A photograph of Lord Eric Pickles, Floriane Azouley, and Dr Toby Simpson with Rachel Wingert
Lord Eric Pickles, Floriane Azouley, Rachel Wingert, and Dr Toby Simpson

Today we were joined by representatives from the Arolsen Archives, Lord Eric Pickles, and the surviving family member of Hans-Joachim Bünger, arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis.

Born in 1920, Hans-Joachim was a chemist living in Dresden until his arrest and deportation in 1943. He was incarcerated firstly in Buchenwald concentration camp and then Neuengamme. All his personal items were stolen from him, including a black pen. This pen has been housed by the Arolsen Archives since the 1960s, but recent research has uncovered relatives of Hans-Joachim living in London.

The Arolsen Archives contains over 30 million paper records testifying to the brutality of Nazi persecution, and the experiences of over 17.5 million of their victims. A less well-known part of the archive is a collection of around 2,500 personal items stolen from people on their entry into the concentration camp system. These small, every-day items – wedding bands, earrings, watches, photographs – become hugely powerful, tangible connections with the people who owned them, and the suffering they underwent. The objects have immense value to the surviving relatives of the victims, and Arolsen Archives are working to try to reunite these items with the families of the original owners.

The pen belonging to Hans-Joachim was returned to Rachel Wingert in a special ceremony by the UK’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust issues, Lord Eric Pickles, and Floriane Azouley, Director of the Arolsen Archives.

Hans-Joachim Bünger's pen retrieved from the Neuengamme concentration camp © Arolsen Archives
Hans-Joachim Bünger’s pen retrieved from the Neuengamme concentration camp © Arolsen Archives

Rachel said: ‘I knew many years ago the Arolsen Archives had the pen. I never through it would be returned to me and I didn’t think to ask. It is interesting that he had an expectation going to the concentration camp he felt the pen would be important. It says a lot about him that that’s what he chose to take with him. I’m very very happy to have this, and although Germans kept it for a while under bad circumstances, the Arolsen Archives has kept it since 1964, and I’m so grateful that they took such care of it.’

This was the first time that an object from this remarkable archive has been returned to a surviving family member in London. In this case the choice of setting was significant, as it was the British army who liberated Neuengamme camp, and must have made sure the pen was taken somewhere where it could be kept. Director of the Arolsen Archives, Floriane Azouley, said: ‘The story of the pen is also the story of two countries, and how things can be made right, even if it takes some time.’

Floriane continued that they have much more in the archive, and it is her conviction that these objects don’t belong there. In a relatively short period of time they have managed to return items to 800 families. She said every time they return something it ‘gives the strength and resolve to continue’.