Dr Margarethe Wiener (née Saulmann) was born in 1895 in Hamburg, Germany, to Louis and Clara (née Cohn) Saulmann. After leaving school, Margarethe continued her studies at the University of Bonn, where she obtained a PhD in economics. By the early 1920’s, Margarethe Saulmann had moved to Berlin, where she met and married Dr Alfred Wiener in 1921. The couple had four children: Carl, born in 1922, Ruth, born in 1927, Eva, born in 1930, and Mirjam, born in 1933. In 1928, Carl died from appendicitis aged just six.
After having children, Margarethe proved herself as a formidable academic. She published acclaimed papers scrutinising the Nazis’ economic policy and highlighting the dangerous antisemitic nature of the party. She also held a leading position in the Union of Women Economists.
As staunch anti-Nazis, the Wieners foresaw the danger of the Nazis’ rise to power earlier than most. In 1933, they emigrated to Amsterdam with their three young daughters and Alfred’s mother, Amalia. The Wieners were joined in Amsterdam by Margarethe’s sister and brother-in-law, Gertrud ‘Nuti’ Abraham and Jean Abraham, and their son Fritz. After their arrival in Holland, Alfred Wiener founded the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO) – the Library’s predecessor organisation – at 14 Jan van Eyckstraat, Amsterdam. The Wiener family lived in the apartment above the JCIO, and, as the years passed, settled into life in Amsterdam.
However, just six years later, with war on the horizon, the family decided that Amsterdam was no longer a safe haven, and that both the JCIO and the family should relocate to London. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Alfred Wiener moved the Library safely to London. Margarethe and the three girls, who had been due to follow Alfred, were trapped in Holland at the time of the German invasion in May 1940.
On 20 June 1943, Margarethe, Ruth, Eva, and Mirjam as well as Gertrud, Jean and Fritz were detained by the Nazis and sent to Westerbork transit camp. Less than one month after their arrival, on 13 July 1943, Gertrud, Jean and Fritz Abraham were deported to Sobibór extermination camp, where they were murdered. In an interview in 2009, Mirjam recalled Margarethe’s heartbreak at her sister’s deportation from Westerbork:
“…my aunt, my mother’s sister, Gertrude – Tante Nuti we called her – with her son and husband were also there [Westerbork]. […] They were on a list and my mother was desperate. She dearly loved her sister and if we hadn’t been there – us children – she would have definitely gone with them. But, as it was of course, she didn’t. She stayed with us and they went off and they were never heard of again.”
Margarethe, Ruth, Eva and Mirjam were imprisoned in Westerbork for seven months until January 1944, after which they were deported to Bergen-Belsen. After a year in the camp, in January 1945, the family were chosen for a rare opportunity to be part of a prisoner exchange scheme between Germany and the United States and were placed on a train to Switzerland – where they finally regained their freedom. Shortly after crossing the border, Margarethe, whose health had slowly deteriorated over the course of their imprisonment, was too ill to continue travelling. On 25 January 1945, she was taken into a Swiss hospital where she died just a few hours later.
Alfred Wiener, who had spent the war years setting up the Library in London and helping the British war effort, was informed of his wife’s death, and children’s survival, by telegram. He was finally reunited with Ruth, Eva and Mirjam the following month in New York, where they had been taken by the Red Cross.
It was in New York that Ruth, now aged eighteen, wrote the following poem remembering her mother, and commemorating her untimely death:
Mother Her picture sits there, so beautiful and good. It testifies to her courage to face life. To her kindness, her strength To everything she achieved She was so ordinary, but so intelligent But most of all good from the bottom of her heart. First the others, then me, She forgot herself when working She was always on call for us With support, advice and friendliness When someone was ill, she was there And cared for us, she never went away She was a brave woman during the war But unfortunately, there was no victory for her She could not experience freedom But her last will and endeavour Was our return to Papa I thank you, God, it is now true.
Ruth’s dedication to her mother, so soon after her own liberation, is extremely moving and a testament to the powerful nature of documents, such as these, that can humanise the millions lost in the Holocaust.
That hateful rhetoric similar to that asserted by the Nazis persists today is just one of the reasons that the continued existence, and activities, of the Library, is so vital. But, as a charity, the Library’s work is reliant on the continued support of our allies, old and new.
Between 1st – 8th December 2020, the Library is lucky to be participating in the Big Give Christmas Campaign, where all donations to the organisation will be doubled. If you can spare a donation, so that we can continue to protect our collections and remember stories such as Margarethe’s, we would be forever thankful.