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Washington Diarist

Over a perfectly prepared bowl of cholent, the coarse stew to which all Galicianer souls are superstitiously attached, I sat in the kosher restaurant in Munich last week, on the gleaming modernist island of the city’s new Jewish institutions, and read the correspondence between Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt, which has just been published in Germany. The radio played American oldies of the 1960s, in a pernicious attempt to make me feel at home. The situation was emotionally impossible, of course. It did not help that Thilo Sarrazin’s vile book, in which he deploys against Muslims in Germany the same argument that, from the eighteenth century onward, was deployed against Jews in Germany—they live apart, they have laws of their own, they do not integrate well—was flying out of the local bookstores. Some Germans are again mistaking alterity for a security threat. A day earlier I made my pilgrimage to the Glyptothek, which houses the single most erotic piece of stone I have ever seen, the ancient Greek statue of a languid satyr known as the Barberini Faun, and discovered again that flesh may envy the condition of marble; and when somehow I tore my eyes away from the imperishably beautiful man and stepped out into the Königsplatz, I found myself in the former epicenter of Nazism, on the plaza where in 1933 the books were burned, with the old headquarters of the Nazi Party still overlooking the square. Not for the first time I had the disagreeable experience of evil humiliating beauty. So I fled to the cholent and lost myself in Scholem, an old habit.

The letters begin where one would expect them to begin—with Walter Benjamin, his fate (Arendt sends the news of his suicide to Scholem from Montauban) and the fate of his manuscripts—and ends where one would expect them to end—with the rupture of their friendship over Eichmann in Jerusalem, which Scholem rightly despised. The friendship seems never to have been very warm. But there are hundreds of pages of letters about a common enterprise that more than once brought me to the brink of tears. In 1944, Arendt prepared a “Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis-Occupied Countries” for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, and in 1948 she became executive director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, for whom she went on an extended fact-finding mission in Europe in 1949 - 1950, searching for Jewish ceremonial objects and, mainly, for Jewish books. The new volume reproduces her “field reports.” She establishes that there are caches of Jewish books in Munich, Amberg, Neuburg, Nuernberg, and Wuerzburg. There are 1,239 books with the stamp of the Jewish community in the Munich Municipal Library. In Heidelberg, two hundred Jewish books “of more than ordinary interest” have been returned by the Municipal Library to Mr. Sprecher, the librarian of the local Jewish library. Fifty thousand Jewish books are in a printing shop in Poestneck, where the SS brought them. A huge depot of Jewish books, assembled by the Nazis, is in Offenbach, and some of it has been distributed to Jews in DP camps. In the old Jewish community building in the eastern sector of Berlin, there are between eight thousand and ten thousand Jewish books as well as many archives, and “at least 70 bound volumes of Ketuwoth [marriage contracts] from Amsterdam covering at least a period of 250 years or more.” “Considerable quantities of Judaica and Hebraica are now being offered through dealers from the eastern zones because of an acute lack of money.” In Worms, a certain Dr. Illert is refusing to relinquish some treasures, because “in his opinion, Worms will get some Jews back, if he only holds on to what he has.” Arendt writes to Scholem about her investigations. He writes back to her with his characteristic ferocity of purpose. It makes no sense to restore the books to localities that have no more Jews. He wants them to be allocated to the place where Jews will use them—to Jerusalem. “I herewith file the claim of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with regard to the material in France.” “I feel that the Bavarian archives should be allocated to the Hebrew University.” He cannot understand why Hermann Cohen’s library would be shipped anywhere else. He asks Arendt to send him the full list of the rare books at the huge depot in Wiesbaden. He insists upon the “priority rights” of the Hebrew University to “things which exist only in one copy,” and to archives that “are of general Jewish historical significance.” His goal is a living and self-respecting culture, which must be built on a foundation of books, and even manuscripts.

Jewish Cultural Reconstruction recovered 1.5 million Jewish books. What are 1.5 million recovered books, next to 6 million unrecovered people? It is a fair question, except that there was nothing petty or indecent about this bibliophilia. This was a campaign for the re-capture of a people’s dignity. Its objective was to affirm the sovereignty of the Jews over their own resources. The book-hunt in the ruins was based on a proper understanding of the historical role, and the spiritual power, of the books that were hunted. They are the edifices of the Jews. I hold my palaces in my hands. My cathedrals are on my shelves. One loves books because one loves life. Is it possible any longer to grasp that books once meant so much? Does anybody still weep for lost books? It is an illusion that digitalization has made culture less vulnerable: it has invented a new method of erasure. I can morbidly imagine a day when they come for the Kindles, and the only way to save a piece of a culture will be to print out a book and take the paper into hiding, until hell passes. The common enemy of Scholem and Arendt was oblivion. Oblivion comes in many forms. There is natural oblivion, the Ozymandian kind, the ordinary forgetfulness that secures the future against the disabling suspicion that everything has already been done; and there is unnatural oblivion, coerced oblivion, the apparently ineradicable desire to wipe some group or some culture from the face of the earth. A people that has suffered unnatural oblivion will find it hard to acquiesce in the natural sort, because it looks like disappearance by another name. It is said that the “memory” of the computer marks the end of oblivion. I think not: cyberspace, too, is a sinkhole. The only defense against oblivion is the human defense—the will to remember, to defy time, which must be nurtured with reasons. War is not the only circumstance that enjoins cultural reconstruction.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.