The Librarian of Burned Books
by Brianna Labuskes
“Good morning,” Hannah called in German as she pushed through the door of the Library of Burned Books at 65 boulevard Arago three days after the incident in front of the violin shop.
The library was nestled into a far corner of Montparnasse, an area on the left bank of the Seine, but despite the off-the- beaten-track location, it served a fair amount of people every day. Three different patrons glanced up to return her greeting.
Hannah warmed at the sight of them, their mere presence an antidote to the hatred she so often saw on display. Many of the philosophers, thinkers, students, and readers who were drawn to the library were Jewish exiles, and she felt a kinship with them now that had never been particularly strong back in Berlin.
Her parents had been fairly secular, leaning toward the Reform Judaism movement that had originated in their country. Her family had observed Shabbat, attended services at the temple, and upheld the ethical tenets of the faith, but they placed less emphasis on Jewish laws and personal rituals than did the more conservative strands of the faith.
That had always suited Hannah, who had never been able to completely reconcile who she was—who she loved—with any religion that condemned her lifestyle.
But her time in Paris and with the library was starting to shift her views. Just this past month, with many in her newfound community, she had celebrated Rosh Hashanah, had fasted on Yom Kippur, had been reminded during Sukkot of the long history that bound them all together—the story of a people forced into exile, persecuted, and still always able to find the light.
Some of the library’s board were strictly practicing, some of the workers wore the Star of David on a necklace beneath their blouses, and while Hannah wasn’t about to join them, she found it beautiful that her sense of belonging in the Jewish community had been strengthened rather than diminished in the face of so much hatred from the rest of the world.
As Hannah settled in behind the desk for the start of her shift, the bell above the door rang. Otto Koch stumbled in, newspaper clutched in his hands, and Hannah tried not to sigh at the boy.
Though boy was perhaps the wrong descriptor for Otto. Like her, he had reached his late twenties now, a man by most societies’ definitions of one. But Hannah would always think of him as the sweet schoolmate who talked too fast, too earnestly, and skinned his knees every other step he took. Even now he tripped twice more while crossing the small space to the counter. “Hannah.”
It was just an exhale, his face flushed. He rested most of his weight on the solid wood as he panted.
“Do you need water?” she asked, eyeing the sweat beading at his hairline.
“No,” he gasped out, more breath than sound.
“Let me guess,” Hannah asked as she flipped open the cover of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Despite the fact that Hesse had been fairly apolitical at the time of the great exile of German writers, the Nazis had taken issue with Hesse’s connection to those who had been outspoken. And so he’d earned his place in the library. “One of your beloved American authors is giving a talk in Paris.”
“I wish,” Otto said, his eyes big and round.
“One of these days, I’m going to get you to read some books by women, and you’ll get over this infatuation,” Hannah chided, but without any heat.
“My love burns eternal.” Otto sighed dramatically, draping himself across the counter now, seemingly back in control of his lungs.
“What has you in this state?” Hannah asked, moving toward the shelves, knowing Otto would follow dutifully behind her. She slotted a pamphlet by a noted Nazi philosopher next to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. When Hannah had first started working at the library, she’d recoiled at the sight of the red cover. But the library’s founder, Alfred Kantorowicz, had insisted that any books and documents that helped inform their readers about Hitlerism and fascism were worth their place in the stacks. Knowledge was power. And if more people outside Germany read Hitler’s manifesto, he’d said, they wouldn’t be so eager to appease the madman.
“There’s to be a book exposition,” Otto said now, trailing in Hannah’s wake, pulling novels slightly off the shelf as he went, a cat unable not to tug and shift and ruin if he could get his fingers on something. “It’s to be held on the boulevard Saint-Germain and the Nazis are going to be there, showing off their best literature.”
A memory of a sweet, round face, freckles, and a shy smile crept from behind Hannah’s carefully constructed defenses. A pouty mouth and a quick wit. Impossibly thick hair that begged for fingers to be tangled in it.
An ache settled in the soft spaces of her body, no longer unbearable, but quiet and insistent, a reminder that Hannah had been broken.
“There is no such thing as good Nazi literature,” Hannah said, managing to keep her voice even and tart. She hated that she’d now thought of Althea twice in only a handful of days. My love burns eternal, Otto had said. But Hannah was the practical one out of their little pair and she didn’t work like that. The only thing that burned eternal for her were grudges and bridges.
“Doesn’t matter, they’re going to be showing off,” Otto countered. “We need to fight back.”
Hannah paused in front of the section for Ernest Hemingway, a man whom many in her Parisian literary circle had been close friends with. For the first time since Otto had burst through the door, she gave him her full attention. “What are you talking about?”
Otto slumped against the shelf, his eyes dark and baleful. “You never listen to me.”
The sheer petulant disgruntlement of the statement made Hannah smirk. She and Otto had grown up together on the wealthy outskirts of Berlin. Their families had been close, which meant that they’d been pushed together since birth, first as playmates and then as potential somethings. As Hannah had never been able to look at Otto as anything other than a brother—with Otto returning the sentiment—they’d disappointed their parents dearly.
But they had become inseparable anyway, in defiance of every expectation that said two people of the opposite sex couldn’t be friends. Hannah thought it might have to do with the fact that neither of them was particularly attracted to members of the opposite sex, but she didn’t belabor the point.
