Artist Memorializes Berlin Book Burnings

“EIse Lasker-Schueler was a renegade. She was a painter. She was a writer. She was an independent woman, proud to be Jewish at a time when it was difficult.”

Berlin-based artist and writer Sheryl Oring might have been talking about herself, though in fact she is talking about a predecessor from a much more dangerous time. In early May, Oring was scheduled to commemorate Lasker-Schueler and other persecuted writers of pre-war Germany with her large outdoor artwork entitled “Writer’s Block.”

Her installation comprises a sea of metal cages crammed with old manual typewriters. The sight of these antiquated machines behind bars is disturbing, particularly given their location—Bebelplatz, where 66 years ago, on May 10, 1933, the Nazis burned thousands of books by Jewish, communist and other authors. The exhibit was sure to touch an exposed nerve at a time when the city of Berlin has been severely shaken by the debate over how—or whether—to memorialize the Holocaust.

Oring began work on “Writer’s Block” three years ago, when she was a writer-in-residence at an artists’ colony in Southern California. Her rustic cabin had no electricity, so Oring wrote on a manual typewriter. “Over time, the typewriter came to symbolize freedom for me,” she reflected recently.

It was a period of transition for Oring, who was then separating from her husband and leaving a secure job at the San Francisco Chronicle for the uncertainty of the creative life. Oring, who grew up in North Dakota and is half Jewish—of Rumanian Jewish ancestry on her father’s side—studied German and German history in college. After moving to Berlin in 1997, she began collecting German typewriters of the 1920s and 1930s and conceiving of an installation that would protest censorship.

Bebelplatz is a mile away from the site of the proposed Holocaust memorial that has stirred much debate. “It’s an interesting time to do a project like this,” Oring said, “because there’s so much controversy in Berlin and in Germany about the role of history and whether they want their art and their culture to be looking backwards instead of forwards.”

Still, Oring received an outpouring of help from both public and private sources, from the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation in Berlin to Media Alliance in San Francisco. A German company offered to produce her Web site. The Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C., promised to buy four of her cages for the Newseum in Arlington, Virginia. When she put out a call for typewriters, the response was “amazing….Hundreds of people donated typewriters, including many older people who were witnesses to this time.” With this support, Oring hopes to take her cages on the road, to other cities throughout Germany where book burnings took place.

Oring takes a special interest in what happened to women writers who attracted Nazi attention, like Lasker-Schueler, who fled to Switzerland in 1933, and others like Rosa Luxemburg, Anna Seghers, Vicki Baum, and Nelly Sachs. A Jewish poet, Sachs fled with her mother to Stockholm in 1940; the rest of her family died in concentration camps. In 1966 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but, as Oring notes, “Sachs remains relatively obscure.” With the exception of Rosa Luxemberg, so do the others.

“Many of the men retained their status in the world of literature, while the women somehow lost the small gains they had made in the early 20th century,” she said. “Their words are mostly forgotten. I’m hoping that through this project I can somehow bring attention to these women, and maybe find a way to arouse interest in their words, their lives and histories.”