A Mandate To Rescue Evidence of the Shoah

By Sara Bloomfield

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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Edwin Black’s August 4 opinion article puts him seemingly at odds with the world’s leading Holocaust scholars, most of whom have taken advantage of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s research center and its open access research policy (“History Demands an Uncompromised Home for Shoah Archive”).

It would go without saying, were it not for Black’s opinion article, that the museum’s acclaimed international standing rests on its historical integrity and scholarly rigor. This applies to all of our work, from exhibitions and educational programs to our collections.

This also applies to our Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, which we established in 1998 to ensure the long-term vitality of this relatively new field. The center has quickly become one of the world’s leading institutions of Holocaust scholarship. More than 250 scholars from the United States and from 24 other countries have held fellowships at the center, including renowned scholars Christopher Browning, Vicki Caron, Peter Hayes, Hans Mommsen, Renee Poznanski, Richard Breitman and Gotz Aly. Their work has led to a variety of important new books, covering topics ranging from forced labor to the theft of Jewish property, from the origins of the Final Solution to the role of the churches.

Additionally, the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies sponsors several seminars for professors at universities and colleges throughout the nation in order to improve the teaching of Holocaust history and to support it in a variety of disciplines beyond history, including sociology, religion, literature, philosophy and economics. We also conduct programs for teachers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as at institutions of higher education that have predominantly Hispanic populations.

Scholars the world over seek the competitive fellowships offered by our center in order to engage in lively debate and discourse with other academics and to mine the extensive holdings in the museum’s archives, now comprising some 40 million pages from 40 countries. They cover the range of the Holocaust experience: individual letters, diaries and papers; documents of various governmental agencies that carried out the Final Solution, and the records of Jewish communities as they struggled to respond and survive.

Our archives have been used not only for historical research but also to assist survivors seeking to document compensation claims, to help countries like Romania and Hungary confront their past, and as a resource for many books, films and articles — and in all cases, access is free and unfettered.

The future of Holocaust studies depends on the museum’s ability to build, preserve and make accessible the most comprehensive documentation possible. Hence, one of our highest priorities is rescuing the evidence of the Holocaust — aggressively acquiring as much material as we can during this limited window of opportunity. We are engaged in an urgent race against time, as the eyewitness generation diminishes and the materials naturally deteriorate. With antisemitism and Holocaust denial on the rise, this worldwide effort could not be more critical.

Therefore, the opening of the International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is particularly significant. But the museum did not work for years to open this archive just to further enhance its scholarly credentials. There was an even more pressing and morally compelling reason: to help survivors and their families acquire long-sought information about the fate of loved ones. It’s hard to believe that more than six decades after the end of World War II, many survivors still don’t know when, where and how family members perished.

The museum has been open for 13 years. We have much to be proud of: 24 million visitors, including 8 million schoolchildren and 83 heads of state; a Web site that is the world’s leading online authority on the Holocaust; educational programs for police, FBI, the military, diplomats and clergy, and so much more.

But opening the tracing service archive stands near the very top of the list. That one collection contains more than 30 million records documenting the fate of more than 17 million victims of the Nazis, both Jews and non-Jews, who were incarcerated in concentration camps, murdered in death camps, put to forced or slave labor, or had lived in displaced-persons camps. Because the International Tracing Service often took years to respond to survivors, the museum launched an effort to open the archive and have copies given to each of the 11 nations on the tracing service’s governing board. Convincing several governments to change their stance on this issue took years of work, including intense research to determine the full contents of the archive.

As a result of our research and numerous meetings with German officials, this past April 18 Germany’s justice minister, Brigitte Zypries, announced at the museum that her government would reverse its position and help us lead the effort to open the archive. Subsequently, other governments changed their views, and on May 16 all 11 members of the tracing service’s board reached agreement.

It was a historic day for our museum and for scholarship. Most importantly it was a historic day for the victims and survivors.

Over the next several months, as the ratification process proceeds, museum staff will survey the archive and arrange for the copying of the records. Once the museum has those copies, we will be able to respond to requests from survivors and their families, as well as from Holocaust scholars.

As we think about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s role in the 21st century and anticipate the moment when the Holocaust is the “distant past” and the eyewitnesses are gone, the museum’s unparalleled responsibility as our national repository of both the memory and the history will be of enduring significance.

Sara Bloomfield is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

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