O1 An End in the Beginning
Mar 12, 1945- France
I just received two letters from you dated Feb 8 & Jan 10 and am always glad to hear from you. I’m glad that you enjoyed the magazines & Mien Kampf. I thought that you’d get a kick out of them. It isn’t very hard to get hold of a Nazi Bible, most every family was almost forced to purchase a copy. The one I sent was taken from a school house. We set up a C.P. in a small town and took over. There were many books and about ninety percent were recent publications in the true Nazi fashion- each pertaining to the manufacture of some product vital to the war machine.
The people are like the weather- just as soon as they know the Germans are out they start to defame them to us. What a business!!
I received several news paper clippings about the Fitzpatrick case but haven’t heard anything since. I was surprised to hear that you had to close the bath. I think that’s the first- at least in my time. Well the winter is over and lets hope the war will finish in the same manner.
Well John that’s about all there is for today but don’t worry I’ll write again soon.
We found the letter inside the 1938 Volksausgabe (People’s Edition) of Mein Kampf. There are three reasons books end up in a locked case or the Rare Book Room: price point, rarity, and size. The unofficial reason is booksellers cannot find a shelf on which it is appropriate to display a book. Not for personal reasons, but logistical ones. Shelving is not just about the alphabet, it’s about what a reader is searching for. This is why even the Great-and-Mighty Amazon opened brick and mortar stores. It’s about the search and those who are searching. It’s why Amazon is unsatisfying for booklovers. Don’t hate the truth, Bezos. (Bezos doesn’t care. He was never in it for the books, he was in it for the business. He is a successful business man. He’s a shit dragon.) Dragons are in it for the books, for the hoard, for their horde (if they have one). Hoards are organized for seekers. That’s how you know it’s a proper hoard.
Every dragon knows there are three dangers to their hoard; fire, water, and censorship. The last is the most dangerous. Censorship is fear of an idea. Ideas so dangerous we lock them away rather than address the fear. In 1933, the Nazi party organized book burnings through student unions. They raided university libraries. Nazi student groups marched thorough college towns with torches against “the un-German spirit.” On May 10, 1933, 25000 books were burned. When they ran out of libraries, they looted independent bookstores. It was the beginning. The ultimate dragon’s dilemma occurs when books with violent intent come into their hoard. Like the one in which we found the letter from Tommy to John. The letter that authenticates the tome’s provenance. The proof that makes the physical object rare. The reason a fellow dragon assigned a market price to it and sent it to be shelved in a locked room.
The ideas contained within were combined with power once. The ideas themselves are the expression of one man’s fear of his own impotence. A man who sought omnipotence. A fear fanned into an inferno of hate because he was placed on the throne of power. He blamed others, because that is easier than holding yourself accountable. Germany in the 1920’s was being held accountable for World War I. They were paying for the war. Many felt it cost too much. Hitler appealed to the reader’s own fear and inadequacy. It invited the reader to blame others and eschew personal responsibility. Over 600 pages of hate and blame. He wrote most of it while in semi-voluntary isolation in prison. It is a small man’s excuse. Those to whom it appealed, those who felt powerless and not in control, those who felt they should not have to pay so much, were welcomed into the ranks of the Nazi party. A community that absolved them of the sins in their heart, in the name of the Fatherland. Hail Hitler.
They were no longer isolated. They didn’t have to accept others, or their own debts. In fact, they shouldn’t. They were told they were not accountable. (Fascism Fact: Hitler incurred a tax debt of around 405,000 Reichmarks on sales of Mein Kampf by 1933. After he was elected Chancellor, he waived his own tax debt.) The blame lay with Others. Those Others are worth less by virtue of their birth. The Others are a drain on the economy. They are non-essential to Aryan Greatness. Anyone who says different is against you, against us. Through violence, you will rise to your rightful place among the elite. It was a powerful message. It is easier to hate than it is to love. It is certainly less work to take a life than it is to cohabitate with Others. They are not real Germans, they are Other. It is your duty to hate them, to force them out. To redact them from society. The Others read the book too. They saw it for what it was, a censored history, fuel for an apocalypse of aesthetic reasons. Sound familiar?
