reaching for the Stars


  Here's another excerpt from the book I'm reading.  Waln lived in Germany from 1934 until 1938, and at this point in the story, when the books she had shipped from France are picked over and weeded out so that they may not enter Germany, it's still only about 1934 or 1935. Waln notes that this black list she's handed of her own books constitute "...that [which] a person wishing to read for culture might use... in purchasing a library, if life had kept him too preoccupied to acquire the necessary education to make his own selection." Interestingly, her collection of books from Asia made the cut: "The works of the liberal Persian poets and the pacifist Chinese political philosophers were not on [the 'black list']. Even German, French, and English translations of their books were allowed to come in."
   It's very obvious that Waln likes the Germans. She writes "I had found in Germany a people of whom I can write unconditionally that they are the most generously kind, the quickest to sympathy, of any people I have yet known..." She was raised a Quaker and she points out, "that in the name 'Friend' the people called Quaker have an ideal set before them..." Perhaps it is this religious background that informs her tone, but in tale after tale of friends being imprisoned, free speech being stifled, and books being banned, Waln manages to still humanize the people around her, to make them eminently likeable.
   I'm fascinated by the things she relates and the way they are all taken in stride by everyone around her. Most of the Germans seem to shrug and say, well, it's for the best. Sure, some raise warning flags, under hushed tones, but are quick to say that they must be careful about what they say lest they be arrested. The question that looms in my mind is how can a people become so subjugated that they quietly (and willingly) accept these sorts of intrusions upon their liberties. It makes me realize how little I know about this period in history. My best guess is that World War I really destroyed the German people in a terrible way, so that when Hitler came into power, they saw not a monster, but a bright ray of hope. How desperate must a people be to submit to such terror!

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

I FWD'd this to majestic uncle ensemplasm.