“The eagerness of destroying books and libraries has been executed by judges, lawyers, literate and uneducated people, rich and poor and priests of all gods. The peculiar book hatred has been growing in parallel with the desire for knowledge.” (The introduction to the disturbing exhibition on book burning at Casa de Sefarad, Cordoba, Spain.)
In 1817 Heinrich Heine witnessed young German nationalist students burn books in Wartburg and later wrote, “It was only the prelude, where they burn books, at the end they will also burn people.” In 1933 his books were among the thousands destroyed in the infamous Nazi book burning, which was the prelude to the Holocaust. Yet Adolph Hitler was far from the first leader to inspire biblioclasm – the pathological urge to destroy the written word and erase collective memory.
It’s appropriate that the small but exquisite Casa de Sefarad in Cordoba should mount such a disturbing exhibition. From the 8th through the 13th century Cordoba had been Western Europe’s most enlightened and advanced city. As the capital of an Al-Andalus Moorish kingdom it excelled in urban technology, the sciences, arts and religious tolerance.
Casa de Sefarad is the Jewish cultural center in Cordoba preserving the legacy of what was once a thriving Sephardic community protected by the Moorish state. Today the former Jewish Quarter is the heart of Cordoba’s UNESCO World Heritage District abutting the magnificent Mezquita Mosque. Islamic Al-Andalus generally tolerated all beliefs as long as they did not openly denounce Islam although individual rulers interpreted tolerance differently.
All that changed when Cordoba, and eventually all Al-Andalus kingdoms, fell to the feudal Christian lords from what is today the northern Spanish provinces between the 13th and 15th centuries. Fueled by doctrinal certainty, an ethnic cleansing of both people and thought commenced for the next three centuries. Eventually most of Spain’s Jews and Muslims were murdered, expelled from the country, migrated to the New World or granted protection in Morocco and the Ottoman Empire.
Yet intellectual and ethnic persecution has a long history, and Casa de Sefarad presents highlights in a chilling timeline within the walls of this former Jewish merchant family townhouse.
416 BC Athens: The great Greek philosopher and mathematician, Protagoras was condemned by the city of Athens. His book, “On the Gods,” and his belief that “Man is the measure of all things,” prompted his persecution. In 416 his works were burnt and he fled, unfortunately dying on his way to Sicily.
213 BC China: Li Si, Prime Minister for the Qin Dynasty, ordered the burning of all books by Confucius on the grounds that the philosopher favored individual thought preeminent over obeying the State.
170 BC: The Seleucid King Antiochus IV forbade the practice of Judaism. He commanded the destruction of all books in Jerusalem. This act motivated the Maccabean rebellion against the Hellenistic Syrian Kingdom (the festivity of Hanukah)
260 AD Athens: The Goths invaded Athens. One of their generals prevented the burning of the city’s libraries claiming that, “As long as the Greeks are slaves to reading they won’t be good at fighting.” Later the libraries were destroyed.
637 Syria: The library of Ctesiphon in present day Syria was burnt destroying thousands of ancient scientific works by Persians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Babylonians.
1233 Montpellier, France: The orthodox Jewish community reported the works of Maimonides to the Roman Inquisition. All the works of Maimonides, the towering intellect of Jewish Cordoba, were burnt in the main square of the city.
1530 Tetzcoco, Mexico: thousands of scholarly, literary and religious Aztec books were burned on the orders of Bishop Fray Juan de Zumarraga – founder of the University of Mexico.
1553 Rome: The Talmud was condemned as blasphemous. Thousands of Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori.
1600 Rome: the intellectual Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori. Giordano Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, and cosmological theorist who conceptually extended the then novel Copernican model.
1826 St. Petersburg: Tsar Nicholas I decreed the Law of Censorship consisting of 220 categories of banned topics.
1873 Washington DC: Congress past the Comstock Law defining obscene literature. Banned books included the Arabian Nights, the Decameron, Canterbury Tales, Lysistrata, and Moll Flanders.
1909 Rome: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) writer, poet and playwright was a promoter of the Futurist Movement. In his 1909 “Futurist Manifesto” he affirmed industrialization and technology as the engine of creativity and that, “we have to tear down the museums and libraries.” Marinetti became a favorite of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
10 May 1933 Nazi Book Burning, Berlin: Three days after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor, any book containing “inaccurate information” (aka “fake news”) was forbidden in Germany. With the assistance of the German Students Association and professors of the University of Berlin over 25,000 books were burned including the works of Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Voltaire, Einstein, Jack London, Marcel Proust, Maxim Gorky and Ernest Hemingway.
When Sigmund Freud heard that his books had been burned in the OpernPlatz his reaction was, “How has the world advanced! In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me instead.” Freud fled Austria in 1938 after that country’s union with Germany and died in London the following year escaping the Holocaust.
1961 Munich: The German state of Bavaria banned the broadcast of Aristophanes “Lysistrata” citing that its subject matter – wives withholding sex in order to force their men to stop war – “offends the moral sensibility of the population.” (Hitler started his rise to power in Bavaria).
1978 Buenos Aires: One million books printed by Argentina’s Latin American Publishing Center were burned by the military dictatorship.
Mid-1960s through early1970s China: the Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse-Tung saw the destruction of many libraries and institutions housing the priceless patrimony of over 5,000 years. As a young man Mao had worked as a librarian.
1992 Sarajevo: Literature professor Nicola Koljevic, Vice President of the short lived Republic of Srpska during the former Yugoslav civil war, ordered the fire bombing that destroyed the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The following day a Serbian sniper murdered Aida, a young librarian trying to save books that remained. The library has since been rebuilt but countless works by scholars from antiquity through the Ottoman Empire were lost.
2002 Ramallah: The Israeli Army inflicted massive damage on the library of Al-Bireh Ramla destroying thousands of Palestinian works of art, science and literature. It has since been rebuilt.
And yet not all was horror. There were windows of hope in this timeline.
1775 Leipzig: Goethe’s novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” was banned in Saxony for obscenity. It became an instant, and German literature’s first, bestseller.
1985 Cairo: A Lebanese edition of “The Arabian Nights” was declared obscene – 3,500 copies are burned. The ban was lifted a year later.
2012 Tumbuktu, Mali: Then biblioclasm comes full circle. An Islamic extremist militia attempted to find the collection of thousands of manuscripts on the history of Al-Andalus written by Moorish, Jewish and Christian scholars known as the Kati Collection. They failed since supporters had hid the collection.
How did this exhibit affect me? I lost it when I came upon the fate of Michael Servetus Villeneuve. Heinrich Heine had made a historical error in his comment; authors had already been burned for their writing. In Geneva, 1553, Free Thinker philosopher Michael Servetus Villeneuve was condemned by both Catholic and Protestant leaders including John Calvin. He was burnt to death on a pyre made from his own books.
The curator noticed my reaction and any attempt on my part to explain failed. I left Casa de Sefarad in a fruitless effort to compose myself. Returning I engaged in an emotional conversation with the curator on why, as a writer, I’ll live with this image the rest of my life. Censorship, the attempt to erase collective cultural memory, is the eighth deadly sin.
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