“Everybody Who Was Forbidden”: A Jewish Teenager’s Favorite Banned Books in Nazi Germany

Kate Stewart
Sep 23 · 11 min read

At age 87, Ruth Rappaport was interviewed in her home for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history program. She was dying of lung cancer, but her memory was still good, and she had a lot to say about the years she was was a Jewish child growing up in Nazi Germany.

Ruth Rappaport as a teenager in Germany

Ruth had grown up in Leipzig, Germany, a renowned city of books. Since the seventeenth century, Leipzig had hosted an annual international book fair. By 1930, Leipzig had 436 publishing houses, 277 printers, and 69 bookstores, and one in ten residents worked in the book industry.

She lived in a neighborhood called the Graphics Quarter, which was the center of publishing in the city. During the 1930s, there were thirty-nine publishers or other businesses in the book industry located within three blocks of Ruth’s childhood home. In her large apartment complex at the corner of Salomonstrasse and Kreuzstrasse, there were seven publishers or bookstore owners working out of their homes.

An interactive map of publishers in the Graphics Quarter of Leipzig

Growing up in this area influenced Ruth’s interest in books and intellectual pursuits. She remembered:

“There used to be a very famous German encyclopedia called Brockhaus... and the Brockhaus family lived across the street from us. Leipzig, of course, was a publishing city, and very few people know that, but not pocketbooks, but paperbacks, quality paperbacks, were published in Leipzig long before the names were coined, because we had these publishing houses in Leipzig. And boy, I had a whole collection of English novels by the time I was ten years old.”

Gail Schwartz, Ruth’s interviewer, asked her, “What were some of your favorite authors?” Ruth replied,

“All the forbidden… everybody who was forbidden. Lion Feuchtwanger, Max Brod, Leon Trotsky. And actually, what we did was we passed around the paperbacks. We read them, and as we finished reading, we tore up the pages and destroyed them. So we wouldn’t get caught.”

The “we” she was referring to included the members of her Zionist youth group, the Habonim. These teenagers debated Zionism, the rise of fascism, and encouraged each other to get out of Germany as soon as possible. They also built a network to trade banned books they had access to.

Ruth also kept several diaries as a teenager, that were later donated to the USHMM’s archives. In one of them, she wrote more about reading banned authors around this same time:

“By 13, I had already read Trotsky, Maxim Gorky, Traven, Remarque, Sholem Asch. At 12 and 13, I was very knowledgeable and involved with socialism and communism. I questioned if there is a God and thought about the effects of industrialization.”

Who were these authors? Why were they banned in Nazi Germany? Why would a thirteen-year-old girl seek out these forbidden books at great risk to herself, her family, and friends? These authors and books made a profound impression on Ruth. She would never forget what she learned from them, and the act of reading them would affect the rest of her life and career. In honor of Banned Books Week, here are a few of Ruth Rappaport’s favorite forbidden titles and what they meant to her:

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

It’s a high school classic around the world now, but All Quiet o the Western Front was first published as a serial in a newspaper in Germany in 1928, when Ruth was five years old. The original title in German was Westen nichts Neues or In the West Nothing New. It became an instant hit due to its controversial story of young men disillusioned and traumatized by the horrors of war.

This novel, loosely based on Remarque’s own experiences as a German soldier in World War I, is considered one of the first widely popular anti-war novels. Ruth’s father, Mendel Rappaport, was a Romanian immigrant who had served in World War I with the Austro-Hungarian military in the forestry service. He would have told her his own stories of his army days, and she would associate this book with what happened in his life before she was born.

Hitler blamed the defeat of Germany in World War I on its Jewish population and soldiers, whom he defamed as weak communists. The message of the book — that war was pointless and Germans should be skeptical of political propaganda, no matter the party — enraged him. When the movie version of All Quiet on the Western Front was released in Berlin in 1930, Joseph Goebbels (the future Propaganda Minister) and the brownshirts attacked the movie theater. Shortly after the Nazis took power in 1933, the book was banned in Germany. But considering it had been an international bestseller for years, it was impossible to confiscate every copy of this book. Teenagers like Ruth would not have had a hard time finding it, but they wouldn’t have read it in public.

