LONDON — It is a collection as extensive as its contents are horrifying. Step behind the imposing Georgian façade which houses the Wiener Library in central London’s picturesque, tree-lined Russell Square, and one enters the world’s oldest Holocaust museum.
Eighty-five years ago this year, Alfred Wiener, a German Jew decorated with the Iron Cross in World War I, fled his homeland and established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam. Its purpose was to alert the world of the dangers posed by Germany’s new rulers.
Wiener’s decision may have been prompted by the Nazis’ recent accession to power. But he had been aware, and trying to warn his fellow countrymen of, the growing menace posed by the German far right for almost the entire period of the Weimar republic.
Indeed, soon after completing his military service in 1918, Wiener published a pamphlet, “Before Pogroms?”, which presciently argued that, if left unchecked, right-wing anti-Semitism would lead to “bestial murders and violence” and the “blood of citizens running on the pavements.”
For more than a decade, Wiener, who worked for a Jewish civil rights group, regularly repeated his warning that anti-Semitism would destroy not just the Jews in Germany, but Germany itself. To inform and document his work, Wiener collected pamphlets, books, leaflets, newspapers and posters, charting the Nazis’ rise and their hatred of Jews.
It is the fact that the library is so deeply rooted in its history and subject matter which makes it so unique.
“Alfred Wiener was able to collect the kind of things that, if you were starting a museum today, you probably wouldn’t be able to find,” believes the library’s director, Ben Barkow.
In the late summer of 1939 Wiener departed Amsterdam for Britain, where on the ill-fated date of September 1, 1939, he reopened the Jewish Central Information Office in London’s Marylebone, as Germany invaded Poland.
Scrambling to better inform themselves about the leaders, military commanders and institutions of the country with which Britain was now at war, the BBC and government departments such as the Ministry of Information paid Wiener to access the resources of what they began to informally call “the library.”
A fortnightly publication — The Nazis At War — was produced. It constituted what Barkow describes in “Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library” as “a fascinating commentary on the political developments of the war … [providing] the British government and the Wiener Library’s other clients with source materials for anti-Nazi propaganda.”
Today, the library has grown to house some 80,000 volumes, numerous periodicals, photographs and AV materials, and a 2,000-strong archival collection; each of those 2,000 items, moreover, may range from a slim folder to 100 boxes of material.
Among them are oral and written histories by survivors — many of them recorded by the library’s staff and volunteers in the early post-war years — together with their papers and photographs.
While the library’s focus remains primarily on the Holocaust, its causes and consequences, over the last decade it has also began to expand its work to collect materials on the wider question of genocide and to examine the relationship between it and the Jewish Shoah.
Examples of the library’s grim exhibits abound. In a brightly colored board game, players compete to arrest Jews and make a town judenrein (free of Jews). Manufactured commercially in the mid-1930s and targeted at families, the SS objected to the game on the basis that it trivialized the serious business of freeing Germany of the Jews’ pernicious grip. No such objections are, however, recorded to a book which allows children to cut out and color uniforms worn by members of the Hitler Youth.
Some of the items leave tantalizingly unanswered questions. An English-language copy of “Mein Kampf” published in 1939 has a picture pasted into it of a relaxed-looking Hitler. The Fuhrer’s signature lies below the snapshot, together with an all-too-brief note of explanation by the book’s owner, a woman identified only as Karen, who is also visible in the picture: “Our visit to Berchtesgarden when AH came into the village, shook hands with tourists, signed standing up in pencil just before our evacuation.”
Others — such as the library’s copies of “The Volunteer,” an SS-veterans monthly magazine which began publication in 1956 and only recently ceased to appear — leave a peculiar chill. Its pages may be glossy and appear contemporary, but they reek of a putrid nostalgia, containing advertisements placed by subscribers looking to reunite with, or honor the passing, of old comrades.
A new chapter
A move from a cramped space on Devonshire Street — its second home in London — to its present premises in 2011 has given the library a new lease of life. Between 8,000 to 10,000 people now visit each year, including students, academics and people in the arts — film makers, authors, playwrights and people staging productions who are looking for visual references. Visitors, who need no appointment to use the library’s facilities, can work in the light-filled reading room.
A large ground-level space is used to host talks and exhibitions, many of which then travel around the country, often visiting schools and campuses.
No topic is too big, small or controversial to tackle. Earlier this year, the uncomfortable (and for many Britons unknown) story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and the consequent persecution and murder of Jews on British soil, was examined.
It followed previous exhibitions on Britain’s approach to the Jewish refugee crisis in the 1930s and 1940s and the country’s responses to the Holocaust, which touched on difficult questions such as the extent of anti-Semitism within British society, information about the Holocaust in the press, and the stance of the British government to the unfolding violence against Jews in Europe.
