By Eleanor Linafelt
The Nazis held their first book burning on May 10, 1933, destroying texts they deemed “un-German,” including those by Jewish, liberal and leftist authors.
Eighty-eight years later, Philadelphia politicians, community leaders and students marked the anniversary of the event by reading and distributing texts that were on the Nazi banned list, as well as those by contemporary authors fighting racism and antisemitism today.
The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, Friends Select School and The Philadelphia Citizen co-hosted the “History is an Open Book” event at the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City. The celebration of literature and education promoted freedom of expression and uplifted historically marginalized people.
PHRF Executive Director Eszter Kutas opened the event by providing a brief history of the Nazi book burnings, which she argued were one of the lesser-known starting points of the Holocaust.
Kutas then told the story of Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Jewish physician and sexologist whose work that supported LGBTQ people was destroyed in the book burnings.
“He was a Jewish man but, most importantly, he was an advocate for others. This story shows us how loss was not singular to the Jewish community and the Holocaust was not singular to the Jewish community either,” Kutas said.
“His legacy demonstrates how marginalized communities can help one another.”
The PHRF organized “History is an Open Book” with that principle in mind.
“Our foundation has broadened our mission to concentrate not only on the Holocaust, but to make those lessons relevant to our society today,” Kutas said. “We are giving a nod to our historic past but also concentrating on those people who are fighting the right fight today.”
Middle and high school students from Friends Select, a Quaker pre-K-12 school in Center City, read throughout the event. The PHRF wanted to include students to educate them on this piece of history, and acknowledge the fact that university students participated in the book burnings.
“Students are going to play a critical role in making sure that our society is heading in the right direction,” Kutas said. “The example of the Nazi youth is a historical warning.”
This was the first year that the event was held, and multiple speakers acknowledged its relevance to today’s political climate.
Shira Goodman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia, who also read at the event, noted that over the past several years there have been spikes in antisemitism and increases in white supremacist activity in the region.
“It’s important to come together in ways that counter those forces,” she said. “We can do that by reading these words and giving out these books.”
Others who read and spoke at the event were Larry Platt, editor and co-founder of The Philadelphia Citizen; City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart; Councilpersons Derek Green, Allan Domb and Jamie Gauthier; and Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell.
Rhynhart prefaced her reading from Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book “Caste” with a reflection on how its description of the unspoken racial caste system in the United States resonated with her as a Jewish woman. She explained how Nazi Germany looked to the racist systems of the U.S. for inspiration.
“How disgusting is that?” Rhynhart said. “We need to understand the darkness and racism in the history of our country in order to fully break it down.”
The event concluded with a giveaway of books, including “Caste,” as well other texts that combat racism, antisemitism and bigotry, such as “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “Malala’s Magic Pencil” by Malala Yousafzai.
Kutas hoped that the readings and giveaway informed attendees about the book burnings and encouraged them to continue to resist intolerance and oppression.
“Our goal is to deepen people’s historical understanding, but also to have them walk away with a sense of how important it is to stand up for what is right so that we can live in a more tolerant society,” she said.
Eleanor Linafelt is a freelance writer.