Many years later, when Ruth became a librarian for the U.S. military, she built libraries for troops in Vietnam for eight years of that war in the 1960s. She spent a considerable amount of her time at work ordering books for these soldiers, and she thought deep and hard about what they would want to read during their time there. All Quiet on the Western Front, along with many other novels and memoirs of war, was always at the top of her list of books to order. It was shipped in the thousands of packages of books she sent out to units and it was stocked at every library.

The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

Lion Feuchtwanger was a German-Jewish novelist and playwright who bravely began to critique fascism and the Nazi party long before they officially took power. Feuchtwanger was also a World War I veteran who was disillusioned with war. He had earned a PhD in literature years before the war, and wrote a few plays and historical novels before writing his most important book, The Oppermanns, published in 1933.

It’s the story of the Oppermann family, well-to-do German Jews who owned a furniture factory. They are comfortable with their lives and blind to the rise of fascism in their country until they lose their home and business. Feuchtwanger’s character Gustav Oppermann is exiled, imprisoned in a concentration camp, and then dies of his injuries. Feuchtwanger had already left Germany and was living in France in 1932, but he too would be imprisoned in France before escaping to the U.S.

When Ruth read The Oppermanns, the Nazi Party had probably been in power for less than three years, and it had been one of the first books banned. There was already significant violence against Jews and new discriminatory laws, but many remained willfully ignorant about the dangers. This is how Ruth remembered her father later:

“My father was totally unrealistic. ‘Hitler’s going to last six months, and the Germans will know when to bargain.’ God almighty! I mean, never mind. When I remember, I still get angry. Because there was no excuse for being that much of an ostrich!”

This book was a roadmap for Ruth: it showed her that she could only ignore the rising tide of anti-Semitism at her own peril. She knew she had to take action, and that was exactly what she did two years later after Kristallnacht, when she ran away from her mother on a trip to Switzerland, refusing to go back to Germany.

Paganism-Christianity-Judaism: A Confession of Faith by Max Brod

Today, Max Brod is largely remembered as the friend of Franz Kafka who saved his papers from his directive that they be destroyed. But in his time, Brod was also a widely-read and influential Czech writer, who addressed Jewish history and culture in his novels and criticism. He was part of the Prague Circle with Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke, a group of intellectuals who met in cafes and debated philosophy, modernism, religion, and literature.

Brod’s Paganism-Christianity-Judaism: A Confession of Faith was published in 1921 and explores the difference in these three religions. In the book, Brod confesses his return to the Jewish faith from secularism and contrasts Judaism’s central tenets of taking action in an unjust world to the more Monastic, hermetic approach of Christianity. The book was widely read in the 1920s and many Jews reconsidered their relationship to their faith due to Brod’s influence.

Ruth’s family belonged to a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Leipzig led by the famous rabbi Ephraim Carlebach. But at ten years old, she realized she was an atheist. Like Brod, she would join the Zionist movement, and eventually move to Palestine to make Aliyah. But while Brod would live in Israel for the rest of his life, Ruth would spend two turbulent years there, 1948–1949, that left her disillusioned with Zionism.

When she was a teenager growing up under anti-Semitism in Germany, Ruth struggled to make sense of what it meant to be a Jew. Her parents, rabbi, teachers at her Jewish school, her friends in her Zionist youth groups, and the media all gave her conflicting messages. Ruth also used popular books on Judaism at the time, all of them banned, to understand what role her faith should play in her life. Brod’s Paganism-Christianity-Judaism was no doubt one of the most influential to her of these.

My Life by Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky published so much, it is difficult to gauge which of his works would have influenced Ruth the most. My guess is that it was his autobiography, My Life, first published in 1929. It blended his Marxist theories with the stories of his life, starting with childhood, leading the Russian Revolution, and his exile from Russia and the Communist Party. He had written the book while living in Turkey.

