LONDON — The Wiener Holocaust Library, which marks its 90th anniversary this month, is no ordinary museum.
It is not simply the size of its collections — estimated to include up to 2 million items — nor the fact that it later assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trails, the Israeli authorities in their quest to bring Adolf Eichmann to justice, and American author Deborah Lipstadt in her legal battle with the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving.
Rather, the library actually predates the terrible events which are its focus.
Alfred Wiener, a German Jewish exile, established its predecessor institution, the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam, in February 1934. Its purpose — which would continue throughout World War II as the Shoah unfolded — was to track, collect and distribute information about the Nazi dictatorship and its persecution of the Jews.
Last week, three of the Holocaust’s 6 million victims — Wiener’s wife, Margarete Wiener-Saulmann, and two of his loyal lieutenants Kurt Zielenziger and Bernhard Krieg — were commemorated with Stolperstein outside their former workplace in the Dutch city. Their “stumbling stones” thus join the 100,000 plaques placed in pavements in front of the homes or places of work of those murdered by the Nazis.
In London, the library is staging an exhibition until February 15 about its first nine decades and the remarkable man who founded it.
Wiener’s recognition of the danger posed by the Nazis didn’t begin after Hitler came to power in 1933. Instead, he can justly lay claim to having been one of the first intellectuals to raise the alarm about the rise of antisemitism after World War I.
Horrified by the surge in anti-Jewish right-wing nationalism that he encountered when he returned from the trenches to his homeland, in 1919 Wiener published a tract, “Prelude to Pogroms?”, in which he warned: “A mighty antisemitic storm has broken over us.” If left unchecked, Wiener predicted, this antisemitism would lead to “bestial murders and violence” and the “blood of citizens running on the pavements.”
Even while they were still very much on the fringes of German politics, Wiener, who worked for the country’s main Jewish communal organization, accurately pinpointed the threat the Nazis presented. In 1928, he established the Büro Wilhelmstrasse to secretly gather intelligence, monitor the party’s activities and propaganda, and prepare campaigns to counter them. To inform and document his work, Wiener collected pamphlets, books, leaflets, newspapers and posters, charting the Nazis’ rise and their hatred of Jews.
Wiener toured Germany, speaking at public meetings and attempting to warn the middle class about the Nazis’ true intentions. He launched legal cases designed to expose them. In 1929, he even succeeded in ensuring that Julius Streicher, the notorious, Jew-baiting editor of the Nazis’ “Der Stürmer” newspaper, was jailed for two months. And Wiener published “Der Anti-Nazi,” which provided information and analysis about Nazi policies and politicians. Its first edition had a print run of 180,000 copies and was just over 30 pages long. By 1932, a volume currently held by the library shows, it ran to 180 pages.
After Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, Wiener’s grim predictions soon began to come true. Hermann Hermann Göring warned the by-now well-known anti-Nazi campaigner that he was no longer welcome in Germany. Wiener, followed shortly afterward by Margarete and daughters Mirjam, Ruth and Eva, left for Amsterdam. Under the guise of the newly founded Jewish Central Information Office, he continued his ever-more urgent work.
However, by late 1938, the clouds of war were gathering across Europe. In the summer of 1939, Wiener moved his collection to London, opening a new headquarters in the city’s Marylebone district. However, the family now made what turned out to be a fatal mistake: Wiener’s wife and daughters remained in the Netherlands, only receiving visas to enter the UK on the very day — May 6, 1940 — the Nazis invaded. The couple’s primary concern, letters suggest, was not to disturb the happy and stable life their children enjoyed in Amsterdam.
Many Jews also naturally assumed that the Netherlands’ neutrality would protect them in the coming war. Sadly, it did not. After being shipped to Westerbork, Margarete and her daughters endured the cold, hunger and disease of Bergen-Belsen. They were eventually released in a rare January 1945 prisoner exchange but Margarete — who starved herself to feed her children and may have been suffering from typhus — died shortly after the train they were traveling on crossed the border into Switzerland.
An unwelcome recent acquisition
Wiener, who battled relentlessly to try and free his family, spent the war in London and New York. It soon became clear that “Dr. Wiener’s Library,” as his British hosts came to term it, was an invaluable source of information about their Nazi enemies. Wiener’s files, one of the heads of British wartime intelligence remarked, were “by far the most useful of the outside sources of information available to us.” Soon, the BBC and government departments, such as the Ministry of Information, were using the materials Wiener had so meticulously collected and, indeed, continued to gather throughout the war itself.
As Ben Barkow, a former director of the library, has said in his book “Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library,” Wiener’s fortnightly wartime bulletin, “The Nazis At War,” offered “a fascinating commentary on the political developments of the war” and provided the British government and the Wiener Library’s other clients with “source materials for anti-Nazi propaganda.”
