German-Jewish Literary Culture Returns from Exile

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Helen Whittle, July 15, 2011.

German Jews who fled Nazi persecution to what is now Israel took as many books as they could carry. But their descendants, many of whom don’t speak German, are left with cratefuls of heirlooms they can’t read. Now the Goethe Institute has started a project that sends the well-traveled books back to Germany as teaching materials for students.

When Berlin-born Jewish journalist Cheskel Zwi Kloetzel fled Nazi Germany in 1933, he was only able to take a small number of his most cherished books. Even after resettling in what was then British-administered Palestine, he remained deeply attached to the German literary culture in which he had immersed himself as a child. 

His daughter Cary Kloetzel, who today lives in Israel amongst the vast collection of classics Cheskel Zwi Kloetzel amassed until his death in 1951, has donated a selection of his books as part of a new project making German-Jewish history and the history of Israel more tangible for German schoolchildren learning about the Holocaust. “This project represents for me the extension of a living chain of history for future generations,” she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The birthplace of the new program, German cultural organization the Goethe Institute, also happens to be named after one of her father’s favorite authors, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The director of the institute’s Jerusalem branch, Simone Lenz, said that in recent years she has been inundated with people like Kloetzel, descendants of German-Jewish immigrants seeking a dignified place to donate their inherited German literature.

Unable to accept such donations because of a lack of suitable capacity, Lenz hatched the idea to send the books back to Germany, giving students the opportunity to hold an authentic piece of German-Jewish history in their hands. Calling the pilot project “Keine leichte Pakete” (”No Lightweight Packages”), she invited the families of four German-Jewish Israelis, including Kloetzel, to select five books from their private collections, some but not all of which were taken as keepsakes when their relatives fled Nazi Germany.

A Tangible Approach: … //

… A Strong Emotional Connection

To learn more about the stories of the original book owners, Caroline Jessen, a postgraduate literature student from the University of Bonn, lent her time to conduct hours of interviews with their relatives. Already researching the reading culture of German Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s for her dissertation, she helped write up detailed biographies of the donors for German schoolchildren to examine along with the books.

She discovered that those who fled to Palestine took as many books as they could carry, but as the exiled population of German-Jews grew in number, so did the demand for German literature. Whilst the Nazis were burning books by Jewish authors such as Theodor Lessing, Kurt Tucholsky and Sigmund Freud, the Jewish community was busily exporting these books and others to the exiles in Palestine who were eagerly awaiting the latest releases by their favorite authors.

Jessen said she was fascinated to learn about the streets in cities such as Tel Aviv which were home to up to five or six bookshops dealing in German literature, and sees the project as a fitting use of the books which would otherwise be gathering dust in Israel.

“The name of the project ‘No Lightweight Packages’ refers not only to the physical weight of the books but also to the burden of history they carry,” she said. “The donors have selected books to which there is a strong emotional connection in the family.”

‘Keeping History Alive’: … (full text).

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