So here I am in the Wiener Library, looking at photographs of children long since dead, whilst outside is a cold, blue, drizzly November twilight.
The Wiener Library has an archive that documents the rise of anti-semitism in 20th century Europe. Archives, or rather the papers in them, are two-dimensional things. They work like any words written on a page. The paper is flat but the dreams that they induce in us curl upwards like smoke, until they coalesce into the three-dimensional-ness of stories. Books and archives work similarly on our imaginations but the trick with making archives three dimensional is to turn them into exhibitions.
So on that subject there is currently a poignant archive-exhibition at the Wiener Library. It tells the story of the Holocaust of the Roma people during world war two. This is a small and not expensive exhibition. Flat table showcases run the length of the walls and above them are graphic panels with words and pictures. There is just one film. ‘Words on the walls’ have a bad reputation amongst museum designers. Exhibitions, they say, should be so much more than this. But I would answer that it all depends on how good is your choice of words and stories.
And the Wiener Library gets plenty right. They tell this story through the lives of people – Kurt Ansin who was deported to Buchenwald and Auschwitz, where most of his family were murdered, though he himself survived; Vincenz Rose who endured medical experiments in the camps; Theresia Reinhardt, a Roma dancer, one of whose twins died in Auschwitz; and Hans Braun, whose family called him ‘Little Rabbit’ when he was young and who survived being experimented on by Mengele. All these stories unfold for me whilst outside in Bloomsbury a cold, blue twilight thickens in the square, and yellow leaves are mashed across the pavements.
And the artefacts? Well, these are mostly flimsy bits of typing paper, marked with official stamps – boxes for date and place of birth – and titles such as ‘Application for Emigration’. They are only sheets of typing paper but the stories that come out of them are enough to make you weep.
As always at the Wiener Library, the end of the story is important – the what happened afterwards? – the struggle of the victims to get compensation, and the work of the Rememberers – because there are always rememberers – to take down the oral histories and to save the victims’ stories before they die. The interviewers traced, contacted and persuaded the potential interviewees to take part. They then recorded, transcribed, edited and indexed these accounts. From 1955 to 1962 they gathered more than 1,300 testimonies. The Wiener library is a remembering organisation. Rememberers are amazing people. This, like most of the Wiener Library exhibitions, is worth visiting.
‘Forgotten Victims: the Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti’ runs until 11th March 2020. The Wiener Library is at 29 Russell Square, London. The exhibition is free.
The image at the top of the page is of Romani women and children from Alsace in Rivesaltes transit camp, 1941 – 1942.
And if you are interested in Memory the two articles below might interest you.NEXT STORY PREVIOUS STORY