German-Jewish history and identity: exploring the Ehrenberg-Elton Papers at The Keep

24 September 2018

by Anika Wagner

Alles Erleben ist eine Episode. Auch Hitler war eine Episode. Daß er nur eine Episode bleibt, liegt an Euch.’

‘Every experience is an episode. Even Hitler was an episode. That he remains just an episode is up to you.’

Eva Ehrenberg, Sehnsucht – mein geliebtes Kind, p67

I’m a Librarian Master’s student from Berlin/Leipzig, Germany and, earlier this year, I joined The Keep for a nearly nine-week internship. This is not my first time abroad; during my apprenticeship as Library Assistant and my Bachelor study I’ve already been in London, Baltimore and Vienna to work in different libraries. So the procedure in preparation for this internship was nothing new to me. In November 2017, I started to write to lots of different libraries in the UK, asking for the possibility to intern with them. Luckily, I got a positive reply from the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep. After this, I applied for financial support from ERASMUS+ and my University’s Friends’ association (both of which I got, hooray), booked my accommodation and finally the flight as well.

Still, it was exciting: a new house, a new city, a new workplace and new colleagues. Everyone was really welcoming and tried their best to make me feel comfortable! During the first few days, I was introduced to all the staff here (unfortunately I’m not good at remembering names), had a tour of the building and got familiar with the collection I was going to work with over the next few weeks.

Rewrapping the archive material to ensure it is protected

Rewrapping the archive material to ensure it is protected

My work here focused on the Ehrenberg-Elton Papers. I checked the collection box by box, folder by folder. In six weeks, I got through the first 33 boxes, which contain a lot of different materials, from letters, photographs, passports and medals to newspaper cuttings and even hair. With each folder, I compared the catalogue entry with the real material. Was everything in the folder? Was the number of pages identical? Did the description match? Sometimes I had to give the material a new title to make it more meaningful. Last but not least, I tried to fit the material into a new, revised classification. Some objects needed new packaging, so I got new folders for them or wrapped them in tissue paper and made a label with their reference number and title on it. It felt a bit like wrapping Christmas presents.

While doing this, I had the chance to read the odd letter or literary manuscript. This was really fascinating and I had to watch out to not just read all day long. With every folder and box, I got deeper into the Ehrenberg family. When I reached the boxes with the family’s photo albums and loose photographs, I already knew so much about the people, what their past had been and what become of them in the future. It’s saddening when you read next to a portrait the simple caption ‘Hans im Konzentrationslager’ (Hans in concentration camp), although you already know he survived. I got most emotional about the photos of Eva Ehrenberg in her later years, as she reminded me of my grandmother.

My attempt to get an overview of the Ehrenberg family and their relatives

My attempt to get an overview of the Ehrenberg family and their relatives

I was told me on one of my first days that I may need to write a family tree while working on that collection. First this advice puzzled me a bit, but soon I did so. In the end I had at least five family trees interweaving different strands of the Ehrenberg family.

The Ehrenbergs, especially Eva, were in contact with so many different people that I easily got lost. Even if it turned out that they were related, I still had to work out which side (Eva or Victor) they belonged to. Luckily there is already material about that in the collection itself. One of my most exciting objects in this collection was a book about an old German legend (I had never heard of before) which was dedicated by the late Kaiser Wilhelm II to Eva Ehrenberg’s father Siegfried Sommer.

In my last two weeks, I did some research in preparation for a collaboration with the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. They also hold material by and about the Ehrenberg family, which they have already digitised. I checked their digital archive to see if what they hold is also in the Ehrenberg/Elton Papers collection at The Keep, so it can be later linked into the catalogue.

As The Keep is a partnership of different institutions, I was  introduced to their staff, their work and their different kinds of materials. I also had the opportunity to join a lot of sessions and events of different kinds. These included a workshop called ‘Refugees in Times of Crisis, 1938-2018’, which reminded me that history sometimes repeats itself, and the 12 May Day Diary, with fun activities like badge-making. I didn’t know that so much could be done for outreach in an archive. Most of the sessions were for students to show them what an archive is and the kinds of materials are held here. It was really impressive to see how enthusiastically the colleagues spoke about their work and collections!

Having fun at the 12 May Day Diary event at The Keep

Having fun at the 12 May Day Diary event at The Keep

I’m really sad that my time in Brighton and The Keep ended so quickly. I would have liked to spend more time here and finish my work on the Ehrenberg-Elton Papers. Whilst working here I learnt a lot: about archives in general and The Keep’s collections in particular, about British life, emigration and identity, and about German-Jewish history. Of course, in school we often talked about this dark episode in German history but my own country’s history became more graspable to me, working with all these authentic and personal materials. Especially at a time when right-wing populists are regaining power in so many countries, it is important to know the history and prevent repeating it.

I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the work of archives to join The Keep for an internship or work experience. It was my most enjoyable internship, and I’ve done eight so far!