Hitler knew the power of censorship. He knew the power of propaganda. After Hitler’s death, the Bavarian government was given control of the publication rights. Bavaria was the site of Hitler’s failed military coup, his failure to launch. He was convicted of treason and wrote Mein Kampf while serving only 9 months of his five year sentence. For treason. Bavaria in agreement with the government in Germany, refused to allow copying or printing of the book in Germany. In 2016, the copyright expired and Mein Kampf returned to print in Germany. Helen Keller (in 1933) wrote in an open letter to German students, ‘You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.’ Ideas cannot be destroyed by flames.
Censorship allows us to blame others, to blame books, rather than hold ourselves accountable for the fear within our hearts. Censorship says we don’t trust others to accept responsibility. In isolation, we become accustomed to a single viewpoint, our own. We are in agreement with ourselves. In conversation with others, we long for agreement, for confirmation that our choice was right. That we are understood. Books inspire independent thought from a different viewpoint. When we disagree to the point of denying others the option of independent thought, because they may think differently, we become censors. Censorship isn’t the assassination of an idea, it’s the excising of independent thought. It’s control. It’s the power to control the message. Dragons know this. Censorship has no place in a hoard.
The book is not the problem. It is the absence of independent thought. In isolation, we watched people, in a position of power and control, deny life to a citizen. It took eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The police officers, sworn to protect and serve, murdered a man. They did it because our laws encourage them to fear. Our laws deny them independent thought. Our laws. American laws. Americans allow this. America allows police to murder. We ask them to. This is a fear many of us wish to hold ourselves accountable for. We want to change the laws, however our leaders decided they wanted to look away. They blamed others. They tried to silence us. They pointed to our sins. We marched in the streets, tagged a few buildings, risked our lives in a pandemic in hopes that they would listen. They sent soldiers. They sent guns. They sent violence to censor the citizens’ dissent. Like the citizens of Germany a hundred years ago, we are paying the price for the choices others made for us. It would be easy to give up. To give in. To get in line. To stand by? Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Have we lost it all? This is what censorship leads to. The absence of trust. The absence of freedom. The absence of independent thought. So it goes.
Dragons are fiercely independent thinkers. They love freedom. This is the reason there are so few collective hoards. It’s why there are only a few organized dragon hordes left. We’re a curmudgeonly lot, cantankerous at best, and extremely contrary. In short, we’re a nightmare for modern retail management. My horde suffered sudden hoard loss when the pandemic hit. We were curators of the largest collective book hoard in North America, possibly the world. Our hoard was located in a hodge-podge of a building that occupied a whole block. You can see it (if it still stands) located between 10th and 11th, Burnside and Couch (pronounced Koo-CH, that’s how you know which Portland to look in.) We had more than a million treasures on our retail shelves. Our horde was more than just dragons, we were mentors and we were warnings.
I joined this legendary horde in 2013. I’d been a dragon for nearly ten years at a mixed media hoard in Arizona. Managing dragons is never easy, it’s really difficult when there is no independent HR department. Dragons don’t do well in captivity. Mistakes were made. The hoard survived, my horde survived, and that’s really all a semi-domesticated, semi-pro dragon manager can hope for in these modern and increasingly hoard-less times. My personal hoard was greatly diminished but I survived. My reset brought me to the PNW. I was determined to leave the dragon life behind me. I took a job at a gear hoard. It was a co-operative gear hoard. They had a rigorous metric for adding hours to your schedule. It required a lot of Kool-aid. I was not that thirsty but I needed more hours. Once a dragon, always a dragon. You are what you are. I took a part-time, dragon-adjacent position in June. I avoided the buying counter. My horde-loss was too fresh. It was enough to work the hoard. Or so I told myself.
Less than a year in, I was working as an Operations Manager. The original dragon, MP himself, was hosting a film crew. They would be pulling the Lewis & Clark. THE Lewis and Clark. The first edition, 1814, with all the original maps. Out of the first edition print run of less than 1500, this was one of 6 extant copies in-tact, as published. It was 200 year old. A true survivor. The most expensive book in the hoard. I volunteered to be security. (Once a dragon, always a dragon.) It was at the door of the Rare Book Room, awaiting the tome’s arrival, that I met J. J was the current head of the Used Book Dragon horde. He was an old school dragon. You recognize your own kind. After the exchange of job titles I blurted out that I really wanted to be in his department. It was a personal moment of truth. An honesty I had been avoiding. Embarrassed at my sudden vulnerability, I hurried to my post in the room.
