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Records Speaking to the Present: Voices Not Silenced

When I composed my main essay for my application to University of Maryland’s MLS program, I wrote about why I was drawn to their Archives Program. I told them I revel in hearing the voices of the past speak through records such as those at EllisIsland.org. I love the power that records can wield – especially when they can be accessed digitally from anywhere in the world. It is this sort of power that let me see the ship manifests and the names of the boats on which my grandparents came to this country (such as The Finland ).

All this came rushing back to me while reading the September 18th article 2 siblings reunited after being separated in Holocaust. The grandsons of a Holocaust survivor looked up their grandmother in Yad Vashem’s central database of Shoah Victims’ Names – and found an entry stating that she had died during the Holocaust. One thing led to another – and two siblings that thought they had lost each other 65 years earlier were reunited.

The fact that access to records can bring people together across time speaks to me at a very primal level. So now you know – I am a romantic and an optimist (okay, if you have been reading my blog already – this shouldn’t come as any surprise). I want to believe that people who were separated long ago can be reunited – either through words or in person. This isn’t the first story like this – a quick search in google news turned up others – such as this holocaust reunion story from 2003.

This led me to do more research into how archival records are being used to find people lost during the Holocaust.

The Red Cross Holocaust Tracing Center has researched 28,000 individuals – and found over 1,000 of them alive since 1990. The FAQ on their website states that they believe there to be over 280,000 Holocaust survivors and family members in the United States alone and that they believe their work may continue for many years. As much as I love the idea of finding a way to provide access to digitized records – it is easy to see why the Tracing Center isn’t going away anytime soon. First of all – consider their main data sources – lots of private information that likely does NOT belong someplace where it can be read by just anyone:

While the American Red Cross has been providing tracing for victims of WWII and the Nazi regime since 1939, impetus for the creation of the center occurred in 1989 with the release of files on 130,000 people detained for forced labor and 46 death books containing 74,000 names from Auschwitz. Microfilm copies released to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by the Soviet Union provided the single largest source of information since the end of WWII.

The staff of the center have also forged strong ties with the ICRC’s International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany – and get rapid turnaround times for their queries as a result. They have access to many organizations, archives and museums around the world in their hunt for evidence of what happened to individuals. They use all the records they can find to discover the answers to the questions they are asked – to be the detectives that families need to discover what happened to their loved ones. To answer the questions that have never been answered.

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education consists of 52,000 testimonies of survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust collected in 56 countries and 32 languages from 1994 through 2000. These video testimonies document experiences before, during and after the Holocaust. It is the sort of first hand documentation that just could not have existed without the vision and efforts of many. They say on their FAQ page:

Now that this unmatched archive has been amassed, the Shoah Foundation is engaged in a new and equally urgent mission: to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry – and the suffering they cause – through the educational use of the Foundation’s visual history testimonies… Currently, the Foundation is committed to making these videotaped testimonies accessible to the public as an international educational resource. Simultaneously, an intensive program of cataloguing and indexing the testimonies is underway. This process will eventually enable researchers and the general public to access information about specific people, places, and experiences mentioned in the testimonies in much the same way as an index permits a reader to find specific information in a book.

The testimonies also serve as a basis for a series of educational materials such as interactive web exhibits, documentary films, and classroom videos developed by the Shoah Foundation.

I guess I am not sure where I am going with this – other than to point out a dramatic array of archives that are touching the lives of people right now. Consider this post a fan letter to all the amazing people who have sheparded these collections (and in some cases their digital counterparts) into the twenty-first century where they will continue to help people hear the voices of their ancestors.

I have more ideas brewing on how these records compare and contrast with those about the survivors and those who were lost to 9/11, The Asian Tsunami and Katrina. How do these types of records compare with the Asian Tsunami Web Archive or the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank? Where will the grandchildren of those who lost their homes to Katrina go in 30 years to find out what street the family home used to be on? Who will give witness to the people lost in Asia to the Tsunami? Lots to think about.

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1 Comment

  1. Rob Jenson

    So I haven’t figured out how to make “trackback” work so that I can comment to your blog from mine. 🙁

    There are some amazing things happening because the information contained within records and archives are being made available online. There is also, in some cases, a lot of resistance to making records [freely] accessible online. One of the big ones, and it is difficult for me to see an easy workaround, is the cost/income issue. Institutions are often reluctant to make detailed indexes or electronic versions of their records available online because they then lose a potential revenue source. For example, if an institution created a comprehensive genealogical index of the records in their holdings, they would probably be reluctant to put it on the web for anyone to use for free. Why? Well, when a researcher comes to a private institution, they usually have to pay a research fee, unless they are a member (in which case they support the institution with annual contributions). When a researcher sends in an email or snailmail request for remote research, they are generally encouraged to make a donation that is commensurate with the research time expended (often a fraction of what a voyage or hiring a local researcher would be). Both of these are sources of revenue that help pay the salaries of the staff, pay for the space, the materials needed to keep the collections in good shape, and — especially, to find technically competent people to set up the systems and get the volunteers (who do most of the work) to use the systems. As funding sources from grants decrease, it gets to be much more challenging to convince the higher-ups that it benefits the institution to make things freely available.

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