The library is also popular with family historians and those wishing to explore their own relationship to the Holocaust. Since 2014, the library has housed Britain’s copy of the Red Cross’ International Tracing Service. Every year, several hundred people — the occasional survivor, survivors’ families and relatives of refugees — now use the huge resource.
Barkow, who has worked at the library for 30 years, believes that “interest and curiosity” is stronger among the grandchildren of survivors and refugees than their children. He has also detected what he believes to be a less welcome trend in the manner in which this history is working its way through the generations.
“In my early days, when there were plenty of survivors and refugees about, they always spoke in terms of a willingness to forgive these events but never forget them,” he says. “Now that they’ve just about all gone, the younger people — their grandchildren — are often much more uncompromising and angry about these events and you hear a language of wanting revenge that was almost inconceivable in their grandparents.”
First-hand accounts of horrors
Wiener himself might not have appreciated this shift. He knew first hand the horrors that had befallen European Jews. While he spent much of the war in the United States collecting materials for the JCIO, his family were trapped in Amsterdam.
His daughters survived Bergen-Belsen but his wife, Margarethe, died of exhaustion and malnutrition hours after being liberated. Nonetheless, during the 1950s he traveled frequently to Germany, reaching out in particular to Christians and young people. The latter, he told the library’s bulletin in 1958, “seem willing to learn the lesson of the past, and they have decided, once and for all, to wash their hands of the terror of totalitarian reaction.”
During this period, and for much of the next three decades, the library’s very survival seemed at stake. After Germany’s defeat, funding began to dry up and the library led a hand-to-mouth existence. Complex, protracted proposals to incorporate it into the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Yad Vashem were explored and abandoned.
Long after Wiener’s death in 1964, a deal was struck with Tel Aviv University. In 1980, a swath of the collection was shipped there, but, at the 11th hour, money was raised in Germany and the US to microfilm what was being sent to Israel.
The existence, survival and struggles of the library were a testament to, and reflection of, Wiener’s personality. As Barkow describes in his book, its founder was both a charismatic “natural diplomat” — good at persuading people and winning them over to his project — and a secretive man with an authoritarian streak.
But what is undeniable is the critical role played by the library in adding to, and helping to shape, early post-war thinking about, and studies of, Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
Gerald Reitlinger’s classic 1953 study of the Holocaust, “The Final Solution,” was, for instance, mainly researched at the library. It also supported Lionel Kochan’s 1957 book, “Pogrom: November 10 1938,” the first detailed analysis of Kristallnacht.
In later years, the library’s reputation was such that it was able to attract scholars of the caliber of Robert Wistrich, and directors Walter Laqueur and David Cesarani, to work there.
Crucially, the library also began to assemble and publish eyewitness accounts of the Nazis’ war on the Jews almost as soon as Hitler was dead.
From the mid-1950s, this work became more systematic and was regarded by the library as “a safeguard against any future attempts to falsify the events of those years.” It was, argues Barkow, “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.”
Making the history it records
But the library has not just related and recorded history, it has also helped to make it.
It provided documentation to the prosecutors at Nuremberg that was available nowhere else.
“The help [the library] has given has been invaluable in the preparation of charges against the leaders of Nazi Germany,” suggested the Belgian commissioner of the UN War Crimes Commission after the conclusion of the trials. A large proportion of the materials generated at Nuremberg were then deposited at the library.
Nearly 15 years later, it performed the same function at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. As well as providing background materials to the prosecutors in Jerusalem, the head of Israeli police, Chief Superintendent Abraham Selinger, visited the library shortly after Eichmann’s capture. The library’s assistant director, Caesar Aronsfeld, became its point man for the trial, helping Selinger gather the evidence to link the Nazi war criminal to specific crimes.
At the turn of the century, the library figured in another courtroom case, this time one played out in London, when the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving sued American author Deborah Lipstadt for claiming that Irving had deliberately distorted evidence. The library was the main source used by the researchers who authored Lipstadt’s expert report — an 800-page analysis of Irving’s writing and speeches which helped demolish his case.
Irving’s defeat – the judge’s excoriating verdict branded him an “active Holocaust denier … anti-Semitic and racist” – appeared to strike a deadly blow to those who seek to question the truth of the Shoah. Sadly, this provided a false dawn.
In its own modest way, the Wiener Library helps to continue the fight.
“Above all,” argues Barkow, “we hold this material. Anybody can come in and look at this and make their own mind up. The evidence is here. If other people are saying: ‘This didn’t happen’ or ‘It wasn’t nearly that bad,’ you can come here and you can check it out for yourself and you can learn the truth.
“We have a simple belief in the power of the truth,” he says.