After the filming wrapped, MP & J called me over. You recognize your own kind. These legendary dragons were still just dragons. They let me collect a story from this bibliographic survivor. It was the first sentence in my chapter with the Horde. It was in that exact spot, at the desk in the Rare Book Room, that I stopped flames from spreading. The irony that I prevented Mein Kampf from burning, to keep censorship from entering my hoard was not lost on me.
Tension can be felt. It can be seen. It cannot be heard until it breaks. This is true in the City of Books as well. Things get silent as you approach a breaking. The Rare Book Room is a quiet yet anticipatory place. The air gathers in the lungs like a building monsoon. Dry and hopeful. It is a place where time travel is possible. A place where the dead speak to the living. Austen, James, Ausonius, Darwin, Erasmus, Le Guin, Northrup, Tolkien. Their voices are soft and sound like leaves. Dark wood and old leather flicker in lamplight. It is a place where the living become legends.
The pressure is ever-present in the room because it is in us, those who seek, those who come to find. It is often overwhelming. It takes years of special conditioning to work in a pressurized environment, even among beasts as fierce as dragons. You eventually adapt and become accustomed to it. You recognize the growing silence in others as they reach their breaking. You develop skills to release the tension in yourself and others. It sounds like tears, like rain finally returning to the dry creek-beds of our hearts. The tension changes us as we release it. Either we control it, or it controls us.
The Red Info employee described the man. “Dark hoodie, cargo pants, green backpack…camo. He had a stick lighter. He was clicking it. He asked for the RBR.” Their voice was low, discreet, tense. Their eyes screamed: Fire. In the Hoard! We were already on our way to the room when the phone at my hip rang. I heard the tension in K’s voice. She called me directly. Something was breaking. Our pace quickened. My mod partner swept the Pearl. Procedures.
He was standing at the desk. Dark hoodie, many pocketed pants, camo backpack on the floor at his feet. He was a veteran. Desert camo. The stick lighter was on the desk. K smiled past him at me. Her face released pressure. Her eyes screamed: Fire! In the Hoard. I moved towards the point of ignition. I engaged a man on fire in casual conversation. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is just ask and provide an opportunity for compliance. He looked at me, he looked into me as I requested he place the lighter in his backpack while he browsed. There was no tension in his face but I could feel the flames in his eyes. Hatred is a cold fire. It hardens us into a shield. It freezes our reason. It blinds us. The tension broke with the sound of the backpack zipper. A soft snicking dissipated the threat. Or so we thought.
K was a tough dragon. Her scales were diamond hard from her years in the Rare Book Room. She was a professional. With a nod from her, I stepped out to debrief my mod partner. There had been chatter on the radio. Though it is rarely actual fire, there is never only one fire at a time. (poundsign MODlife) We were needed elsewhere. A second dragon joined K in the room. It was busy.
The emergency page echoed through the tower. I was descending the Red stairs. The man on fire passed me on the Pearl stairs. K met me at the Pearl desk. She had a page in her hand. “He tore it out.” Her eyes told me she was not hurt. I turned to follow. He had waited. He looked at me with his flaming eyes. He screamed at me in silence. Then he screamed for real, “You all deserve to burn! Stay away from me!” His hatred had consumed him. He was already broken. There was nothing I could do or say that would ease his pain. I did not realized that I was still moving towards him. There was a hand on my shoulder. “He’s got a weapon, D.” He’s on fire, couldn’t they see that? He was pressurized beyond breaking. He came seeking release and I denied him. He had bear mace or some other easy-to-release pain under pressure. His words did not match the message in his eyes. His words said stay back, his eyes said help me. M’adiez. I am consumed by flames. I could not look away.
We watched him flee through Orange. He disappeared into the Pearl District. So he goes.
“The people are like the weather-” Tommy says. “just as soon as the Germans are out they start to defame them to us.” In 1944, France had been occupied by the Nazi regime for four years. An estimated 1.8 million French soldiers, approximately 10% of France’s adult male population, were held as prisoners of war in Germany. Four years of starvation and uncertainty. Four years without choice. Four years they watched the choices of others unmake their lives. Four years of waiting for leaders to help them. Four years resisting the flames hardening their hearts. Four years. For years. One of the leaders proposed an exchange. The prisoners could be freed in exchange for a laborer. If you surrendered to Germany, to work in their fields, to feed your oppressors (your invaders), your friend (neighbor, brother, father, uncle, lover) could be sent home. Only it wasn’t home. It was occupied by fascists. Tommy looked away.
