Inside the London Holocaust library

Marylebone is home to the world‘s oldest Holocaust library. Time Out finds a collection overflowing with horrifying yet historically precious documents

  • Inside the London Holocaust library

    Wiener Library director Ben Barkow

  • You wouldn’t know from looking at it but 4 Devonshire Street, a shabby Marylebone townhouse, contains one of the world’s most important collections of Holocaust material. Spread throughout the house, spilling into attic and basement, are the photos, letters, documents, journals and books that form the Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust library, originally founded in Berlin in the 1920s by German Jew Dr Alfred Wiener to chronicle the anti-semitism of the National Socialist party.

    As the Nazis prospered, Wiener moved his collection to Amsterdam, where it became the Jewish Central Information Office and acted as an informal resistance, and then to London, where it is used by academics, students and relatives of victims and survivors. The collection, once a source for British intelligence, has been in this building since 1958, but the house is being turned into offices, so the library is looking for a new home.

    ‘The move will cost £2.5 million,’ says the library’s director, Ben Barkow. ‘We are very keen to get closer to academic life in London, so we’ve been talking to Birkbeck, University of London, about taking over one of their buildings. But we want to maintain our independence, in our own space, with our own front door – it’s no good if our users have to come through the college, they have to be able to come in off the street.’

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    Items at the library include a Nazi board game where pieces depicting Jews had to be rounded up

    Like many of the library’s staff, Barkow, who was born in Berlin but has lived in London since he was four, has a personal connection with the subject. ‘My family were bound up in the history on both sides,’ he says of a ‘complicated but not unusual’ background that features one relative who died in Auschwitz and another who was a member of the Nazi party.

    Barkow has worked in the library for 20 years so is familiar with the wealth of material it contains: a board game that rewards the player who rounds up the most Jews; 1930s telephone directories that contain addresses of soon-to-be-displaced Jewish residents; contemporary periodicals written by former SS officers; and a photo archive of 10,000 images. The last can be devastating, as Barkow knows from his time running the photo archive.

    ‘It was very disturbing and I had nightmares often,’ says Barkow. ‘It only really stopped after I came across a picture from Bergen-Belsen of a pile of bodies and there was one lying at a very awkward angle, but you could see the face. I found myself talking to that person, saying that whatever had been done to them, I would make it my responsibility to see that at least this image was treated respectfully. After that, I stopped having nightmares and I could work with the material having accepted that responsibility.’

    It is the immediacy of the material that makes the Wiener Library so different. ‘This isn’t retrospective,’ says Barkow. ‘This has existed since the 1920s and was created by a group of Jews from Germany who could see what was coming, were desperate to stop it happening, and then witnessed it unfold. We have a direct connection to the material and you see that reflected in the things we have – letters, badges and leaflets.’

    The library is constantly acquiring material. ‘We’re growing by about 70 collections a year – anything from a couple of letters to boxes of diaries,’ says Barkow. ‘We don’t have room, but if we don’t take it, it will be lost. We’ve gone into skips to fetch stuff out before.’

    The Wiener Library maintains an academic detachment from its material and Barkow insists that they ‘are not a campaigning organisation, we’re a library of record. We collect material and make it available to people.’ Not all people: David Irving, a regular visitor, was banned after he became an outright Holocaust denier.

    The library hopes for more space so it can function as a forum for the media, researchers, academics and policy makers. The organisers would also like a permanent exhibition space and are hoping to cover other genocides. But the Holocaust will always be at the library’s heart.

    Bridget McGing, the marketing manager, says: ‘The historian Richard Evans used us when he went up against Irving during the Deborah Lipstadt case. We are unique in Britain in being able to provide that sort of help. During the Nuremberg trials [of Nazi war criminals] we played such an important part that we were given a set of the signed Nuremberg papers. That’s the role we play, sitting quietly, stoically, gathering all the facts, and helping to make a difference.’

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