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Dispatch: German Book Covers

Unexpected finds at a former Jewish orphanage in Berlin

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As I mentioned Wednesday, I’m in Berlin for the first time, living here for a month. Yesterday morning, while walking around a northern suburb called Pankow, I stumbled across what turned out to be a massive Jewish orphanage built in 1912. It had since been converted into a library.

I went inside to ask about the history of the building, which, unsurprisingly, was very spartan and sterile. As it goes, I couldn’t really communicate with the one person who seemed to know any of the history and the point seeming lost, I decided to continue on my way. However, just as I leaving a downpour that had been looming for most of the morning finally let out. I decide to wait it out and wander through the stacks. Eventually I came across (or perhaps sought out) a shelf of Philip Roth books.

As I went through them I was surprised by a few things. The first of which was that the covers were racier than the ones I’ve typically seen in libraries and bookstores in the States. Usually, you count on Roth books to come in a series where the covers look the same, that chunky block print, the single or double color backgrounds. Even the first editions seem to be slight riffs on the others. In the library, “The Breast” (Die Brust) had an illustration featured in a Playboy from the 80s on the cover.

“The Dying Animal” (Das sterbende Tier) had a Modigliani painting of a nude woman.

But what struck me most was “The Plot Against America,” whose cover was similar to the American version, except where the swastika provocatively was, there was instead an “X”. Given that the other covers had been so evocative or even coquettish (I’m sure some readers would argue that a book cover can be coquettish), the juxtaposition surprised me.

I’ve been here less than a week, but so far I’ve felt somewhat displaced from the history, the sort of inner knotting I expected after avoiding this particular country for so long. I didn’t feel it at many of the sites I’ve already visited and, if anything, the intensity of the security presence at places like the Neue Synagogue, the Leo Baeck House, and Adass Jisroel, evoked a kind of sensory deprivation from the latent nerves. The first moment where I really felt the resonance of the history here was during a rainstorm in a century-old Jewish orphanage when I found at an item that I expected to have a specific symbol, a symbol to which I’d been desensitized, and I saw an “X” instead.

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Display of the swastika is legally punishable in Germany.

Can you provide the address or some vague details about the whereabouts of this orphanage? Do they have information about the former orphanage, who used to live there, etc.? I ask because my grandfather lived at one and I’m trying to track down more info about it.

ExDC says:

The fact that the author did not know that the display of the swastika is a crime in Germany (which, yes, is the explanation for the cover of the German version of Roth’s book) is an interesting example of the gradual deterioration of knowledge and understanding of post-Holocaust reaction in the last half of the 20th century. The subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) are getting lost…

shirley nadell says:

I was also discouraged and did not` visit Berlin until a few years ago. Your article is welcome as it brought to mind memorable events such as the Memorial, the Museum and Judenstrasse….Please continue to post events while you are there. I do not believe I shall ever be able to return….

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Dispatch: German Book Covers

Unexpected finds at a former Jewish orphanage in Berlin

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