On 23 February we welcomed special guests to the Library for the launch of our latest exhibition, Holocaust Letters. Our speakers for the evening included the Director of the Library Dr Toby Simpson, our Director of Research Dr Christine Schmidt, and those who have generously donated their own family’s Holocaust-era letters and curated a panel of the exhibition.

Sandra Lipner, who has co-curated the display with Christine Schmidt, told the audience “we inherit these things, and then we have to do something with them”. She described her own discovery of a cache of letters written and sent between her family members in Germany, which sparked her research into family letters from the Holocaust as evidence of the earliest forms of Holocaust knowledge. They show how knowledge of the persecution of Europe’s Jews unfolded in real time, what people knew, and what they did with that information.

Vic Eckstein gave a remarkable speech about his family’s letters. On discovering letters between his late father and his father’s sister in an attic in 2020, he said it was “like hearing my father’s voice again”. His father, Arnošt Eckstein, a Czech Jew, thought he was the sole survivor of deportation to Auschwitz in his immediate family. That is, until he saw a Soviet film reel in the cinema which showed footage of his daughter Jana, who he believed had been murdered. Arnošt spent the rest of his life searching for his daughter, but when he died in the 1960s he had not succeeded. Vic continues this search for his lost half sister to this day.

Deborah Jaffé, whose father Friedel’s typewriter features in the exhibition, described the archival biography of her family’s documents, and she urged visitors to keep their family’s papers so that they could be preserved and safeguarded for the future.

Michael Rosen, whose family’s letters also appear in the exhibition described the fate of one relative, Michał Rechnitz. Transported to a Soviet labour camp, Michał corresponded via postcards with his mother and father, Stella and Bernard. Their letters show both the extent of the family’s knowledge about the Holocaust during the 1940s, but also are incredibly emotional objects. Michał kept the letters throughout the war and beyond, carrying them in a small sewn pouch. The letters show signs of having been handled, Michal likely running his hands over his mother’s words, “you cannot imagine the joy that filled our hearts at the sight of the long-awaited card from you… You’ve saved our lives, which without you would be worthless”.

Michael Rosen emphasised that the exhibition centres Jewish voices, which continues to defy the aims of the Nazis and their collaborators to silence them forever, including from the historical record. 

The exhibition will be on display until the 16 June 2023.