As part of London’s Museum Lates season, I spent an hour touring the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide.
Officially established in 1939 by Dr Alfred Wiener, the library was the first to document the Holocaust. Today it contains 70,000 books and continues to accept donations – letters, photos, drawings, leaflets etc. as well as books – from that period in time, in addition to contemporary material. Donations from individuals serve to humanise the victims of genocide, and combat the faceless portrayal of them by their aggressors.
Collecting and making available evidence of more recent genocides is at the heart of the Wiener Library’s ethos; it strives to catalogue history as it happens and maintain present day relevance. During the Second World War the library was in fact fully funded by the government due to its usefulness in informing on Nazi atrocities, and after making an invaluable contribution to the prosecution case in the Nuremberg Trial received the transcripts. At the time of writing, the library’s most recent acquisition was children’s drawings of genocide in Darfur – harrowing pages of blood-stained childhood innocence that will hopefully preclude future whitewashing by Sudanese government officials and other deniers.
Yet as you might expect, the bulk of the material in the Wiener Library evidences Nazism in European history. In the temperature-controlled bowels of the library where the rarer collections are held, we thumbed through a Nazi arithmetic book from 1941 with questions including how much the government spends on people with congenital illnesses. We also looked at what would have seemed to be a fairly benign Nazi colouring book; an anti-Nazi manifesto printed in miniature and hidden in a teabag packet; a photo album of a Holocaust survivor; and a copy of Der Freiwillige, a neo-Nazi publication still in circulation.
I often hear Jews lampooned for harping on about the Holocaust. But keeping the discourse alive is crucial to preventing genocide reoccurring. With right-wing extremist thought regarding immigration re-emerging across Europe today, I lament how quickly people seem to forget grave mistakes of the past. Collections like the Wiener Library’s plead with us to remember, as well as to recognise that crimes against humanity continue to happen.