Next up on my whistle-stop tour of London archives is the Wiener Library, nestled opposite Russell Square and located in close proximity to Senate House and SOAS university. The Wiener Library has a fascinating history as an ‘eyewitness’ archive that recorded and documented Nazi atrocities from the 1920s onwards.
The library was originally founded by Dr Alfred Wiener in response to the surge of right-wing antisemitism in Germany and used as a device to monitor and collect information on the Nazi Party. Dr Wiener later fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam, where he set up the Jewish Central Information Office at the request of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association.
Following the November Pogrom of 1938, Wiener made preparations to transfer his collection to the UK, which later served to help the British Government as it fought the Nazi regime. In the post-war years the library assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial, amassed early survivor testimony and helped to shape the emerging academic study of the Holocaust.
I first came across the Wiener Library at an archives conference hosted at the London Metropolitan Archives earlier in June. The Wiener Library came up again a few months later following an email exchange with an archivist at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany. I’d originally got in touch to gather more information about a series of records created by the Hong Kong branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) featured on the ITS website. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately for the prospect of any future Euro trips!) the ITS archivist kindly advised me that digitised copies of the UNHCR records were housed at the Wiener Library, having been donated by the Foreign Office in 2011. A couple of days later I braved the wind, rain and generally miserable London weather to take a closer look at the records held on the library’s computer terminals – and what I found was well worth the visit.
The library’s UNHCR records provide a near complete set of case files – over 80,000 in fact – created by the organisation’s Hong Kong branch from around 1951 onwards. The files pertain to individuals or families who stayed in Hong Kong or in the Asia region and include documents and application forms concerning assistance, resettlement and emigration to various countries. The collection has been catalogued by first name, surname and date of birth. The library staff kindly allow patrons to copy documents (onto Wiener Library USB’s to avoid viruses and malware) which means files can be taken home for closer analysis.
Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of records held in the UNHCR collection make it difficult to refine searches unless names are cross-referenced across archives or according to a pre-designated list. For example, not all of the individuals recorded as part of the collection may have transited through Hong Kong, and individually saving 80,000 documents onto a fair few USB’s is also no mean feat!
Needless to say, it’s clear that these records will be an invaluable resource for the Hong Kong Refuge project. The UNHCR collection includes official and administrative information on European Jewish and White Russian refugees exiting China, reports and memorandums written by the Kadoorie brothers (Lawrence Kadoorie, later Lord, and Horace Kadoorie, later Sir) and correspondence with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) Philippines and Far East Branch and Shanghai Branch, as well as government departments such as the Hong Kong Immigration Department.
Now that the collection has been located, the hard work of sifting through the UNHCR files and pin-pointing the refugees who transited through Hong Kong begins.