Writer’s Block: Remembering the book-burning

Monday, April 19, 1999

Writer's Block ...
Writer’s Block exhibit.

A few months after the Nazis had taken power in Germany, young people carrying torches marched into a square on Unter den Linden across from the University of Berlin. More than 40,000 people had gathered in the square, known today as Bebelplatz. Vendors worked the crowd, hawking chocolates, bonbons, cigarettes and sausages. Military bands played. Joseph Goebbels, minister of popular enlightenment and propaganda, spoke.

The festive atmosphere aside, it was an eerily evil event.

The purpose of the gathering was to set ablaze thousands of books written by scientists, philosophers, political theorists and poets — the works of nearly 200 authors in all, most of them Jewish. There is no way to count the potential contributions that were snuffed out.

Among the authors whose works went up in flames that night were Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and foreign writers such as Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, H.G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, Sigmund Freud, Andre Gide, Emile Zola and Marcel Proust. Goebbels labled them as “degenerates and racial undesirables.”

That was the beginning. A succession of these book bonfires followed. They scorched the souls of community after community in the Nazi empire. Seven decades later, the memory of those flames devouring those words still sear the civilized mind.

Sheryl Oring, an American artist living in Berlin, has devised a special way of remembering and marking such calumny. On May 10, the 66th anniversary of that original book-burning, she will open a remarkable artistic installation in Bebelplatz. It has been years in preparation and has engaged the attention of people around the globe.

Oring says the installation addresses the question: “What can one create today on the site where so many creative works were once destroyed?”

The installation is called Writer’s Block. It consists of a number of metal cages placed about the Bebelplatz. Inside each cage will be 25 antique typewriters. In addition, there will be a dance performance choreographed by Sommer Ulrickson and music composed by Ari Benjamin Meyers.

It will take “an army” of people to mount the installation beginning the night before. Then it will all come down the following day in preparation for an international tour.

Why typewriters in cages?

It makes perfect sense once you know something about Sheryl Oring and how she arrived in this place at this time.

In a recent interview while on a tour collecting funds and typewriters in the United States, Oring discussed Writer’s Block and how it came to be. She seldom strays from practiced lines about the project, but the passion and enthusiasm are anything but rehearsed.

She spent her early life in Grand Forks, N.D., and graduated from journalism school in 1987. After working as a reporter and editor for several California newspapers, she became an artist in residence at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Southern California in 1997. There was no electricity at the colony, so Oring got an old Olympia manual typewriter. The more she wrote on the typewriter, the more attached she got to it.

“The tap-tap-tapping of the keys suggests rhythms my computer never did,” she recalls. “The typewriter became the tool with which new thoughts and ideas took shape. For me, typewriters had become the ultimate symbol of freedom.”

Later that year, she traveled to Berlin on an Arthur F. Burns fellowship. As she wandered among the shops in Berlin, she was struck by the number of vintage typewriters. “I started seeing typewriters everywhere — flea markets and second-hand stores. Everywhere.” Then she discovered that a friend had all sorts of typewriters stored in his basement. In her mind, the idea was forming that these typewriters had grown silent and needed to speak again.

She was plenty busy with other things: reporting for U.S. publications, creating art work that would be shown in the United States, Germany, France and Spain. But those typewriters were never far from her thoughts.

Several times, she found herself at the center of Bebelplatz, where a window looks down into the replica of a library where there are no books on the shelves. As she contemplated this memorial installation by artist Micha Ullman, the plans for another installation formed: Writer’s Block.

Since then, Sheryl Oring has scoured Germany and the United States for typewriters and support. The project has captured the imagination of many. Support has come from artists and authors, friends and family, interested individuals, foundations and businesses. A retired television cameraman in Miami who witnessed a book-burning as a child in Vienna volunteered to conduct a typewriter-collection drive. A computer firm in Romania offered discounts on computers for anyone contributing an old typewriter.

As Oring has worked on the installation, she has stored the thousands of typewriters in her studio and the basements of friends and colleagues, whose attitude about the project amazes her. “Art is important in Berlin. People take it very seriously. It’s a value.”

Writer’s Block has purposes beyond reminding us all of what happened on Bebelplatz nearly seven decades ago, she says. She also wants it to draw attention “to Jewish writers who lost their place in history in the chaos of destruction and war.” She wants it to challenge “the literary, artistic and journalistic censorship that existed in many Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold war and that continues to this day in countries ranging from China to Iran.” And she wants it to serve “as a reminder of books that are still being banned in countries about the world.”

“What I see in the cages — it’s about book-burning, it’s about censorship, it’s about journalists who have been killed in their work.”

Also, it is about a special kind of respect and reverence for those who lived through the book-burning era. As she said upon unveiling the Writer’s Block project in Berlin:

“These witnesses to history are slowly dying. The world is losing its direct contact with the war generation and they are the ones who can help us understand what happened. They are also the people I would most like to see Writer’s Block — in Berlin, but also in other parts of the world as part of a traveling installation that speaks to the flames of yesterday, as well as to the jails and bullets still encountered by courageous writers around the world today.”

What’s next for Sheryl Oring? After the Writer’s Block tour, she plans to create “a visual tribute” to each of the authors whose books were burned, in the form of post cards, stamps, photographs and other objects from that era.

“In some ways, I think I’m getting into something I’ll never get away from.”