By Sarah Stoffaneller
Walking towards the Wiener Library from UCL means passing Senate House Library on the way. The impression this enormous and slightly unsettling building (I’m thinking about Orwell’s 1984) always leaves on me, almost made me walk past the very inconspicuous Georgian Terrace House that the Wiener Library is located in. Although through its sheer size and number of publications it possesses, the Senate House might easily be conceived as the more interesting institution of the two, it is worth taking a closer look behind the small plaque that marks the entrance of the Wiener Library. After a short conversation with the librarian, it soon becomes clear that its collection is just as impressive and essential, mainly for its meticulous accumulation of literature and documents concerning the Holocaust.
As an institution, the Wiener Library is unique, certainly in the UK, and also internationally, especially since it is the world’s oldest Holocaust library. This is not surprising, considering that it predates the Holocaust. It all started with Dr Albert Wiener, a German Jew who, in the early 1930s, became aware of the danger that the Nazis presented to the Jewish community. His aim was to establish an archive that gathers information about the Nazi ideology and preserves it for posterity. In the following years, the library’s resources consisting of propaganda pamphlets and documents were used for campaigns against the Nazi Party and later offered an important source of information in the Nuremberg Trials.
Wiener’s wife and children were deported to concentration camps but released in a prisoner exchange. Wiener and his family ultimately left Germany for Amsterdam and he later moved his archive to London. Here, it has changed its location frequently until six years ago, it settled in Bloomsbury where the building offers enough space for parts of the collection, reading rooms and exhibition space. The temporary exhibitions (3-4 months) support the library’s mission to address issues of the Holocaust but also examine broader issues of genocides, such as the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century. The current exhibition is titled ‘Science and Suffering. Victims and Perpetrators of Nazi Human Experimentation’ and addresses the atrocities the Nazis committed in the name of ‘medical research’.
Today, the library is still continuously expanding and contains a wide range of books, pamphlets, newspapers and, through the incorporation of private collections, also a broad collection of photographs and letters. It serves as a main focal point for students and academics researching the Holocaust and people tracing back their genealogy. My advice would therefore be: Try not to get too overwhelmed by the sight of Senate House and soon drop your gaze again or you’ll miss this landmark of Jewish history which works so hard in order to keep us from forgetting this horrible chapter of our past.