Witnessing the Battlefield of the Jewish Spirit: The Wiener Holocaust Library
The Wiener Holocaust Library is one of the world’s largest and most important collections of evidence of the crimes of the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Its materials were used in the Nuremberg trial and the trial of Adolf Eichmann. More recently certain collections relating to more recent genocides - gathered under a new expanded remit from the early 2000s onwards – have been submitted to the International Criminal Court. It is also used by scholars, students, and independent researchers around the world. In addition to a beautiful public reading room near the British Museum, London, it has a much expanding offering of online resources available free to the world via our website.
The quotation that heads this article is from Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, who wrote the following words about the Library as a tribute to its founder, Dr Alfred Wiener:
All of us who fervently hope that the peculiar Jewish spirit which through centuries had steadily grown up within the Jewish community of Germany may survive and prove creative, feel greatly indebted to Dr Alfred Wiener. This spirit had its many battlefields, and to understand its character and power one must know what [Wiener was fighting for and fighting against. Books are witnesses of this spirit and these combats, and they must be given refuge and shelter.
Alfred Wiener was a bibliophile and a collector even prior to the beginning of his career in German public life. His intellectual development also brought him into close contact with the intellectual tradition of Reform Judaism in which Leo Baeck was a major figure.
Specifically, Wiener obtained his initial theological education at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. The Hochschule was founded by a man whose name has become synonymous with the Reform movement, Abraham Geiger.
The Reform movement has a complex and diverse history, but at its heart was a desire to take a non-dogmatic, ‘modern’, or ‘scientific’ approach to Jewish studies, drawing on non-Jewish and Jewish sources. Wiener’s biographer, Ben Barkow, argues: “At the Hochschule Wiener learned to take an academic, scholarly approach to Judaic studies which was to stay with him for life’.
Dutch first edition of Anne Frank’s Diary titled Het achterhuis : Dagboekbrieven van 12 Juni 1942 – 1 August 1944, Amsterdam 1947 (© Wiener Library)
The intention of many who did this work – including Wiener - was to empower fellow Jews who were actively participating in the rapidly growing economy of industrial Europe, and who faced many of the disadvantages of other minorities at the time. Among these disadvantages was social exclusion, the risk of deprivation and a need for a kind of social insurance against this risk.
The international organisation B’nai B’rith and its associated lodges, modelled in some respects on the institutional though not intellectual model of freemasonry, was engaged with these issues. Founded in New York City by German-speaking Jews, the lodges sought to promote brotherly mutual aid and social welfare amongst Jewish communities. By the early 20th century, when Wiener completed his studies in Berlin, there were several thousand B’nai B’rith members active in Northern Europe.
Wiener had thought about becoming a rabbi during his studies, but in the end he took a different career path following the completion of his doctoral studies in 1911. At that time he began to work with Paul Nathan, co-founder of the Hilfsverein, an organisation which among other things set up schools that aimed to improve the welfare of Jews outside Germany.
Fight against antisemitism
The First World War was a transformative experience for Wiener, as for most men of his generation. Most significantly as far as his later career was concerned, Wiener became actively involved in raising the alarm about antisemitism in Germany. To this end, he joined the Central Association of Germans of Jewish Faith, which was the leading organisation dedicated to securing the position of Jews within Germany as equal citizens. In the context of the crisis-ridden Weimar Republic, this task proved extremely difficult and ultimately impossible.
Nevertheless, Wiener and his colleagues showed great energy and ingenuity, particularly in confronting the growing threat of National Socialism. Wiener worked with Walter Gyssling in Berlin for a newly founded office of the Centralverein to counter Nazi propaganda, which was increasingly widespread as the 1920s progressed. This office was known as the Buro Wilhelmstrasse. It produced speakers notes and other materials directly criticising Hitler and his followers. At the same time, Wiener remained active in Jewish civic life and social welfare, including as President of the Jehuda Halevy Lodge of B’nai B’rith in Berlin.
Exile in Amsterdam
By 1933, when Hitler was brought into power, Wiener would have been an obvious target for arrest by the new regime, particularly following the violence unleashed in response to the Reichstag Fire. To protect himself and his family, Wiener fled to Amsterdam. The collection of materials he had gathered in Berlin had to be destroyed to defend the safety of those involved in anti-Nazi work.
