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.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.