Israeli Sculptor Gives Rare Tour of His Book-burning Memorial in Berlin

Micha Ullman allowed a small group of artists and one journalist to enter the subterranean monument and hear what inspired it.

"Empty Library" Memorial in Berlin.
"Empty Library" Memorial in Berlin. Ofer Aderet

The tourists who gathered one rainy day in May around the Empty Library Memorial in Bebelplatz in the heart of Berlin, paid no attention to the man with the graying hair and blue coat standing beside them.

The guide told them in French that on May 10, 1933, the Nazis burned some 20,000 books by Jews, Communists and pacifists in this square. He pointed to the glass plate set into the cobbles, through which they could see an underground room lined with empty bookshelves. This is the special monument created by sculptor Micha Ullman, Israel Prize laureate, in 1995, to commemorate the event’s 60th anniversary.

Had they known the man with the blue coat was Ullman, perhaps the tourists would have asked him a few questions or wanted to take a photo with him.

“You can see the emptiness and the silence. Those are the two important materials the monument is made of,” Ullman, 75, told a small group of young artists from all over the world, guests of Berlin’s Academy of the Arts.

They came to meet him as part of a workshop organized by one of them — Ron Segal, a 34-year-old writer and filmmaker from Israel. At Segal’s request, Ullman agreed for the first time to give a tour inside the subterranean monument, which is usually closed to the public.

Before we went underground Ullman, in another exceptional act, agreed to interpret his own work. “When I look at the glass I see the sky’s reflection. In Berlin’s case – there are usually clouds too. As far as I’m concerned, they’re like smoke. So the books in the library are burning almost every day,” he said.

In contrast, the fact that the library is empty is the triumph over the fire. “The emptiness is an anti-fire substance. The library is not burning. Ideas and thoughts cannot be burned,” he said. “The library, like the clouds, is hovering in an infinite environment.

“I didn’t know how people would react when it was completed. But what happened here is a miracle. People loved it from the beginning. After a few years it entered the tour guides and since then groups have been coming here incessantly. They come to see something that almost doesn’t exist,” he says.

Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman at his "Empty Library" Memorial in Berlin. Photo by Ofer Aderet

Two days earlier, on the book burning anniversary, someone had laid flower wreathes there. “I was surprised to find it functions as a memorial monument, as well,” he says.

The way to the monument passes through a large underground parking lot. Ullman had objected to the city’s sale of the area around the monument to entrepreneurs. Because of the construction of the parking lot the monument is no longer a sole empty space in a big square.

“We waged a quixotic battle against big money and modern urbanization,” Ullman says. “I enlisted politicians and the media, but in the end we lost. I was in deep crisis and almost demanded to destroy the monument, because in art there’s no compromise. If only I had the courage.”

"Empty Library" Memorial in Berlin. Photo by Ofer Aderet

But then something happened to change his mind. He found solace in accepting the thought that the parking lot was a continuation of the monument itself. “A parking lot is like a library, books come and go, like cars,” he says.

In the middle of the parking lot there’s a metal door. “This is the access to the inaccessible,” says a maintenance man, holding a key, like a character in a Kafkaesque story. Twice a year a special team arrives to clean the empty shelves and change the light bulbs illuminating the monument from inside. “It would be better if they came three times a year,” says Ullman.

“The contract says twice,” says the German maintenance man.

Ullman likes it when visitors to the monument ask him if the underground library is a real space. Down below, after the door opens, it transpires that the space is real indeed.

Outside we return to the glass plate through which the monument is reflected. Only now does Ullman disclose what inspired this work, perhaps his most important one.

“I have a storeroom in my head with fragments of things. I’ve had images of pits since the early 70s. In 1980 I visited the Beit Guvrin area. I went to the tunnels and Columbarium Cave. In 1991 I visited Buchenwald and Birkenau. It was all lying in the storeroom and finally it connected,” he says. The final thing required to turn the thoughts into art is the connection to the Bible, reveals Ullman.

All the pieces ultimately came together in the mid-90s, in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, where he set up the monument. “I saw the busy environment around the square, the reflection of the sky in the puddles, their conflagration and the silence. Silence like the siren on Holocaust Day, which tries to deal with inconceivable dimensions,” he says.