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Wiener Library reopening casts further light on Nazi horrors

Posted at 3:30 pm, December 5, 2011 in News

There’s a Nazi version of the card game Happy Families with portraits of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels on the front of the cards; a story book with illustrations of grotesquely hooked-nose characters to teach children how to spot a Jew; and a version of ‘Mein Kampf’ in English, autographed by Hitler. These startling artefacts can be seen at an exhibition called ‘A is for Adolf –Teaching Children Nazi Values’, that illustrates the range of propaganda targeted at young children under the Nazi regime. The exhibition is the first to be held at the Wiener Library in Bloomsbury which re-opens on December 2 after a £3.5 million redevelopment programme. 

The library, formerly located in Devonshire Street, is one of the world’s leading archives on the Nazi era. Its stunning new home in Russell Square boasts a state-of-the-art exhibition area, a light-filled reading room and the latest climate and humidity controlled technology to protect its collection of more than one million items, including 65,000 books and 17,000 images. The Library was established in 1933 by Alfred Wiener, a German Jew who fled his home for Amsterdam when Hitler came to power. There he set up the Jewish Central Information Office, collecting and disseminating information about events happening in Nazi Germany.

The collection was transferred to London in 1939 with Wiener making the resources available to British government intelligence departments. After the war, the library provided material to the United Nations War Crimes Commission and was instrumental in bringing some of the Nazi war criminals to justice. During the 1950s and 1960s it continued to gather eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. The extensive library features books (many of them unique to the library) covering the history and documentation of the Holocaust and of Jewish refugees in the UK, as well as works on anti-Nazi resistance, central European Jewish history, war crimes trials, anti-semitism, Holocaust denial literature and comparative genocide studies.

But it is the artefacts in the collections that really bring the subject to life. Diaries of Jews living in Nazi Germany provide moving eye witness accounts of events such as Kristallnacht in November 1938, where Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were destroyed by stormtroopers and civilians. Personal papers include the notebooks, diaries and correspondence written by the German Jewish fur trader Philipp Manes, that provide a detailed account of his incarceration in the transit camp Theresienstadt – his story only breaking off when he and his wife are deported to Auschwitz on Oct 28 1944, where he later died. His daughter, who fled Germany just before the war, donated his emotional memoirs to the centre. Around one third of the collection is from the pre-war period.

For famillies that have lost relatives in the Holocaust, the library helps with tracing relatives through its archives and it is also an important resource for authors, academics and filmmakers. The centre is staffed by a large number of volunteers, many of whom arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport (the mission that rescued Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe). ‘Now more than ever, it is important to collect and conserve personal stories of the period,’ says Bridget McGing, the Wiener Library’s development director. ‘The generation which survived the Holocaust is passing away and it is important to safeguard their stories for future generations.’ Rebecca Taylor

For info, see wienerlibrary.co.uk.

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