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Chronicling doctors of death who turned tragedy into a board game

PUBLISHED: 12:35 07 July 2008 | UPDATED: 13:25 05 October 2010

ONLY the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by what they discover at the Wiener Library. From disturbing photographs of suffering in Nazi death camps, to the lists of thousands of names of people who perished in them, which have been lovingly recorded in memorial books lining the shelves in their dozens

By Julia Gregory

ONLY the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by what they discover at the Wiener Library.

From disturbing photographs of suffering in Nazi death camps, to the lists of thousands of names of people who perished in them, which have been lovingly recorded in memorial books lining the shelves in their dozens.

Here are the details of just one, Waclaw Gronchowski, born in Warshau in February 18, 1910, who died at Bergen-Belsen on February 13, 1945, just two months before the end of the War in Europe.

If you want to find out what life and death was like for Waclaw Gronchowski, it is documented in books, personal testimonies and photographs.

The library, in a five-storey town house near Regent's Park, specialises in the Holocaust, modern Jewish history, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and post-war fascist movements. It has 6,000 visitors a year.

Just across the way in Devonshire Street in Marylebone is the Masons Arms, which turns out to be appropriate as Masons helped the Jews in Nazi Germany, some even ending up in concentration camps themselves for their pains.

But the library could soon be on the move to London's East End in a case of 'musical archive chairs' when its lease runs out on the building in Devonshire Street next year.

The Tower Hamlets local history library could be forced to move from its listed building in Mile End, the Victorian Bancroft Vestry Hall, as Tower Hamlets council plans to sell it.

In a bizarre twist of fate, the potential buyer Queen Mary College next door might offer it to the Wiener Library as its new headquarters. One archive would move out to make room for another.

The Wiener's collection includes more than 60,000 books, 10,000 photographs and 1,400 collections of private documents. They cover subjects including refugees, internment and war crimes trials. The collection is growing every year.

It was founded by Alfred Wiener and a group of Jewish refugees in Amsterdam in 1933 as the Jewish Central Information.

In 1939, Wiener evacuated his collection across the Channel to London, which already covered 10 years of struggles against fascism and the rise of the Nazis.

Now it is about to go on the move again, as its long lease in Marylebone runs out next year.

Staff searching for a new home have looked at Bancroft Hall and also a five-storey building in Russell Square owned by Birbeck College, not far from the British Museum.

But Wiener volunteers may not be too keen travelling to East London. A West End location like Russell Square might be more suitable for an internationally-renowned collection.

There are boxes of private letters and diaries which are testament to the horrors of the Holocaust, alongside volumes covering the 1946 Nuremberg war crimes trials after the War. There are also books about the best of human nature, including the Jewish prisoners' orchestra at Auschwitz which offered some cultural respite from the horrors of the death camp.

But the Wiener essentially chronicles the worst of human behaviour. There are volumes about the 'Doctors From Hell' who experimented on their prisoners at the camps.

You can leaf through a 'dictionary of Nazi German', all 457 pages of words created by Hitler's regime, to learn how even language was corrupted by hatred.

You can request to see one of the sickest and most revolting ideas for a racist board game ever made, called Juden Raus. There appear to be only two copies of this board 'game' in existence, one at the Wiener, the other being at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage.

All this could be on the move out of Central London by 2009.

The library's director Ben Barkow is exploring various options for its long-term accommodation.

One of those options he says is discussion with Queen Mary college at Mile Ende, which wants to buy Bancroft Hall. It would involve collaboration and the possibility of the Wiener Library relocating on to the expanded college campus, he admits.

"However, as you would expect, we are also in discussion with other potential partners.

The Bancroft has 'excellent potential' as a home for a collection such as the Wiener, as it is "purpose-built as a library," though that is not strictly true, as the Bancroft was built as the Vestry Hall, por Town Hall, of the former Mile End Old Town municipality which was incorporated into the new Metropolitan Borough of Stepney in 1900.

The refurbishment of the Bancroft would be a matter for Queen Mary, he revealed, since they would occupy "the majority of the building" as it is the college, not the Wiener Library, which was hoping to acquire it.

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