Library of Freedom

“Dear Pappie, tomorrow at 4 a.m. our ship will set out into the Mediterranean…,” writes ten-year old Thomas to his parents who had remained behind in Germany. This is one of the many heart-breaking documents and objects displayed in a new permanent exhibition at the German National Archive in Frankfurt. A highlight in the culture of remembrance, unique exhibits trace the fates of emigrants…



©Deutsche Nationalbibliothek

©Deutsche Nationalbibliothek

My classmates are very polite to me. They keep asking me about Africa, and how many lions I’ve seen. No one ever asks me how I arrived in Africa,” wrote Stefanie Zweig, a young girl who returned to Frankfurt after the war. Stefanie and her family had fled to Kenya to escape Nazi Germany.
It is hard to blame Stefanie’s young classmates for focusing more on the picturesque details of her experiences, given that during the postwar period even German adults were not particularly interested in hearing much about the Nazi crimes that had prompted their flight. Stefanie Zweig (1932-2014) later became a writer and recorded her memories of exile in her well-known autobiographical novel Nowhere in Afri-
ca, the film adaptation of which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Now, Zweig is one of eight people whose history and fate serves as a red narrative thread in the recently opened permanent exhibition of the German Exile Archive at the Frankfurt National Library.
The exhibition presents a total of 250 documents from the estates of emigrants, who include both prominent and lesser-known people who fled the Hitler regime. The exhibition is outstanding. Modern infotainment elements, which often serve to confuse rather than to educate, are not part of the exhibition design. The lighting effects only serve to illuminate and highlight the content. According to exhibition director Sylvia Asmus, “We wanted to exhibit original documents because, unlike copies, they are imbued with a special historical quality.”

Original documents

The logically structured and handsomely presented exhibition is pleasingly austere, allowing visitors to viscerally comprehend the tragic fates of those who were forced into exile. The exhibition is divided into three main themes: “Escape,” “Exile,” and “After Exile.” The period of exile is captured by three narrow passageways lined by display cases. Often a suitcase serves as the symbol of flight and exile. In his suitcase, the writer Walter Meckauer transported not only the usual personal items, but a seemingly endless number of his own short stories, which he brought with him on his journey into the unknown.

A suitcase full of short stories Deutsche Nationalbibliothek / Stephan Jockel / CC-BY 4.0 / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A suitcase full of short stories
Deutsche Nationalbibliothek / Stephan Jockel / CC-BY 4.0 / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

At first glance, a colorful fabric travel bag embroidered with pictures looks charming, but it is an artifact of dispossession and flight. Irma Lange made the bag for her son Hans to explain the steps of their journey to the Isle of Man. After the war broke out, some of the exiled German Jews were interned in England as “enemy aliens.”
From his exile in Ceylon, ten-year-old Thomas Häfner sent a picture he had drawn, depicting him sitting on an elephant, to his parents who had remained behind in Germany. He hoped to convince his mother and father that he was all right. Earlier on, Thomas had written, “Dear Pappie, I am in Marseille right now in a hotel that is not entirely displeasing. Tomorrow at 4:00 a.m., our ship will set out into the Mediterranean… .”
The drawings and letters created by children are particularly poignant; although the difficult circumstances they describe are told tempered by the childlike depictions, the emotional impact is a powerful one.

Cries for help

Many visitors will be surprised to learn that the approximately 500,000 Jewish refugees from Germany did not all end up in Palestine and the United States; many ended up in countries such as Ceylon, Libya and Kenya. A large world map illustrates the diversity of their routes of escape.
As the political situation continued to deteriorate, the Jews who remained trapped in Germany grew ever more afraid, and their cries for help grew louder. In 1941, a married couple named Fink wrote to the relatives in Caracas who were trying to secure their emigration: “You are working much too slowly, unfortunately.” Before the letter arrived at its destination, the Nazi regime closed the routes of escape. The Finks were killed.

A forged ID-card could save lives Deutsche Nationalbibliothek

A forged ID-card could save lives
Deutsche Nationalbibliothek

Those who did manage to flee often faced many hardships in exile. Well-worn vocabulary notebooks belonging to the Social Democrat Hans Vogel, who fled to England, bear witness to his struggle to learn English. For many of the intellectuals who went into exile, learning the language represented their only hope to rebuild their lives.
One impressive example of the iron will which this required is the story the Frankfurt economist Fritz Neumark. After five years in exile in Turkey, he was able to publish academic works in Turkish. Although Neumann lived in safety in Turkey, he was still forced to submit to the German embassy in Istanbul stamping the name “Israel” into his passport.
Few exiles had such comfortable circumstances as the writer Thomas Mann, who confessed that he has never lived so well as in his new California home. This did not prevent him from continuing his fight against the Nazis. An audio recording of his radio broadcasts, in which he calls upon Germans to resist Hitler and the regime, is included in the exhibition. On the title page of a newspaper produced in exile, the Social Democratic politician Hans Vogel likewise exhorted his fellow Germans: “Do not make yourself complicit in this guilt.”

After exile

Despite their efforts, many exiles lived in poverty and despair. One was Arnold Zweig, who was a well-known writer in the Weimar Republic. In Palestine, cut off from his personal and professional networks, he could barely make ends meet.
Many of the refugees who had been able to re-establish themselves in their country of exile remained there. But more than a few returned to Germany and ventured a new start. But of course, that could do nothing to change the past. Along with mourning their families who had perished, those who returned were also left struggling with the question as to how the civilized country which they had called home could have taken such a terrible path. On their return, they were greeted with little by way of remorse, nor did the Germans extend much of a hand in welcome to them.
This is demonstrated, for example, by the hateful words of the poet and essayist Gottfried Benn. Because he had sympathized with the Nazis for a time, he was not permitted to publish his works in postwar Germany. On November 9, 1947, Benn wrote to his friend Erna Pinner that some of his works were being published abroad, “but here in Germany the emigrants rule, and they are as enemies to me.”
The Frankfurt exhibition is a highlight of Germany’s culture of remembrance. It is all the more important today, at a time when the numbers of witnesses are dwindling, and when anti-Semitism is on the rise on many fronts. For visitors who wish to delve further into this history and its documentary record there is also a basement archive, which serves as a repository for many items not currently on display. For Arnold Zweig, who welcomed the founding of the archive after the war and donated a number of books to its collection, the archive was no less than the “German library of freedom.” ■

Exile. Experience and Testimony.
Permanent Exhibition of the German Exile Archive, 1933-1945. German National Archive in Frankfurt am Main.
Admission is free

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