Lest we forget

It’s a game. The board shows a walled town with six streets winding through gates towards the centre. There are dice, a leather cup and little figures. Modelled on Ludo and dating from 1936, this was, according to its Dresden manufacturer, “the modern and highly enjoyable game for adults and children”. It is called Juden Raus!, or “Out with the Jews!”

To play you throw the dice, move your pointy-hatted man into town and, if he lands on a shop marked Cohn, Goldmann or something similar, you pick up a cone with a revolting caricature on it and carry it back outside the walls. Then you start again. “Chase out six Jews,” the instructions merrily proclaim, “and you are the winner for sure!”

We are in the tiled basement of what was once a handsome London residence, 10 minutes’ walk from Oxford Street. But where cooks and housemaids used to bustle, today there are battered filing cabinets, densely packed bookcases and boxes stacked to the ceiling. It is cramped, dusty and shabby, and it is a true chamber of horrors.

Through a doorway on the right, on a shelf, is a copy of Mein Kampf in English, autographed by the Führer. A photograph inside shows him in the act of signing and a triumphant note explains: “Our visit to Berchtesgaden, when Adolf Hitler came into the village and shook hands with tourists. Signed standing up – in pencil!”

The implication is clear: a British family visiting Germany in summer 1939 – a family who owned a copy of this book – pounced on Hitler as one might a film star, and were thrilled with the celebrity souvenir they managed to bring home. As with the board game, the mind reels.

The game and the book are in the stock rooms of the Wiener Library, the world’s oldest archive of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. And there is plenty more besides.

In the next room are the latest editions of Der Freiwillige, the magazine for SS veterans which continues to appear every couple of months, just like a college alumni circular. It seems that as many as 50,000 of its target readers may still be alive to enjoy it.

Close by, in a box, is the hand-written diary of the Theresienstadt ghetto kept by Philipp Manes, a Berlin furrier. Theresienstadt was a sort of waiting room for Auschwitz and Manes, who struggled to bring some meaning to life there with lectures and cultural events, was among the last to board the train to the gas chambers.

The library has 60,000 books, 3,000 runs of periodicals, 17,000 photographs and an innumerable quantity of other documents, almost every one of them, in some particular, vital way, a testament to tragedy. Spend time here and you are soon far closer to the culture of industrial mass murder than, in all likelihood, you would ever wish to be.

If you haven’t heard of this library you are not alone, for it is as obscure as it is important. Its myriad little details helped Britain fight the second world war, helped secure the convictions at Nuremberg and, more recently, helped refute the claims of holocaust deniers such as David Irving. But its name is familiar only among a certain circle of historians and in the British Jewish community.

That, however, is about to change.

One day this summer the Wiener’s director, Ben Barkow, will step out of that crumbling house in Devonshire Street, the library’s home for half a century, and pull the big black door behind him for the last time. He will travel a mile or so east to Bloomsbury, where a new library and a new future are already taking shape.

A substantial listed building, leased from Birkbeck College, is being refitted to accommodate all those books, documents and photographs in suitable, climate-controlled conditions – part of a £5m project to prepare the library to play a much more prominent role in British life.

“This move is happening at a very important moment for holocaust education,” explains Barkow. “The survivor generation who saw those events at first hand is fading away and there is a debate about what to do next. Should their descendants become surrogate survivors – it’s hard to see how that would work – or should the message now be evidence-based? This library is a goldmine of evidence. It can supply that basis.”

The library has won a £475,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund specifically for outreach – to drive this transformation and give new shape and momentum to the telling of the holocaust story in this country. This reflects concerns, highlighted notably in research by the Pears Foundation, that for all the effort and publicity devoted to the subject over the past 25 years, public understanding about what happened is very weak.

Barkow speaks of a typical schoolteacher with no specific knowledge falling back on the testimony of a camp survivor to explain the subject. The result is emotion-based and impression-based, and often confusing to the young. Now, with fewer and fewer survivors left to call on, both he and the lottery fund selectors see the need and the opportunity for a different approach that draws on the vivid, exhaustive records in the Wiener Library and supplies sophisticated teaching and research resources in every medium.

There are plans, too, for a close relationship with Birkbeck College’s history department, for engaging with what Barkow calls “the ocean of students” washing around Bloomsbury, and for a new public space to house displays and events.

Richard Evans, regius professor of modern history at Cambridge University, has used the library for many years, both when writing his monumental trilogy on the Third Reich and in preparing his role as expert witness for the defence in David Irving’s unsuccessful libel case against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books in 2000.

