‘Departed without leaving a forwarding address’ – the German Reichspost used this stamp to return post to its sender when the item’s recipient had been deported, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

This exhibition examines Holocaust-era correspondence for evidence of how Jewish persecutees understood what was happening to them as events of the Holocaust unfolded.

Through letters held in the Library’s archive and in private collections, the exhibition will uncover how people exchanged information across borders, in defiance of censors and in the midst of chaos, deportations and destruction.

How did survivors and relatives preserve or come to safeguard letters from the wartime period, and how did these seemingly ordinary objects transform into precious and extraordinary symbols of what was lost?

As one of the world’s leading archives of the history of the Holocaust, the Wiener Holocaust Library houses many collections of Nazi-era family letters.

This exhibition offers a unique opportunity to experience these and to find out what persecutees knew about the events unfolding around them. It illustrates powerfully how knowledge about the Holocaust was produced and exchanged by correspondents across many countries during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war era.

Holocaust Letters is curated by Christine Schmidt and Sandra Lipner, with advisory by Dan Stone, for the Holocaust and Genocide Research Partnership (HGRP), an initiative of The Wiener Holocaust Library and the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London.

This exhibition has been generously supported by the Ernest Hecht Charitable Foundation, the Stuart Rossiter Trust, the Holocaust Research Institute, Techne, and Friends and supporters of the Library.

This exhibition has now been extended until the 28th June 2023.

Exhibition Events:

Watch past events

  • Virtual Exhibition Talk: Holding on Through Letters with Debórah Dwork

    Jewish families in Nazi Europe tried to hold onto each other through letters. But wartime conditions applied. Letters were censored and could not be sent between countries at war with each other. How to keep in contact? And, once contact was established, what to say — and about what to remain silent? In her presentation, Prof Debórah Dwork will trace how letters became threads stitching loved ones into each other’s constantly changing daily lives.

  • Virtual Panel: More than Parcels

    Edited by Jan Lánícek and Jan Lambertz, More than Parcels explores the horrors of the Holocaust by focusing on the systematic starvation of Jewish civilians confined to Nazi ghettos and camps. The modest relief parcel, often weighing no more than a few pounds and containing food, medicine, and clothing, could extend the lives and health of prisoners. For Jews in occupied Europe, receiving packages simultaneously provided critical emotional sustenance in the face of despair and grief. Placing these parcels front and center in a history of World War II challenges several myths about Nazi rule and Allied responses.

  • Lunchtime Exhibition Talk: A Letter from Danzig: Understanding Jewish Family Correspondence from the First World War, Dr Joe Cronin

    Letters provide insight into their writers, but how much can we learn about them from one letter? This talk examines a Jewish nurse’s letter to her brother from the opening months of the First World War. The letter is replete with allusions to the unfolding military situation on the Eastern Front, but it also offers a glimpse into her own journey of self-discovery – a newly trained nurse, a woman who has realised that she ‘likes working’. The talk will also focus on the challenges of reading correspondence written in archaic German in a near-indecipherable script. How much meaning can we truly recover from textual artefacts that were intended for somebody who knew their author far better than we do?

  • Exhibition Talk: The Last Letter, with Karen Baum Gordon

    In The Last Letter: A Father’s Struggle, a Daughter’s Quest, and the Long Shadow of the Holocaust, Gordon explores not only her father’s life story, but also the stories and events that shaped the lives of her grandparents—two Holocaust victims that Rudy tried in vain to save in the late 1930s and early years of World War II. This investigation of her family’s history is grounded in eighty-eight letters written mostly by Julie Baum, Rudy’s mother and Karen’s grandmother, to Rudy between November 1936 and October 1941. In five parts, Gordon examines pieces of these well-worn, handwritten letters and other archival documents in order to discover what her family experienced during the Nazi period and the psychological impact that reverberated from it in the generations that followed.

  • Exhibition Panel: Reverberations and Tracings – Using Sound from Letters and Archive Sources

    This event was organised as part of the Holocaust Letters exhibition events series organised by the Holocaust and Genocide Research Partnership. To mark the end of the One Story Many Voices tour, the Wiener Holocaust Library hosted a panel discussion on Thursday 30th March 2023, called Reverberations and Traces: Using Sound from Letters and Archive Sources.

  • Hybrid Panel: Letter Writing in Holocaust Studies

    The Wiener Holocaust Library, in partnership with the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London, for the Holocaust and Genocide Research Partnership and Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations (University of Southampton), were delighted to host this hybrid panel discussion with Prof Shirli Gilbert and Prof Joachim Schlör, led in conversation by Charlie Knight, on letters in Holocaust-related research.

  • Curators’ Talk: Holocaust Letters with Christine Schmidt and Sandra Lipner

    oin the curators of the Holocaust and Genocide Research Partnership’s latest exhibition, Holocaust Letters, to learn more about how they developed the exhibition. Their talk will discuss key letters on display, the ethics and practice of curating personal document collections, the role of the archive in mediating the past, and reflections on co-curating with historians and families.

  • PhD and a Cup of Tea: Letters as People: Emotion and Information in the Correspondence of German-Jewish Refugees from Nazism 1933-45

    In this presentation, postgraduate researcher Charlie Knight will discuss the correspondences of five families whose archives are held in both private collections and public institutions. The presentation will touch upon a number of key research questions including: How did the writers and addressees understand the role and importance of these letters? What emotional strategies can be identified within the correspondences? How is information/knowledge disused and transferred within this new ‘epistolary space’? And what early knowledge of the Holocaust could be ascertained from these objects?

  • Lunchtime Exhibition Talk: Red Cross Messages from Nazi Germany, with Anthony Grenville

    During the Second World War, as conventional means of communication were increasingly denied to Jews trapped in the Third Reich, Red Cross messages came to play a vital part in what remained of the contacts between those Jews and their family members who had escaped abroad; little systematic attention has, however, as yet been devoted to them.

  • Virtual Exhibition Panel: Jewish Archives, Artefacts and Memory in Transit

    The Wiener Holocaust Library’s current exhibition, Holocaust Letters, examines Holocaust-era private correspondence as sites of knowledge production as well as for their traces of the material past, including enforced Jewish migration. With the soon-to-launched virtual Holocaust Letters exhibition as a starting point, this virtual panel explored new ways and research into thinking about archives, artefacts and other primary sources, including material sources as well as those not held in traditional archives to help us gain deeper insight into the history of Jewish refugees in transit and the knowledge those migrants possessed, produced, transmitted, or lost.

Press coverage of Holocaust Letters

We’ve been delighted to receive the following coverage of this exhibition:

Secret letters from the Holocaust reveal defiance in the midst of chaos: ‘Be brave and cope’, i News

‘Help, help, help…’ Heartbreaking Holocaust letters on display for first time, The Jewish News

Study letters from the Holocaust, The Londonist

‘Farewell and go courageously into life!’ — Holocaust letters revealed, History First

How Do We Know When Disaster Is Upon Us?, ArtReview

Now on display, UK Jews’ correspondence shows the Holocaust unfolding in real-time, Times of Israel

Exhibition and Catalogue Bibliography, Errata

The bibliography to the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue can be found here.