In November of 1954, a researcher named Eva Reichmann issued an impassioned appeal to Holocaust survivors who had started their lives anew in Great Britain: come to her with their wartime stories, letters, diaries, photos, documents—anything related to the horrors they had suffered under the Nazi regime—so their experiences could be recorded, catalogued and safe-guarded.
“Under no circumstances must this material, written or unwritten, get lost,” she wrote in her call-to-action, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain. “[I]t has to be preserved for the future historian.”
At this early stage after the war, Reichmann, a Jewish historian and sociologist who fled from Germany to Britain in 1939, was already anticipating a day when eyewitnesses to Holocaust history would be gone—a timeline that is fast approaching today. And so she embarked on an ambitious project to collect the testimonies of refugees and survivors across Europe.
She conducted her work in her capacity as research director for the Wiener Library in London, which was founded in 1933 with the goal of collecting information about Nazi persecution. Today, the institution has become one of the world’s largest Holocaust archives. For a new exhibition launched this week, the library is shining light on the efforts of Reichmann and other early Holocaust researchers—pioneers who set out to create a reliable record of one of history’s darkest chapters.
Crimes Uncovered: The First Generation of Holocaust Researchers tells the stories of a diverse group of men and women who, in many cases, had experienced the Nazi persecution they set out to document. Alfred Wiener, the library’s founder and namesake, was a German Jew forced to flee to Amsterdam, and subsequently to England, in the face of mounting anti-Semitism. Early on, Wiener had sensed the dangers of Germany’s rising fascist movement and had started amassing an archive of information about the Nazis, which he brought with him to the U.K. Among the artifacts on display at the exhibition is a 1919 pamphlet in which Wiener warns fellow Jews about the possibility of an orchestrated attack against their community.
Curator Barbara Warnock tells Smithsonian.com that the exhibition was a natural project to take on, given the library’s roots in the field of early Holocaust research. Drawing on the institution's vast collection of more than 1 million objects, the show highlights the prescience, determination and sheer bravery of the earliest documentarians of the Holocaust—some of whom gathered evidence in ghettos and concentration camps, endangering their own lives in the process.
Filip Müller, for instance, secretly collected information about Auschwitz-Birkenau while he was a member of the sonderkommandos, the Jewish prisoners forced to work in gas chambers and the crematoria. Müller gathered lists of Auschwitz SS commanders, and even peeled off a label from a can of Zyklon B—a cyanide-based pesticide used in gas chambers to murder people—and passed them on to two prisoners who were ultimately able to escape the camp with the evidence. Müller knew he was risking his life spiriting away such information; he had seen first-hand how insubordination was punished. In a 1957 document featured in the exhibition, he testifies that an overseer of a crematorium, whom he identifies only as “Kaminsky,” had been executed for “deliberately protect[ing] the illegal resistance activities.”
The exhibition also includes the posthumously published English edition of Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, an account by the activist and historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who orchestrated a clandestine archival project within the ghetto’s walls. Operating under the name Oneg Shabbat, the contributors wrote about their personal experiences of daily life in the ghetto, conducted interviews with their neighbors and amassed a huge trove of documents—everything from photographs, to candy wrappers, to posters calling for resistance. When hundreds of thousands of Jews were being deported from the ghetto to the Treblinka death camp, the secret archivists crammed their materials into milk cans and metal boxes and buried them, hoping that they would someday be discovered.
Ringelblum was ultimately shot to death by the Nazis. A Galician woman named Rachel Auerbach, who escaped the ghetto and went into hiding, was among the few members of Oneg Shabbat who survived the Holocaust. She helped retrieve parts of the archive after the war's end and, following a visit to Treblinka in 1945, wrote a comprehensive book about the extermination camp. An original first edition, Yiddish-language copy of that text, In the Fields of Treblinka, is also on display in the show.
Once the fighting had drawn to a close, and survivors of the genocide had been liberated, the movement to collect evidence was propelled by other urgent needs. War crimes trials were underway, and researchers like Auerbach assisted in Allied efforts to prepare prosecutions against prominent Nazis. Then there was, of course, the matter of tracking down the millions of displaced and dead.
“It was a very chaotic situation,” says Warnock. “[There was] a huge effort to centralize and gather together all documents collected by occupying armies: any death camp records, any transportation records and other Nazi documentation that fell into the Allies’ hands.”
But for researchers like Eva Reichmann, the main impetus for collecting evidence was to piece together a “great narrative” of the Holocaust, one that would endure for generations to come. In her 1954 call-to-action, which is on display at the exhibition, she wrote that bringing war criminals to justice was “by far the weakest motive prompting our call for the preservation of our collective experience.” More important, she explained, was the “perennial wish that the memory of our dead should be enshrined in a dignified account.”
Vital to Reichmann’s mission was gathering testimonies of the Holocaust from the perspectives of a wide range of people who were affected by it. A coversheet of one of the accounts she collected is on view at the exhibition; the document features a Nazi soldier describing his experience on the frontlines—and how he learned of the horrors that were taking place in Auschwitz while he was at battle.
Other early chroniclers of the Holocaust were similarly interested in piecing together a comprehensive record based on eyewitness accounts. In doing so, says Warnock, they set themselves apart from the earliest academic historians of the Second World War, who treated the Holocaust as a chapter within the broader narrative of the Nazi regime, rather than a subject in its own right. She estimates that it took until the late 1960s at the earliest, and perhaps even onto the 1980s, for a larger shift in the framing of the Holocaust to occur in academia. “Until more recent years, early testimonies were kind of forgotten about, and it wasn't a major focus of the work of historians,” she says.
Scholars today, by contrast, are intensely interested in the testimonies of individual witnesses and victims of the Holocaust. And thanks to the foresight of the researchers profiled in the exhibition, contemporary historians have access to a wealth of such precious early firsthand accounts of the attrocities, painstakingly assembled all those years ago.
“We all bear witness,” Reichmann wrote in her appeal to survivors to share their stories with the Wiener Library. Understanding the vast importance such work would hold for future generations, she added, “We all have a duty to fulfill towards our past.”