A historic delve at the Wiener Library

Seventy-three years on: Ephraims’ postcards rediscovered

A few weeks back I made a visit to London’s Wiener Library, in Bloomsbury – a few paces from the British Museum (29 Russell Square; www.wienerlibrary.co.uk). It owes its origins to  Alfred Wiener (1885-1964), who fought in World War I. He was an academic orientalist and secretary of a Jewish human rights group, and while in Berlin in 1928 he set up a collection of documents charting the development of anti-Semitism. It is the only Holocaust-related institution in the world that predates Hitler’s rise to power.

This was not originally intended as a library but his archive grew rapidly.  In 1933 he realised the danger to his family so moved to Amsterdam with his collection. Five years later he packed up the whole lot and moved it to London, where the Wiener Library opened in 1939.

The Tuesday tour

I was drawn to the place after Googling for Martin Ephraim and discovering that the library holds a number items of correspondence written by him during World War II from three addresses in Berlin.

I timed my visit with the highly recommended free Tuesday lunchtime tour of the establishment. Our volunteer guide Kerrstyn showed us  to the store rooms: a Hitler Youth colouring book, a Lyons tea sachet concealing a German resistance pamphlet, the family archive of the Neumann family in Essen with a certificate pronouncing the takeover of the  Jewish textile factory in 1938. We glimpsed shelves and shelves of this vast collection, including its archive of 17,000 photos.

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In the reception hall is this hauntingly sinister board game from the Third Reich. Called “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out), it was manufactured in Dresden in 1936 and bears the legend in the bottom right-hand corner ‘”Auf nach Palӓstina!” (Begone to Palestine!). The rule state: “show your skill with the dice by collecting as many Jews as you can! If you succeed in chasing out 6 Jews you will be the unquestioned victor!”

During the war, Wiener arrived in England and was like many other alien Jews interred in the Isle of Man; meanwhile his parents were trapped in Berlin. He later joined the Home Guard in the Midlands and spent some time in the USA. He was involved in  working for the Jewish Relief Unit from 1946 to 1949 and it was not until 1947 that he found out about the deaths of his parents in concentration camps.

The library played an important part in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg Trials, and its resources were also used in the libel case against Holocaust denier David Irving in 2000.

Martin Ephraim’s missives

Ephraim postcards in Wiener libraryIt was quite something to handle these postcards (and one letter) last touched by a family member in the early 1940s. Dating from 1941 to 1943 they were all addressed to Felix Hepner at the Pension Beau Séjour in Vevey in Switzerland and written by my great-grandfather Martin Ephraim (presumably in that much-cherished fountain pen he kept in Theresienstadt only to lose it to another inmate who ended up on the special transport from there to Switzerland, as described elsewhere on this blog).

They appear to be thanks for various things sent, including tins of sardines and cocoa. In one card he says he knows the whereabouts of two of his daughters, but has no news of Vera (my mother’s mother, whose end in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland was not confirmed until after the end of the war).

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The last known correspondence from Martin Ephraim, dated 20 December 1943. He was at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, which astonishingly was in use until the end of the war. From here he was deported on 10 January 1944 to Theresienstadt, where he died in April of the same year.

The addresses are all from Berlin: Moselstrasse 10, Heilbronne Strasse 28 (marked “deportiert” – deported), Iranische Strasse 2 (the Jewish Hospital, described on the previous post in this blog, where he was until being deported to Theresienstadt). The last one, from the Jewish Hospital, room 261, is dated 20 December 1943.

He signs off: “Dein alter Freund, Martin” – your old friend, Martin. I’ve not been able to find out more about Felix and where he slots into the Ephraim story.

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