The Wiener Library and its Eyewitness Accounts

“We all have a duty to fulfil towards our past,” implored Dr. Eva Reichmann, the former Director of Research at the Wiener Library (WL), in a short front-page appeal in the journal of the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom in November 1954. Reichmann’s impassioned appeal launched the WL’s ambitious effort in the mid-1950s to record testimonies about the Holocaust.

This 1950s testimony project grew out of the WL’s efforts to study and collect evidence about the rise of Nazism, which had already begun long before the Nazis came to power in 1933, and later the Holocaust. The WL traces its roots to Germany in the 1920s, when its namesake, Alfred Wiener, began to document, lobby, and speak out publicly against the rise of antisemitism. At the time, Wiener worked for the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens) to combat antisemitism and to collect information about the rise of the Nazis, which formed the basis of campaigns intended to undermine their activities. In 1933, Wiener fled from Germany to the Netherlands and his first collection of materials was destroyed. Later that year, he created the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO) with the help of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association. The JCIO continued the work of the earlier archive.

Following the November Pogrom in 1938, Wiener began to prepare to move the collections again, this time to the United Kingdom. It arrived during the summer of 1939, just before Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Throughout the war, the JCIO served the British government as it fought the Nazi regime. The collection was increasingly referred to as “Dr. Wiener’s Library” and eventually this led to its renaming.

After the war, the WL and its staff, many of whom were German-speaking Jewish refugees, made a concerted effort to gather the perspectives and experiences of the victims of persecution. This effort came at a time when other ‘early’ record- and testimony-collecting projects had begun to wind down, but before the widespread push to record survivor testimony of the 1980s and 1990s.

Over a period of about seven years, and with financial support from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Eva Reichmann and her team gathered reports from refugees and survivors in the United Kingdom and abroad. The interviewees recounted their experiences of events from 1933 through to the end of the war as well as its aftermath. Calls for interviewees were issued in the British and continental European press, with many also found through networking and word-of-mouth. Trained interviewers – many of whom were often survivors or spouses of survivors – recorded, transcribed, edited, and indexed the accounts under Reichmann’s direction. In addition to survivors’ testimonies, the collection also includes contemporary documents and letters.

Reichmann and her associates began close to London and gradually spun out further and further as their network of interviewers and interviewees widened. Reichmann’s methodology was described in The Wiener Library Bulletin in autumn 1955:

Only occasionally the reports will be drawn up by the authors themselves; usually the eye witnesses are visited by one of the Library’s interviewers for one or more conversations. During these the interviewer tries to elicit as much information as possible and, on the strength of it, writes the report. This is submitted to the interviewed person to ensure that it contains no mistake or misunderstanding, and is subsequently incorporated into our archives. For the purposes of reference, it is analysed, catalogued and cross-indexed.

Unlike more contemporary projects that have collected survivor testimonies, which often seek to preserve the exact wording and recollections of the witness as they were stated, Reichmann and her team analyzed the reports for accuracy in dates and other criteria, annotated and corrected them, and ensured that the interviewee signed the updated eyewitness report.

At the same time, the annotations and related correspondence indicate that Reichmann and her colleagues tried to preserve to the greatest possible extent the character and meaning of the author of the report, particularly where they could not verify particular details or were unclear about certain forms of expression, especially from those who were writing in German but whose first language may have been something else.

The project successfully gathered more than 1,300 reports in seven different languages over a seven-year period and will serve as a new digital resource to be published by the Wiener Library in 2019.