My German Books
I’m a Brooklyn Jew. It’s a particular ethnic category – however many generations of Eastern Europe, immigrant great grandparents who made it to Brooklyn and then three generations of not going anywhere. I finally made it across the river to Manhattan a few years back – but I am looking out at Brooklyn as I write this, just across the river.
We missed the holocaust – had pogroms, have very Polish-looking family with the light skin probably brought to us by rape – but my family was long here and Americanized before the era of the Nazis.
But Brooklyn, growing up in the 50s and 60’s – there was the occasional old lady with the numbers tattooed on her arm made visible as she reached past me in the supermarket. There were those weeks that I came home from school every day and turned on the television set and sat riveted to the Eichmann trial. The whiff of the gas chamber smoke somehow reached me, but as a very foreign thing.
I wrote my first book about birth and midwifery and got caught up in that world. Enough midwifery conferences and I saw the growth of prenatal testing, how pregnancies became ‘tentative,’ wanted, planned but not fully embraced until the test results were in. I saw the costs of that to women, and wrote my second book. People kinda sniffed, looked away, said I was nuts when I’d talk about eugenic practices involved in prenatal testing and selective abortion to prevent the birth of a child with Down Syndrome. Turns out – I don’t think I knew this when I wrote the book but learned it from Ruth Hubbard some years later – children under the age of three with Down Syndrome were the first people the Nazis used their gas on.
I got invited to Germany. My mother didn’t want me to go, or if I had to, pack every lunch, do not spend a penny. I got to the airport in Munich and the cab driver chatted in rough English en route to the hotel, asking what I was doing there. I said it was academic, he pressed, I said I’d studied something called ‘amniocentesis.’ “Oh, that’s eugenical right?” Eugenical! Why yes it is. I found an intellectual home and audience in Germany – was invited back, books translated, one book that is actually only in German, various essays translated and adapted a bit for my German audience.
Eventually a trip brought me to Berlin — I guess I had the usual surprise that the city was in color after all those Black and White newsreel images. I found a city of memorials. Wherever you went, another memorial. I wanted a tourist brochure because my kids were coming to visit – turns out the hotel that had that info used to be the site of Eichmann’s headquarters. I found Gleis 17, the slightly suburban, city-edge station where the Jews were crammed into those trains and sent East. The track edges have brass curbstones, each marked with the day and the number of Jews sent out. I went there with my friend and colleague Eileen Moran, who stopped at one point and in genuine rage said “Those Bastards!” Why yes, yes Eileen they were. “No, she said, no – look at this! They took a break for Christmas!” Berlin is unending memorials, plaques and statues and markers to the murdered. There are ‘stumble-stones,’ little brass cobblestones interrupting the cement, marked with the names and dates of the people removed from that spot, that doorway, that corner.
You get numb. You look down and recognize a name as familiar, not your ‘Emanual Rothman’ but another one, not your ‘Daniel Katz’ but someone else’s. I got numb anyway, just started ignoring it all.
And then a walk over to the law school, the place where they burnt the books. There’s a plaza and no obvious marking. But walk around, and you come upon a big glass window set into the ground, looking down into a basement. An empty room, lined with empty bookshelves. No! the books too? Yes I know they killed all the people – but the books? The books!
I could go and buy a copy of every single book they burned. You can’t actually destroy books as easily as you can people. But I stood there crying, crying for the books, for the attempt to destroy not only bodies but the thing we create and leave, our legacy, our meaning. The books. They burnt the books.
Barbara Katz Rothman is Professor of Sociology, Public Health, Disability Studies and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her most recent book is A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization (New York University Press, 2016)
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Scott James Remnant and is of the monument to the book burning that took place at the Bebelplatz in Nazi Germany.