A Singular Holocaust Museum Opens a New Chapter

By Guttenplan, Dd | International Herald Tribune, February 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Singular Holocaust Museum Opens a New Chapter


Guttenplan, Dd, International Herald Tribune


The Wiener Library is a combination of museum, archive, research center and academic institution. It documents the flourishing life and violent death of Germany's Jewish community.

In a sun-drenched room overlooking Russell Square, a visitor's eye is immediately drawn to a display of cheerful coloring books, a brightly colored board game and photographs of laughing children. On closer inspection, the children in one photo can be seen crowding around a cake decorated with a swastika.

The board game, a German version of Parcheesi or Sorry made in Dresden in 1936, is called Juden Raus! (Jews Out!), in which the first player to chase six Jews out of the walled ghetto is the winner. A deck of trivia cards for teenagers features the faces of Nazi leaders. And in a beautifully illustrated book aimed at teaching good German boys and girls the alphabet, "A" is for "Adolf."

"A is for Adolf: Teaching Children Nazi Values" is the first public exhibition at the Wiener Library, a combination of museum, archive, research center and academic institution. Though long known among the small circle of scholars who study Nazism or World War II, the library languished for decades in relative obscurity in rented spaces crammed to bursting with books, photographs, letters, magazines and other material documenting the flourishing life and violent death of Germany's Jewish community.

"Through its combination of testimonies and records and current journals and works of scholarship, the Wiener Library has played a unique role for historians," said Richard J. Evans, the Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge and author of a three-volume history of the Third Reich. As the principal expert witness defending the American academic Deborah E. Lipstadt in her 2000 libel trial against the British writer David Irving, who claimed that the Holocaust had never happened, Mr. Evans found the library's collection an indispensable resource.

Opened in December in a renovated Georgian townhouse flanked by the Birkbeck College history department and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, the library "now has the space and modern facilities it deserves," Mr. Evans said.

Largely the product of one man's obsession, the Wiener Library is not only the world's oldest Holocaust museum, it is the only such institution whose origins predate Hitler's rise to power.

Alfred Wiener was born in Potsdam, Germany, in 1885 into a prosperous Jewish family. On finishing his doctorate on Arabic literature at the Heidelberg University, he worked briefly as a journalist before enlisting in the artillery corps during World War I, where he saw action on the Eastern and Western fronts and was awarded the Iron Cross.

His position as secretary of a Jewish civil rights group in the 1920s brought him into repeated contact with the rise of anti- Semitism. After years of documenting the trend and trying to warn his fellow Germans about the Nazi Party's racist doctrines, Mr. Wiener fled the country, taking his dossiers and files to the Netherlands and then to Britain.

The collection first opened in London on September 1, 1939 -- the day Nazi troops marched into Poland. Known then as the Jewish Central Information Office, the library essentially functioned as a private intelligence service, with Mr. Wiener paid a regular stipend by British government departments in return for keeping them informed about developments in Germany.

It was Alfred Wiener's new employers who apparently first referred to his enterprise as "the Library." After the war, the library found new patrons among wealthy Jews in Britain and the United States. It also played a role in assisting in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Yet even though its twin focus on documenting the devastation of Jewish communities of Europe and the ideology that led to that destruction was unrivaled -- the Israeli memorial at Yad Vashem was not built until 1953 -- the Wiener Library struggled to survive. …

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