“It does have an atmosphere of its own,” he says. “You almost feel when you go there that you are entering another world, and even reconnecting with the past. Because of what [the library] is and how it began it has always had a very personal meaning to those involved with it, and you can feel that.”

But Evans and Barkow are in agreement that the library must yield to time. “It has to change or die,” says Barkow, grimly. “It is not going to die, so it will change.”

As the move to Bloomsbury approaches, one of the central rituals of the Wiener has been abandoned for good. The place was founded on newspaper clippings in 1933, when a group of frightened German Jewish refugees in Amsterdam, among them Alfred Wiener, began systematically to work their way through the German daily press, cutting out and saving the evidence of anti-Semitism.

And, believe it or not, until a few weeks ago the clipping was still going on. Two or three times a week in the gloomy old dining room in Devonshire Street you would find a half-dozen volunteers sitting around the table with scissors and trays, chopping and marking items from heaps of old papers in every language, donated by the library’s friends.

If the wind of modernisation is sweeping through the Wiener today, no one who knows the institution’s history – and Ben Barkow wrote it – could fail to be anxious about the future. The fundraising target is £5m and just over £3m has been raised, with significant help from the Wolfson Foundation and the Association of Jewish Refugees: that is enough to buy the Bloomsbury lease, refit the building and make the move. Still to be raised is an endowment of nearly £2m to keep the place running after that.

Barkow is optimistic and has plenty of irons in the fire, but he knows that the kind of financial stability he seeks has always eluded the Wiener in the past. Its tale, ever since Alfred Wiener brought the collection to London just before war broke out in 1939, has been one of hand-to-mouth living, eternal peril and desperate last-minute rescues.

Though he knows this is hardly the best moment for it, Barkow is forthright on the failure of British governments to support the library in the decades since 1945.

“We are Britain’s Holocaust library – there can’t be any doubt about that – and yet we are the only one that receives no state funding from its own government. Britain has to have this place. It is so important. And yet it is not prepared to pay for it.”

Richard Evans puts this down to a longstanding insularity in the political mindset. “The outward-looking, cosmopolitan nature of British historical research, its engagement with European history as well as the history of empire, has never been appreciated by British governments, which have been much more interested in domestic history and questions of identity.” The Wiener, he says, has suffered because of that: “It is very much a European institution.”

Alfred Wiener died in 1964, having transformed his great collection from the itinerant campaigning instrument of its early years to a precious record and a research institution with a firm home in Devonshire Street. He was not a great speaker or writer, and the library’s most eloquent manifesto is not his, but one crafted by a later figure in its history, Lewis Golden, who, touting for money in 1987 to keep the place on its feet, spoke of the terrible truth of mass murder committed in our time, on our own doorstep, by men and women of a civilised and cultured nation.

He went on: “And our children and our children’s children and all who come after will know the truth and will keep it before their eyes, because there is the record, ever since 1933, documented almost every day. There is the record of the growth of evil never equalled before or since: this record of our time.”

Brian Cathcart is author of ‘The Fly in the Cathedral’ (Viking). The Wiener Library will open at 29 Russell Square, London WC1 in September. For more information see www.wienerlibrary.co.uk

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A family story: the Neumanns

Among the treasures of the Wiener Library’s collection is the archive of the Neumanns of Essen, a Jewish family whose thriving textile company was stolen from them by the Nazis. Ludwig Neumann, a patriotic German and first world war veteran, saw the business he ran undermined by anti-Jewish boycotts in the mid-1930s and by the denial of a passport, which shut down his export trade. By 1938, on the brink of bankruptcy, he was forced to sell the company at a fraction of its true value and a letter went out to customers and suppliers, signed with “Heil Hitler!”. It announced that the firm had been “Aryanised” under the new ownership of Joseph Herbring. A month later, Ludwig was in Dachau concentration camp. Released on condition he emigrated, he was permitted only to take 10 reichsmarks with him. The family’s assets in Germany were expropriated afterwards. Ludwig then settled with his mother Dina and sister Liesel in Birkenhead, England, where, after a spell in an internment camp as an enemy alien, he worked in the textile industry and joined the Home Guard. The Neumanns lost family and many friends in the Holocaust, and they never got their business back, though Ludwig returned to Essen in the 1950s and tried unsuccessfully to get the firm going again. He died in 1970 and afterwards all the family’s photographs and documents found their way to the Wiener Library. Ben Barkow, the library’s director, describes it as a “brilliant and huge” collection; a vivid record of prosperous Jewish family and business life in Germany before the Nazis, and of the ruthless process by which that way of life was destroyed.

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