Power of language in good and evil and the part words played in the Holocaust

Dr Alfred Wiener at his desk in 1953
Dr Alfred Wiener at his desk in 1953

There have already been talks, exhibitions and memorial events throughout Northern Ireland in advance of the forthcoming Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January.

Many more events are pending, in libraries, churches, schools and public buildings, on and before the day when the world remembers the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the millions of people killed in Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

Gertie Kessler's refugee identity card

Gertie Kessler's refugee identity card

The day marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, on 27th January1945.

The liberation came too late to save the life of my Austrian-Jewish grandfather Leopold Kessler who died in Bełżec extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, probably in 1942.

My then teenage mother Gertie and her little brother Fritz came to Northern Ireland from Vienna in a Kindertransport train.

Mum married and settled here and rarely talked of her traumatic childhood in Vienna, or of her terrifying escape to freedom, but in her later years I shared sad and silent thoughts with her on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Six year old Anne Frank in 1940

Six year old Anne Frank in 1940

Many of the sounds and scenes etched in her memory were beyond description, bound by words too deep to speak.

The power of words is the theme for this year’s Memorial Day, summarised succinctly by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) – “words can make a difference, both for good and evil”.

Whilst hiding from the Gestapo in Amsterdam, prior to being transported to her death in concentration camp, Anne Frank wrote in her diary: “I am so grateful to God for having given me this gift…to express all that’s in me. When I write…my sorrow disappears; my spirits are revived.”

Spoken and written words, personal or public, can have enormous impact.

HMDT highlights: “the impact that words had in the Holocaust and during subsequent genocides, through propaganda used to incite, through slogans written in resistance, and in memoirs written to record and respond to what was going on.”

Amongst the many local memorial events here is an entrance free talk in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library by Dr Barbara Warnock on Tuesday 23rd January at 1.00pm.

Dr Warnock is the education and outreach manager at London’s Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide.

Entitled ‘A Proud History? Britain and the Kindertransport 1938-1940’, her illustrated talk outlines the story of the trains which transported children like my mother and brother to safety in Britain.

“I’ll be recounting the history of the library too,” Dr Warnock told me, “and about the archives.

She’ll also be explaining the question mark in the title of her talk – “A Proud History?”

“The Kindertransport is often cited as a memorable part of British history,” Dr Warnock told me, “but four out of five of the transported children lost one or both parents. The trains left a lot of people behind.”

The day my mum left Vienna her father “dressed up” to hide his Jewish looks, and with wife Ernestine brought Gertie and Fritz to the railway station.

“It took three days and three nights to get to Holland, a nightmare journey for two children,” my mum recounted in later years, “the last thing I remember is my mother running down the platform beside the train as it got quicker and quicker…she couldn’t run as fast as the train, and then that’s the last I saw of her till after the war.”

Mum said that the train was packed with children “and when we arrived in Holland there weren’t so many of us left. Some were taken away by the Gestapo to do experiments on”.

The Wiener Library (www.wienerlibrary.co.uk) is Britain’s main Holocaust library, containing the oldest collection of its kind in the world – 65,000 books and documents including over 400 original Nazi publications used to indoctrinate children in the Third Reich with Nazi ideology.

The library holds over 45,000 photographs and images of the Holocaust and related subjects.

Many are harrowing.

There are Red Cross letters, limited to 25 words, the only communication my mother had with her father in concentration camp.

There are refugee identity cards and personal papers and Nazi board games like Juden Raus (‘Jews Out’), which has been described as “history’s most infamous board game”.

There are over one million press cuttings, and the International Tracing Service Archive contains over 30 million pages of Holocaust-era documents relating to the fate of over 17.5 million people who were subject to incarceration, forced labour and displacement during and after the Second World War.

The library’s roots go back to Germany in the 1920s.

Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew, having fought in the Second World War, returned to Germany in 1919 and was horrified at the surge of right-wing anti-semitism, which blamed Jews for the defeat.

He instigated the opening of an archive containing information about the Nazis, which formed the basis of campaigns to undermine their activities.

Dr Wiener fled Germany with his family in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam.

His original archive is believed to have been destroyed, but he set up the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO), essentially continuing the work of the earlier archive.

In 1939 Wiener’s collection came to the UK where it served the British government and after the war assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial.

In 2011 it moved to its current premises in London’s Russell Square and is among the largest and most respected collection of its kind in the world.

Further information about Dr Barbara Warnock’s talk is at www.linenhall.com.