In Amsterdam, Wiener re-instigated anti-Nazi work from his new apartment the Jan van Eijkstraat. He and his wife were active members of the German-Jewish refugee community, which received almost no support from the Dutch government. Instead, families like the Wieners had to find ways to support themselves, with some assistance coming from the Committee for Special Jewish Affairs, led by members of the Dutch Jewish community. Wiener worked with David Cohen, one of the co-founders of the Committee, on the idea to create a clandestine office to gather evidence of Nazi crimes.
The last telegraph recieved by Wolfgang Josephs from his father (© Wiener Library)
Nucleus: The Jewish Central Information Office
This idea found concrete form following a conference in Woburn House, London between 29 October and 1 November representing 44 Jewish groups across Europe and the United States. Cohen’s proposal to establish a press office led by Wiener in Amsterdam was accepted. This led to the official creation of the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO), an organisation that continues to exist to this day, first as The Wiener Library, then as The Wiener Library: Institute of Contemporary History, now as The Wiener Holocaust Library.
Wiener’s work in Amsterdam included several major projects including providing extensive evidence for the Bern trial regarding the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by the Nazis, and gathering over 300 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the deprivations and violence against Jews inflicted during the state-led pogrom of 9-10 November 1938. Following the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, however, it became increasingly obvious that the JCIO could no longer remain in Amsterdam, not least because the Dutch authorities were becoming increasingly hostile to anti-Nazi work as continental politics became more immediately threatening.
Wiener was able to transport the majority of the Library’s collections to London in 1939, but tragically not every employee got out at this this time. Wiener’s wife Margarethe, who had played a major role in supporting the work of the JCIO, remained in Amsterdam with their three daughters. Kurt Zielenziger and Bernhard Krieg were also employees of the JCIO who were unable to get out prior to the invasion of the Netherlands by the Nazis the following year. Margarethe, Kurt, and Bernhard were all deported to and imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen and subjected to horrific treatment which none of them survived.
‘The Boys’ arriving at Windermere - some child survivors of the Holocaust disembarking in Britain (© Wiener Library)
Margarethe and Alfred Wiener’s daughters did survive, however, and after the war they were reunited with their father in the United States. Alfred Wiener had spent much of the war in New York obtaining useful books after the supply to Britain had dried up. The JCIO in London had become a vital resource for the Allied governments, serving the Political Warfare Intelligence department, among others, with detailed dossiers of information about the Nazi state and its leading figures.
After the war, the Library continued to be a vital resource, for example during the Nuremberg trials and later the Eichmann trial. It also served as an important focal point for the monitoring of resurgent fascism and antisemitism. In addition, Wiener demonstrated a deep commitment to restoring elements of his relationship with Germany. He was active in working with the German Embassy, for example, and this led to a visits to the Library from Thomas Mann and Theodor Heuss. This was not uncontroversial, as evidenced by correspondence and news reports from the time. However, Wiener remained convinced of the profound value of German culture and German-Jewish culture in particular.
Supporting the Germania Judaica
Wiener’s involvement in the establishment of the Germania Judaica special collections in 1959 is explicable considering this postwar commitment to re-establishing links between the German-Jewish refugee community in Britain and institutions in Germany. It also reminds us, however, of Wiener’s early interest in theology and the reform movement in Berlin. It is perhaps a reflection of the fact that often in later life, people rediscover a passion for things pursued in younger years that have been impossible to work on in the interim. In Wiener’s case, the gulf that separated him from the Germany of his youth was immense and ultimately unbridgeable. It is therefore all the more impressive that he undertook efforts with such lasting beneficial effects such as working to establish a collection of thousands of volumes not only at The Wiener Library in London, but also in Cologne in the form of the Germania Judaica Spezialbibliothek.
Dr Toby Simpson is the director of the Wiener Holocaust Library.
Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library by Ben Barkow (Vallentine Mitchell, 1997)
The Fatherland and the Jews: Two pamphlets 1919 & 1926 by Alfred Wiener (Granta, 2020)
‘Wiener Holocaust Library holdings on Wissenschaft des Judentums’ by Howard Falksohn (West London Synagogue Review, forthcoming, 2023).
Titel image © Wiener Library