For Banned Books Week (Sept. 18-24), I want to share the experiences of my mother and her parents who lived in Berlin as the Nazis came to power. The quotations below from my mother shine a light on the intellectual darkness that soon enveloped Germany. 

“On the night of May 10, 1933, book-burning began in a square in front of Berlin University. Works by Sigmund Freud, Berthold Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kästner, Thomas Mann, Arthur Schnitzler, Max Brod, Scholem Asch, Klaus Mann, Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, Emil Ludwig, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Ernst Weichert, Carl Zuckmayer, and others who had written against the Third Reich. Works of these authors were not allowed to leave Germany; they were of course a large part of our library and we decided to smuggle them out.”

In October, 1938 my grandfather, an acclaimed neurosurgeon, traveled to America on a visitor’s visa seeking work. One month later, Berlin was devastated by the horrors of Kristallnacht, a violent Nazi attack on synagogues and shops owned by Jews. My mother and grandmother prepared to leave Germany as soon as my grandfather could send for them. 

“When the time came to pack all the books, a high-ranking member of the Gestapo was posted to our apartment to supervise. He immediately fell in love with our Bechstein grand piano and very politely asked my mother if he could play it. She said, “of course” and he remained in the music room for days, never checking a single book.”

My grandmother mixed the banned books in with children’s books; one of the men wrapping them remarked, “the little one reads a lot.” Each night, the packed books were locked up to prevent the addition of contraband. 

The books, along with the piano, traversed the Atlantic safely, as did my mother and grandmother, arriving in New York in February 1940 for a long-awaited reunion with my grandfather, their courageous smuggling mercifully undetected. 

Learn more about banned books:

American Library Association page about Banned Books Week advocacy

Videos from the American Library Association

‘The Fiery History of Banned Books’ (PBS)