Wiener’s archive today forms the basis of the library’s collection. Over the decades, it has expanded to include 50,000 books, 15,000 pamphlets, 600 posters, 500 unpublished memoirs and 500 manuscripts. The library’s photo collections now encompass 40,000 items.
And the archive continues to grow to this day. Its curators, who still actively collect books, documents and personal archives, believe it is being added to at one of the fastest rates in the library’s history. The document collection alone, for instance, adds 40 collections each year.
But one recent addition is less welcome. In November, staff arrived at the library to find that a metal sign hanging from railings outside the building had been defaced with graffiti bearing the word “Gaza” spray-painted in red. The sign will now enter the collection, but the incident has appalled staff.
“This graffiti was obviously intended to cause damage and distress,” director Toby Simpson told the media at the time. “To use ignorance as a weapon against an institution of learning is stupid and wrong. To lash out against Israel by targeting a Holocaust institution is an action that can only make sense to antisemites and their enablers.”
The library — which covers not just the Holocaust but the history of Nazism, anti-fascism and antisemitism, and postwar genocides — has become a renowned center for Holocaust research, last year clocking up 1,000 research visits.
Wiener also runs education programs, hosts exhibitions and lectures, and houses Britain’s copy of the Red Cross’ International Tracing Service digital archive. Every year, several hundred people — the occasional survivor, survivors’ families and relatives of refugees — use this huge cache of 30 million documents to conduct research into those who fell victim to Nazi persecution.
The library’s current exhibition highlights and displays just a fraction of its unique, dark and terrifying collection.
What appears to be a tomato seed packet, for instance, contains a concealed anti-Nazi pamphlet by the exiled German communist Gustav Regler. This is one of over 480 examples of anti-Nazi “hidden” pamphlets — the second largest collection in the world — owned by the library.
An eyewitness account of Kristallnacht is one of 350 reports from its network of contacts in Germany and Austria collected by the Jewish Central Information Office in the days and weeks after the November pogrom. The reports were painstakingly typed and collated in early 1939.
During the war itself, staff began to gather evidence, document and publicize the emerging reports of the Nazis’ effort to annihilate European Jewry. A copy of “Jewish News,” a bulletin published by the library, highlights reports, including one from an escaped prisoner, of mass murder at Auschwitz. The bulletin’s date, January 29, 1942, is barely a week after the infamous Wannsee conference when Nazi leaders gathered to plan the industrial slaughter of the Jews.
The library’s archives contain a plethora of materials about life in the camps. They include the journals of Philipp Manes, a German Jew who maintained a lifelong habit of keeping a diary even while imprisoned in Theresienstadt. Manes and his wife perished at Auschwitz but somehow his journals survived and ended up back in the hands of his family after the war.
Elsewhere, there are chilling images — taken by a member of the Wehrmacht — of German troops filming the Lvov pogroms of 1941.
And a crudely produced map — part of a secret Nazi report cataloging the bloody progress of the SS paramilitary death squad Einsatzgruppe A — details the number of Jews massacred in Russia, Belarus and the Baltic states.
The map was among a large proportion of the materials generated at the Nuremberg Trials which were then deposited at the library. Wiener himself was able to provide documentation to the prosecutors that was not available anywhere else.
“The help [the library] has given has been invaluable in the preparation of charges against the leaders of Nazi Germany,” noted the Belgian commissioner of the UN War Crimes Commission after the conclusion of the trials.
Prosecuting the persecutors
At Eichmann’s trial nearly 15 years later, the library provided background materials to the prosecutors in Jerusalem, while the head of the Israeli police, chief superintendent Abraham Selinger, visited the library shortly after Eichmann’s capture. Thanks to the library’s assistance, Selinger was able to gather evidence linking the war criminal to specific crimes.
The library also played a crucial part when controversial British historian Irving sued Lipstadt in 2000 after she accused him of deliberately distorting evidence. Researchers dug into the library’s archives to produce an 800-page expert report that analyzed Irving’s writing and speeches and helped demolish his case.
But the famed Irving case is far from the library’s only blow against Holocaust denial. In its collections are some of the earliest accounts by survivors. One, given by Mordechai Lichtenstein, was published by the library as a pamphlet — “Eighteen Months in the Oswiecim Extermination Camp” — in 1945. Under Eva Reichmann, the director of research, more than 1,300 eyewitness accounts in seven different languages were gathered from across Europe in the 1950s. It was, Barkow’s book says, “a remarkable instance of the foresight of the library. In the 1950s the phenomenon of so-called revisionism or Holocaust denial was little known, yet from the 1960s on it became an important issue.”
Right from his first prophetic warning in 1919, Wiener’s work was guided by a simple belief in the power of truth to counter antisemitism and the Nazis.
Ninety years on, his library continues to maintain that belief, thus honoring his legacy.