Ruth’s parents were solidly middle-class Jews in Leipzig. Both of them had immigrated from Eastern Europe to take advantage of Germany’s growing economy before World War I. Her father was a furrier and her uncle Leo Rubinstein had made a small fortune trading metals in Leipzig (her mother’s cousin was Helen Rubinstein, the famous makeup mogul). Ruth constantly thought about her bourgeois status and whether it would change in the future.

She agonized about what path her life should take: should she go to Palestine and join a kibbutz, living a meager, proletarian life? Or should she aim to go to the United States, and follow her two uncles there into a life of success in business, which she knew might be dull and vapid? As she tried to shape her world view by reading about economics, capitalism, and socialism, books like My Life and other works by Trotsky made a big impression on her.

The Death Ship by B. Traven

B. Traven was a mysterious, anonymous writer from Germany who spent most of his life after 1924 writing novels in Mexico. Hi identity is one of the great mysteries of 20th century literature. He may have been Ret Marut, an actor and anarchist, although there is evidence pointing to other writers as possibilities. His most famous work is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Traven’s book The Death Ship was published in Germany in 1926. It’s the story of an American sailor who does not have a passport or papers documenting his identity. He bounces from country to country, getting kicked out of each until he ends up on a ship with other undocumented sailors who are enslaved. This book struck a nerve with Europeans, especially, Jews, who faced statelessness and uncertainty as nations intensely debated who was a citizen and who was a foreigner.

Ruth lived out the trauma of statelessness during her teenage years and would have identified with the sailor, Gerard Gales, in this novel. She was born in Germany, but because her father was from Romania, she was not considered a German citizen and had to carry a Romanian passport. Getting a visa to go live with her uncles in Seattle was a years-long mess that involved applications, visits, and payments to multiple consulates and embassies in Berlin, Leipzig, Zurich, and Amsterdam. She would gain American citizenship in 1945 in Seattle but it wasn’t much of a comfort to her. Her entire life, she would be classified as an immigrant, an outsider, no matter where she lived.

When asked in her oral history interview if she felt like she was “very German,” Ruth responded, “Hell no. I never felt German. I was a Romanian.” But she explained that she didn’t “feel Romanian” either: “I mean . . . sort of between and betwixt. I had a passport from a country I barely knew. I lived in a country where I didn’t have a passport . . . I was just kind of floating.”

The Mother by Sholom Asch

Sholom Asch was a prolific Polish-Jewish writer who published in Yiddish. He is best known for his controversial Yiddish play God of Vengeance, which told the story of a brothel owner’s attempts to reform his life. The play ran for months in Berlin. It was also performed in the United States, when Asch lived there for much of the 1920s, although its actors were arrested for obscenity.

His novel, The Mother, was released in Germany in 1927. It is the story of a struggling immigrant Jewish family in New York. When Ruth read this book, she was deep into the process of applying for her visa to come to the United States. She was unsure what her life would be like there, that is, if she made it there at all. The Mother would have helped her envision what her new American life could be like, and what struggles she would undoubtedly go through as she adjusted to a new world.

After Ruth left Germany at age 15, she would continue to read books that would change her life and make a huge impact on her. She spent considerable time in the Zurich Public Library while she was a foster child in Switzerland for a year, looking for ways to pass the time since she was banned from attending public school there. She wrote that she found “a whole world of ideas” at that library. In Seattle, she finished high school and struggled to learn English. The work of the Jewish poet Rachel Bluwstein was an inspiration to her, and she turned to these poems when she felt lonely and misunderstood.

At age 18 in the U.S., she wrote in her diary that she would like to become a “libraryan” some day. It took her another seventeen years, but eventually, Ruth would achieve that dream. She would work as a librarian for 34 years, making sure in no matter what library she was working in, anyone who came into it would be able to read whatever they wanted.

Kate Stewart

Written by

Archivist, librarian, historian. Author of A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves, and Legacy of Ruth Rappaport (Little A). https://kate-stewart.com/