He sent home a souvenir for the curious. “It isn’t very hard to get hold of a Nazi Bible, most every family was almost forced to purchase a copy.” The cost of Nazi Germany’s war, the Fatherland, Hitler’s campaign to make Germany great again, was being paid by the people of occupied France. They were paying for their oppression. They knew they were. The book “most every family was almost forced to purchase” told them their days were numbered. They knew they would soon be numbered. Physically, literally, reduced to a balance sheet based on their contribution, then by their birth. They were a population without trust. Four years without. Tommy looked away.
“The one I sent you was taken from a school house.” He looted a school house. A school house filled with books but no choice. Nazi books. Books for making weapons. Nazi weapons. Weapons for making Germany great. Where were the children? What would they learn in that school? What did they learn? What did Tommy learn? “I thought you’d get a kick out of them.” What a business, indeed.
Myself and five others saw the man being consumed by flames. They were flames we could not reach. We did not light the fire within him. He tore a page from the 1938 edition of Mien Kampf that Tommy sent to John sometime in the winter of 1944. Around the same time a 15 year old girl made a final entry in her diary. She would be dead by the time Tommy wrote to John about the business of war. The oddity of the traumatized. Those fickle survivors of fascism. Six people noticed a man on fire. Six out of thousands. Perhaps I was too hard on Tommy.
Even books feel tension. A single page removed from the whole is enough to break a book. When you destroy a single copy of a book, it is protest. When you burn all copies of a book, it is censorship. We spared the flame and were left with the taste of censorship. Tastes like ash. The tension didn’t come from the book. It had been building for years. A concept, so foreign to Tommy in March of 1945 he compared it to the changeableness of the weather, was on the rise in America. In Charlottesville Virginia, August 2017, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, and good ol’ fashioned American racists marched in a rally called “Unite the Right.” They carried Nazi flags side by side with confederate flags. The carried torches through the streets of a college town. A man from Ohio drove to Virginia to support them. He helped ‘unite the right’ by driving his car into peaceful counter-protesters. He murdered a woman for protesting hate and fascism. The President of the United States said he was good people. A month later, a man on fire tried to burn a copy of Mein Kampf in the Rare Book Room.
The ruined book sat on the table between dragons. “We could just damage it out. It is damaged.” It was sound logic.
“It’s a clean tear, it could be repaired.” All their eyes screamed. At what cost?
“I can’t put it in the case. That’s why it was in the back to begin with.” What would Ferlinghetti do?
“We shouldn’t have bought it. Lets remove it.” Censorship. Not that.
“We don’t buy based on content. New book buyers order it from publishers. There are ten new copies and seven used on the shelf in Red right now. If we remove this one from the RBR, refuse to sell it, to remove the choice from readers, then we might as well have let him burn it.” Can we be anti-Censorship and anti-Fascist? Fascists censor. We are not fascists. We are dragons. We’re survivors. I make the call. It is a high road with a terrible view. It’s uncommonly quiet for a room filled by dragons. “Repair it, adjust the price, and put it back in the closet.” He was right. I deserve to burn. I am close to breaking. M’adiez. I am consumed by flames.
“I get why he wanted to burn it but do you think he was aware of the irony?” Dragons are a strange lot. Tension released from the group but the general sense of foreboding persisted. Dragons are not stupid. History repeats when we look away. Fascism comes for facts and independent thought first. Alternative facts were introduced on day 2. We we’re sold out of 1984 for almost two weeks. Lies, Nazi flags, good people uniting the right with vehicular homicide. It had been nine months. We were already hoarse from screaming. We were weary. I had seen a man on fire and could do nothing to ease his pain. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
We’re we complicit? Have we trespassed against ourselves? I think about Judith Jones at her Doubleday desk in post-war Paris pulling a young girl’s diary out of the rejection pile. A girl born a German citizen four years after Mein Kampf was first published. She died “stateless” as a prisoner in a German concentration camp. A citizen without choice by design. She and her family hid from fascists for two years. During this time she dreamed of being an author. She lived her dream for two years. Fascism caught them in the winter of 1944. She and her sister made it to Bergen-Belsen. They died in February or March of 1945. Bergen-Belsen was liberated in April 1945. They almost made it.
What a business!! Indeed, Tommy. Indeed.