A letter from Hamburg

I’ve heard from the librarian in Hamburg who has my grandfathers books, all sorts of fascinating information much of which I didn’t know, a fair bit right back to my great grandfather who as also a rabbi. It’s very odd because there was so little from my fathers side of the family. Nothing made it over here when they fled after my grandfather was rescued from Buchenwald concentration camp as the Nazis didn’t let any of their possessions leave the country. I’m just grateful they managed to stay alive.

I’m not going to share much here. It feels too personal even though it’s ancient family history. It’s somehow fresh and visceral even though it’s 70 years on and happened way before I was born. Hard to explain. The one thing I will share is that the librarian said the books were given to them by the Gestapo as a ‘gift’ (his parentheses).

This picture I took earlier somehow seems apt, along with the name that came to me as I took it:

Lit by a different kind of fire


4 thoughts on “A letter from Hamburg

  1. The word ‘lit’ seems particularly significant to me, and is leading me off in different interesting directions. Obviously the sense of something being burned and destroyed is uppermost, harking to images of burning books and plumes of greasy smoke from distant chimneys. The burning of books and the burning of corpses is going to be forever linked since those days I suspect. The fact that your photograph shows a pile of logs makes that connection more complex for me, I’m thinking of these logs (this ‘fascis’ or bundle of sticks) as the once-living, now stacked patiently for disposal, although bizarrely a disposal which gives benefit to the living. A warmth comes from their departure. They are also the raw material for paper on which anything could be written; the cure for cancer, a love poem, a letter of pardon; but this paper will never be made because these will burn without ever becoming books, a short-circuit in the death cycle.

    They are also lit, as you say, by a different kind of fire, the one that’s 93 million miles away and around which we waltz endlessly like some minor aristocrat in fin de siecle Vienna. This lit is the lit of light though, not of heat, and suggests illumination not conflagration. Sometimes distance from the fire is all that’s needed to transform it from a negative into a positive. This open lightness is itself multivalent, carrying both suggestions of that bombardment of photons that brightens the world but also the removal of baggage and dropping of weight, the ‘lightening’ and the ‘lightning’. Heidegger slips between both these understanding in some of his writing, in which the ‘lichtung’ is described as what one finds when walking through a forest, perhaps the one from which these logs originated, and coming across a clearing. Here in this space there is a sense of ‘lichtung’; the flooding in of light from above, no longer occulted by the branches above, but also the feeling of lightness and airiness as the space opens up around us and we feel ourselves losing gravity as if a weight had been removed.

    In this forest birds flit from branch to branch, the braver ones swooping through the clearing and maybe the occasional buzzard looking down from high above this gap in the trees, waiting for rabbit or shrew to show itself in the light of the clearing. The life of these birds is like the life of thought, what William James described as a constant series of flights and perchings, one moment of consciousness leading on to the next, and we rest in that thought for a moment before swooping intuitively onward to light on another branch, another thought, another feeling. This is the the third ‘lit’ for me; a brief coming to rest on the branch of an impression, by a fire perhaps, captured by the allure of the flames and attracted by the promise of warmth and enlightenment. This photograph encourages us to light lightly on the cut branches of dead trees and give consideration to this place we have come to light, to light upon, and to be lit by. A place by the fire where our resting place is neatly stacked with the raw material of never-to-be-written literature, an unwrit lit that will soon be lit by a different kind of fire than the one that burns above or below or inside. This different fire burns in the hearth of a woman in England, she twists old papers into kindling and puts logs onto the fire with ash-streaked fingers, but this flame has a history. It was sparked into being at the beginning of everything and everything has come from that fire. It has burned in the hearts of suns from one end of the universe to the other and been in the guttering candle on the desks of Anselm and Kant. It has lit the cigarettes of teenagers coughing in bus shelters in Lancashire and the blue touch paper of a million fireworks. And now the fire is lit in the hearth of a woman in England because the nights are drawing in and the cold season is coming. Like all fire it can burn or comfort, inflame with passion or reduce to dead cinder, and coming to light at its side is a question of careful distancing. The shadow of tools falls across us.

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