Now, she ruffled the hair that she knew took him hours to fix just right. He tried to bat her hand away, but she’d already moved on.
When she rounded the corner with one of Helen Keller’s books already in her hand, Otto stopped her, curling his fingers around her wrist. “I’m serious, Hannah.”
Otto fell in and out of love with every cause out there. He was always serious about something. But his eyes were steady, his mouth set in a straight, thin line.
“All right,” she said. “What exactly do you propose we do?”
“We come up with a brilliant plan to humiliate them while they’re here,” Otto said in a conspiratorial whisper, and Hannah tried not to roll her eyes again. “Over wine?”
Hannah checked the grandfather clock in the corner. “I’m done at five.”
“Our café?” Otto asked, and kissed her cheek goodbye after she nodded.
She watched him leave and forced away thoughts of Althea, of soft skin beneath her fingers, a bed warmed by the early light of dawn creeping in the window. Forced away thoughts of the knock on the door that had followed.
When her shift was over at the library, Hannah stepped out into the crisp fall air, heading toward the café a few blocks over.
She was in no rush, and so she enjoyed the fading light along the Seine. Hannah didn’t love Paris the way Otto did. She liked it well enough, but to her the Seine didn’t compare to Berlin’s Spree.
You’re just being contrary, Otto had accused when she’d mentioned the comparison. And perhaps she was. Paris wasn’t home, wouldn’t ever be a home she chose. But it was a sanctuary, and for now, that was far more important.
Her only regret in leaving Berlin was that she wished she’d done so earlier, before she’d ever met Althea James. Wished she’d been able to convince Adam to pack his bags and flee the country, too. Maybe then she wouldn’t see his cracked lip, his shattered nose, the bruises beneath haunted eyes every time she closed hers.
She spotted Otto up ahead, at a small table set out on the street.
Otto all but vibrated, waiting impatiently as she put in an order for her drink. He’d smoked his cigarette down to the nub, but it now sat forgotten between his fingers. She took it and stubbed it out completely.
“So, the Nazis are coming to Paris,” she said, once the waiter had departed. He’d been dark and sultry and watched her through hooded eyes that she’d tried not to meet directly. She knew men found her attractive, had been told that enough in her life to believe it. With her dark brown hair and light-colored eyes; with the curves that had been put in all the right places; with the dimple that seemed to make men weak at the knees; and the smooth skin that was often compared to alabaster. Hannah knew and yet could not care less.
“Chilling, isn’t it?” Otto leaned into the theatrics of it all, as he was wont to do.
Hannah dug out her own cigarette and spared a dim smile for the waiter, who set her wine down in front of her with a wink. “My skin is practically frozen.”
“You’re a riot.”
“And you are losing my interest,” she shot back, blowing the smoke away from him.
“All right, you pill,” Otto said, toying with his own glass of some amber-colored liquid. She had been fairly certain he’d been favoring gin lately, but he did go through mercurial phases. “We can’t let them get away with this.”
“A book exposition?” she clarified, raising her brows.
“Don’t give me that tone. Don’t act like you don’t understand the importance of this.”
She looked away, unwilling to meet his eyes. “Fine.”
Otto smirked in victory, splaying back in his seat and nearly knocking over their poor waiter. “Sorry, sorry,” he murmured, watching the man from beneath his own lush lashes. Hannah nudged his knee with her own and he offered up a playful pout. “You always get the pretty ones.”
“Only the pretty ones I don’t want.”
“And some that you do,” Otto countered and, again, she looked away.
“The exposition,” she prompted.
He didn’t hesitate or protest the subject change. “November. On the boulevard Saint-Germain.”
“Yes, we went over that part,” Hannah drawled.
“But we didn’t go over what we were going to do about it,” Otto said, matching her tone.
“Shall we shoot them?” she asked, all innocence.
“Not a terrible suggestion,” Otto said, with a lopsided grin.
“Otto,” she murmured. He saw violence as the answer to the Nazis. He’d never thought that way when he’d been younger. He’d been so sweet, shy, and funny and kind. Otto was still all those things, but in the years since they’d left Berlin, he’d developed a hardness that scared Hannah.
He reminded her of Adam before her brother was dragged off by the blackshirts. He had always been fiercely committed to his beliefs but that spring when everything had gone to hell,
Adam had become a radical. Unpredictable, stubborn, and defiant when challenged.
She didn’t want to watch that happen to Otto, too.
“What do you suggest instead?” Otto asked, downing the rest of his drink. She wondered how many he’d already had that day and then chastised herself for the thought. None of them were at their best at the moment.
Hannah considered his question, absently rubbing at the calluses on her fingers. She had found she liked them, a tangible marker of the work she was doing to fight the fascists. Even if she hadn’t turned to bullets and bombs like the young radicals wanted to, her efforts were no less important in this battle.
The men who sought violence didn’t understand that while swords could destroy bodies, a pen could destroy a nation.
If the Nazis were coming to Paris to show off their so-called literature, there was only one way to answer that particular war cry.
“What I always suggest,” she said with quiet certainty. “A book.”
Excerpted from The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes, published by William Morrow Paperbacks, a division of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2023.