Long read

Collecting for the Holocaust Exhibition

When The Holocaust Exhibition opened in June 2000 one reviewer wrote: ‘tireless searching for artefacts, relics and film has given us something which takes at least two hours to examine properly and will, I suspect, stay in the memory forever’.

We put this quotation on the posters that advertised the exhibition on the London Underground - it said it all about the research and effort that had gone into building up IWM's Holocaust collections.

Capturing Family History

The acquisition of Holocaust-related records and objects is an urgent and vital task for IWM - the present decade is our last chance to acquire memorabilia and information from families with a direct memory of Nazi persecution.

Material is not easy to find. To survive years of harsh treatment and murderous persecution was not the norm, and for those who did come out of the camps, liberation brought long waits for visas, temporary lodgings, and often several ‘false starts’ at a new life. Sometimes all that remains of an entire family history is a set of immigration papers and a letter from the Red Cross with the news that sought-after parents could not be found.

Where in the late 1990s we saw many camp survivors visit the museum, today our visitors tend to be the children of survivors or former refugees to this country. Roughly 50,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia arrived in Britain before 1939 so there was a strong demographic impact. Lives were changed forever in those years - and many struggled to cope with a new language, new customs and the distress of not knowing what had happened to family members trapped in Nazi Europe.

Young Lives Changed Forever

A peculiarly British story - that of the Kindertransport - is now extremely well documented with numerous examples of possessions brought by the Kinder when they arrived in this country just before war broke out: prayer books, embroidered pillow-cases, rucksacks, suitcases, dolls and magazines of the time.

There is a wealth of social history to be uncovered in this collection, but the strongest message to emerge is the foreboding felt by the parents as they sent their children to safety overseas - the overcoat bought several sizes too big; the gifts of wedding veils and bedlinen from mothers’ trouseaux. As one former Kind said: ‘there is an eloquence in those suitcases which says as much about the parents of the Kindertransport children as about the children themselves’.

There are occasional insights into the broader story of how Britain reacted to the arrival of refugees from Europe. An 82-year-old came to see us, wanting to deposit the papers of her late friend. The two had worked together in the same Birmingham factory, but the refugee had found it hard adapting to new circumstances and was disliked by her fellow-workers. A friendship had developed, the older woman influencing our visitor to go to night school and become a teacher. In a cellophane folder of papers a photograph of a little girl in a party-dress taken in pre-First World War Austro-Hungary told its story - for thousands the 1930s and 40s were a period of expectations dashed.

Survival Remembered

Donations of material have come from unexpected quarters. The Department of Trade and Industry got in touch and offered us the last unclaimed item left following the Enemy Property Compensation Scheme - a brooch and bangle deposited with Barclays Bank in 1939 by Marek Kellerman, a brush merchant from Bratislava. Marek Kellerman’s bracelet and tie-pin are now displayed in the exhibition's section on Deportation - a reminder of desperate efforts that were made to safeguard family valuables.

The telephone rings and a story unfolds. A particularly powerful acquisition was a pair of shoes worn on a death march in 1945. They had been owned by Gisele Friedman, who had been deported to Auschwitz where, as well as enduring selections and forced labour, she had been the victim of medical experiments. Friedman ended her days in France, where she entrusted the relics of her wartime ordeal to an English friend. A decade after her death, the friend approached us - seeking a permanent home for what she knew to be historically important items.

Having fragments of a past life turned into a museum story with text, lighting and careful positioning in a showcase has - we have learned - given many of our donors a sense that their family’s tragedy has been recognised and even memorialised. ‘My mother now has a resting place’, one survivor told me, ‘and that is in your exhibition’.

Curious Dolls

A particularly touching acquisition was of two rag dolls, roughly 7 inches tall, male and female, wearing grey and blue striped concentration camp uniforms, the bodies finely stitched from soft cloth, with delicately painted facial features and the numbers 3113 and 8311 printed on tiny labels.

They had been given to a British army officer - Gwyn Edmond Jones - at Belsen in 1945, presumably a gift from survivors in thanks for their freedom. Colleagues at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, referred us to a book by Muriel Knox Doherty - the Australian senior nurse sent to oversee the rehabilitation process at the camp. Doherty’s memoir described how dolls had been crafted during occupational therapy lessons at Bergen-Belsen, and how one 15-year-old ‘with golden hands’ used the fabric of discarded camp uniforms to make dolls in the likeness of camp inmates.

At first sight a cloth doll seems inadequate to represent the aftermath of Belsen. But today we better understand how objects can speak across the decades. The fine stitching suggests someone with tailoring experience - perhaps one of the thousands of Jewish women whose sewing skills saved their lives? The choice to represent a camp inmate - did that spring from a wish to not ‘put away’ her ordeal so fast? What was it like for those women, bent over needles, thread, scissors and piles of fabric, comparing, discussing, consoling, trying to make sense of all they had come through and all they had lost?

This article was adapted from a previous piece by the author, which appeared in the June 2010 issue of Museums Journal.