This is a guest post by frequent contributor Brian Goldfarb. Brian has been a volunteer for a long while at the Wiener Library. Here he tells us something about the library and its history.
The Wiener Holocaust Library and Its Role in the Fight Against Hate
At this time of year, it seems especially appropriate to look at the work of the Wiener Holocaust Library, with Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) with its lighting of yellow candles and Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Day of Remembrance of the Fallen, to look at the work of one organisation dedicated to teaching the world about the brutality of mass killings, whatever the scale, small or large, perpetuated especially by state agencies. I would predict that in a decade or two, the Wiener Holocaust Library will be adding the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its human consequences to its catalogue.
I have been a volunteer at the Wiener Holocaust Library (as it is now titled) for 18 years, since shortly after retiring, and it has been a fascinating and enlightening experience. Possibly the most fascinating part is when I have been tasked with preparing archives so that they can be made available for researchers using the Library’s material in order to complete academic theses (often as part of their academic research leading to post-graduate degrees), write articles or books or even inform their teaching. While I am not a trained archivist, I have been ably instructed by the Library’s official archivist and was always able to consult him with any problems that arose. Indeed, one such task led directly to an article published right here on Anne’s Opinions (of which more anon).
However, it is with the origin and development of the Library that I wish to start, because it is these origins that have made the Library the force in the world of learning that it has become. And I want to start in what may seem like am odd place, but please bear with me, because I think it’s a good story.
Daniel Finkelstein, Conservative Party Peer (though he never uses the title in public), deputy editor of The Times of London (and occasional leader writer) and Times columnist, started one of his articles more or less as follows, by noting that his family accuse him of being incredibly untidy and a hoarder. He acknowledged that, indeed, he did (and does) keep vast quantities of paper items. But, he wrote, he knows exactly where every piece of paper is in the pile. And anyway, he continued, he has an excellent precedent: his grandfather did exactly the same. And his grandfather was Alfred Wiener, the founder of the Library that bears his name.
Daniel Finkelstein wrote this column (and numerous others like it) because the Wiener Library occasionally asks him for some publicity, and he willingly provides it.
This leads to the question: who was Dr Alfred Wiener and how did come to start the massive collection that bears his name (so vast that much of it is stored off-site and researchers may have to wait for some items to be delivered to their desk in the Library’s reading room, sometimes having to come back another day for it)? Before World War 1, he had earned a PhD in Arabic Studies and Arabic. During the War, he served in the German Army and was awarded an Iron Cross, 2nd Class. After the war, he joined the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (always abbreviated as Centralverein or even CV) and rose quickly to a high position. Very early on, he recognised the danger of the rising of the far-right in Germany and especially, as early as 1925, that the Nazi Party was the major threat to Jews.
As a result of this insight into the German far-right, he created a specific Bureau within the CV to collect far-right and, again specifically, Nazi Party publications: their newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets, books written by far-right thinkers and so forth.
As soon as the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, he gathered up his collected papers, some of his staff, his family and so forth, and moved to Holland, where he continued his collecting, using, where necessary, friendly contacts (especially friendly anti-Nazi non-Jews). As soon as the Second World War broke out, he moved, lock, stock, barrel and staff members, to London.
However, for some unknown reason (and even on of his biographers, Ben Barkow, a long-serving Director of the Wiener Library, couldn’t answer the question), his wife and family (three daughters) didn’t go with him. As a result, they were sent to Thereseinstadt, where, astonishingly, all of them survived the war, although his wife, Margarete, died shortly afterwards. His daughters joined him in London.
His document collection (and he continued collected as long as he could) proved invaluable to the Allies in helping to plan the Nuremberg Trials, but they found the official title of his collection too clumsy and asked him to rename it, which is how it became, first, the Wiener Collection and then Library.
Naturally, if collecting had stopped there, the Wiener would be of interest only to historians and only those interested in the period between the First and Second World Wars and up to the end or a little beyond the end of the Second. However, of course, and sadly, the mass killing of people didn’t stop and neither did the Library. It continues to collect material, especially and mostly on the Holocaust, but also on other attempted or failed mass killings of innocent civilians.
This makes it a centre especially for graduate students and other writers to complete theses or books (as noted above) and seeking material for articles for other outlets, mostly, but not only, academic journals.
The Wiener also puts on exhibitions in its ground floor reception area to illustrate many facets of the history of attempts at or successful achievements of mass killings and also the resistance to these efforts. To explore the Library in more detail, visit the Wiener Library website online.
I noted in the first paragraph above that the Library had inspired an article right here on Anne’s Opinions, at this link: The Defence Committee Archive and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
In this article I drew on a particularly massive archive, containing 70 boxes each holding up to 1000 pieces of paper, on permanent loan to the Library, from the UK Board of Deputies of British Jews Defence Committee, a pre-World War Two sub-organisation set up specifically to combat British Fascists in the 1930s, but also included in that article is a section tracing the history of the creation of the Protocols of The Elders of Zion, long known by those with a working brain to be a fabrication.
It is also the case that as well as public archives, there are many family archives donated to the Library. For example, there is the photo archive of a German Jew who fought in World War One and out of which fell a World War One Iron Cross: of the Chief Librarian who happened to be in the Reading Room that day, and is herself of German origin, had never seen one before.
And I must remember the time that I was preparing the photo archive of a young German Jew who had left Germany in the 1930s and returned as a Sergeant in the US Army. He had collected postcards as his unit fought its way up Italy. His collection was in ring binders, but one of the rings of one folder had broken and the leaves were held together by one of his US Army dog tags: the genuine article, not what we see on the cinema screen as dangling from the neck of a Hollywood actor!
Two shivers down the spine: one that was of the good sort: holding a letter written by Otto Frank, the father of Anne, to the Library, informing them that he had sent, under separate cover, a parcel of the Diary of Anne Frank in 8 different European languages.
The nasty kind: opening up archives to find, more times than I would wish, Nazi-era passports with the notorious “J” in red stamped inside.
And not to forget the story of Maule Ramsay, Conservative MP for a Scottish constituency, who was suspected with good cause of being an active Nazi sympathiser, to the extent that he was imprisoned under the auspices of wartime Regulation 18B – in effect, detained without charge or trial. He wasn’t deselected until the 1945 election was called.
The place is a treasure trove for historians, whether professional or amateur, of that period of history, starting in the early 1920s and continuing still.
The coda is probably the last line of the Brecht play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”, translating the Hitler story to 1930s Chicago and mobsters such as Al Capone, when the actor who plays Ui comes back on stage after the “end” of the play, wiping the make-up from his face and says, more or less don’t celebrate his fall too soon “the sow that bore him is on heat again”. A certain Russian President with the initials VP, anyone?
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance: and that’s why organisations like the Wiener Holocaust Library are so vital to maintain our freedoms.
Brian, thank you so much for this very interesting article, the background you have provided of the Wiener Library (of which I had never heard until you started contributing to this blog), and of the historical details surrounding its founding.
I would recommend to anyone travelling to London (including myself!) to pay a visit to this Library, especially to its upcoming 90th anniversary exhibition. I’m sure we could all find something fascinating there.