UnBanning Books Since 1934

Dee Bowers

You might have heard of our recent initiative Books UnBanned, which allows individuals ages 13-21 nationwide to apply for a free BPL eCard, providing access to our full eBook collection as well as our learning databases, and which makes a selection of frequently challenged and banned eBook & audiobook titles always available for BPL cardholders. But obviously, banning books and restricting access to information is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. Did you know that in 1934, the Brooklyn Jewish Center founded the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books? Though it's little-remembered today, the initiative was championed by such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair, and was celebrated nationwide.

Black and white photo of the Brooklyn Jewish Center in 1922
SWEL_0388, Brooklyn Jewish Center, 1922, black and white silver gelatin print. Photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, BCMS.0002. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History. 

The Brooklyn Jewish Center was founded after World War I by a group of prominent Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. The Center's stately building at 667 Eastern Parkway housed a synagogue, lavish ballroom, day school, swimming pool, health club, an extensive adult education program, and at one point even a kosher restaurant. This type of facility might sound familiar, since Jewish Community Centers, or JCCS, are now common across the US. But at the time, the Brooklyn Jewish Center was, according to Rabbi Nosson Blumes, "the first all-encompassing Jewish center in America," and the original model for all of the JCCs that were to follow. The idea was to create "not just a synagogue, but...a community," and provide a place for "everything in Jewish life," as Blumes noted in his interview for our Brooklyn Jewish History Project. And the Center was certainly successful in that goal for several decades after its founding: in his interview, former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz described his memories of the Center from his Crown Heights childhood as "a must go-to place" and "certainly the center of [Jewish] life in Brooklyn." That was the institution that created a safe haven for persecuted ideas in the 1930s.

Illustration of Nazi book burnings contrasted with the library at the Brooklyn Jewish Center
"Purged in Germany, books objectionable to the Nazis are enshrined at the Brooklyn Jewish Center." Illustration by Vincent A. Svoboda. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 7, 1948, page 27.

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.

Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.

-Heinrich Heine, 1821

In May 1933, Germany's Nazi regime ran rampant through the nation's libraries, universities, and book stores, removing "un-German" books and in some cases burning them publicly. The most infamous book burning incident took place on May 10, 1933 in Berlin's Opera Square. It was a spectacle that shocked and horrified the world, including the membership of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Almost one year later, in April 1934, the Center's publication The Brooklyn Jewish Center Review announced their library of Nazi-banned books.

Masthead and headline for the April 1934 issue of the Brooklyn Jewish Center review
The Brooklyn Jewish Center Review, April 1934. Available via the Internet Archive.

The following month the Review's front page was also dedicated to the library, in a long article commemorating and condemning the book burnings, and touting the new library: "Such a library is destined to rise to conspicuous significance. It will serve the cause of intellect and literary freedom; emphasize man's duty to protect honest fame; help expose the vicious doctrines and acts of the Nazi Government; and make available the banned books in a readily accessible collection." By September, the Center had organized an advisory board for the library which included the above-mentioned intellectual luminaries along with many other prominent voices. In an article that month which quotes several board members praising the enterprise, the Review states: "The launching of the project and the organization of the Advisory Board is only the beginning of the work of proving, in a most emphatic manner, that together with France and England, America, too, abhors the German assault on world culture." In December, the Center formally launched the library at a dinner in honor of Einstein, which was widely covered in Brooklyn newspapers.

Headline and article from the Brooklyn Times Union
"Einstein Hailed on Anniversary of Book Burning," The Brooklyn Times Union, December 23, 1934, p. 3.

At the dinner, the Center's leader, Rabbi Dr. Israel H. Levinthal, gave a rousing speech in which he referenced a story from the Talmud when God exhorted his people to choose either the book or the sword. Nazi Germany, he claimed, had chosen the sword, while American Jews had chosen the book. "They prefer fire, destruction, symbols of death!" he asserted. "We take our stand on the side of thought, feelings, ideals,--symbols of Life!" (these remarks were published in the January 1935 issue of the Review). The Jewish Examiner praised the library in similar terms: "By thus affording shelter to the banned books Jewry gives the world a welcome reassurance of the truth which Nazis have yet to learn": "that libraries may be burnt but books cannot be destroyed because they are the bearers of ideas which are deathless." Meanwhile, they dismissed the Nazi book bannings as "modern medievalism."

Black and white photo of Rabbi Dr. I. Levinthal
Detail of Rabbi Levinthal in CLUB_044, Awarded scrolls, 1951, black and white silver gelatin print. Photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, BCMS.0002. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History. 

By the outbreak of World War II, the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books had amassed about 500 titles of books banned by the Nazis, available in a dedicated section of the Brooklyn Jewish Center library. Soon thereafter was the tenth anniversary of the May 10, 1933 book burning in Berlin. A number of commemorative events happened across the US, including a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broadcast by the New York Public Radio and including the quote that was memorialized in the Office of of War Information poster shown below:

Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.

Color poster with quote from FDR "Books cannot be killed by fire"
S. Broder, "Books Cannot Be Killed by Fire" poster, 1942, offset photomechanical color poster on paper. The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, gift of Robert and Francisca Kan, 2006.6.119.

This example demonstrates what Nikola Van Merveldt wrote in a 2007 article on the Center's banned books library for Library Trends: "By transcending linguistic, religious, and racial boundaries, the Library of Nazi-Banned Books and the activities linked to it truly symbolized democratic American values." Van Mervledt further illustrates this point by quoting from an essay published in The Brooklyn Jewish Center Review in March 1935 and written by an anonymous Black man: “if we all fight together, not with weapons but with the privilege of every citizen, then, and only then can we blot this awful blur [sic] on history’s records. Voting, keeping active in our political circles, being conscious of what’s happening around us, these are our weapons. Arm yourselves immediately—-Make right the wrong done.”

These powerful words still resonate for Brooklynites today, and illustrate the ways in which, as Van Merveldt writes, "In times of war, revolution, and social change, books and libraries gain a symbolic dimension precisely because their physical existence is threatened. As symbols or counter-symbols, they can act as a powerful force to shape identity and create community even under adverse circumstances...they represent communities and symbolize values in need of defense." On the other hand, she continues, "the symbolic use of books and libraries as ideological weapons makes them vulnerable," which is why the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books "slowly receded into oblivion," as did, in some ways, the Brooklyn Jewish Center itself. Though the Center still stands, and operates as a school and community center under the auspices of the Chabad-Lubavitch Movement and the Oholei Torah Yeshiva, the demographics of Crown Heights have changed drastically in the decades since its founding, and it is no longer the internationally known community center it once was. The library of banned books was transferred to the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1970s. Nonetheless, its legacy lives on in efforts like Books UnBanned and countless other initiatives standing up against intellectual oppression.

Denise Newbolt

I have started to read The Librarian of Burned Books, so I discovered this revealing site as part of my background research. This book and site are an inspirational focus for me while I am watching legislation being pushed forward in our county to bring fear-based censorship to our schools and public libraries. I have served as a school media specialist in Kentucky for over 40 years, and I have never seen any censorship push like the one happening now.
Sun, Feb 26 2023 1:59 am Permalink
Roberta Livingstone

In reply to by Denise Newbolt

I was trying to decide whether or not to download that very same book. Having reviewed the information on the website I have decided to purchase the book. I have heard on the news that areas in the US were banning books. Maybe Brooklyn will have to rescue those books now. Sad that we don't learn that banning books is a bad thing.
Sat, Dec 30 2023 7:05 pm Permalink

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