Historical Detective Work
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Historical Detective Work

Rescuing archives — and making them accessible.

Yad Vashem Archives Director Dr. Haim Gertner holding a Holocaust-era document
Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem Archives Director Dr. Haim Gertner holding a Holocaust-era document Yad Vashem

With a determined approach Steve Vitto uses the archival material at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) to fulfill the many unusual requests for details related to the Shoah. He is the Museum’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center researcher, tracking down and documenting facts, sometimes with astonishing results. He has helped families piece together the puzzles that are their family histories, and has connected survivors with friends and family members they had long lost contact with, not knowing who has survived.

A few years ago, the family of a survivor from Australia came to the Museum to ascertain their mother’s history, after finding documentation of her records. The mother asked Vitto if he could track down a former boyfriend. In the Tarnow ghetto they promised they would find each other and marry, but she never found him. Vitto had sparse information to go on but was able to find a record and learned that the boyfriend had survived and was living in Canada. When Vitto called, explaining that someone was looking for him, the man broke down and cried. Through his tears he exclaimed, “I hadn’t heard that name in 70 years.” The two survivors were able to reconnect via Skype and email. Recently, although the long-lost boyfriend passed away, the families of both the mother and boyfriend met in Australia.

Courtesy of UniteD States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Some stories are more difficult. Vitto, who has been at the USHMM for 28 years, was asked by a man who was quite young during the war if he could find any information about his father. The man had been told that his father was killed but knew no details. Vitto discovered not only that the father survived, but that the father (who had since passed away) and son both moved to Israel after the war and lived within ten miles of one another. Even though the man and his father had spent 70 years looking for each other, they never knew the other had survived.

“It is my job to listen to the story I’m presented and figure out which archive may have the documents in a collection with millions of pages,” Vitto says in an interview, along with his colleague, Radu Ioanid, director of International Archival Programs at the USHMM. The international archival team has been reproducing and bringing to the Museum significant archival collections related to the Holocaust from all over the world, with the financial support of the Claims Conference. Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Greece, the former Yugoslavia and Latin America are among the areas of ongoing focus.

“The Claims Conference has long supported efforts to retrieve archival documents and make them accessible for use across many applications – for use now and in the future,” says Julius Berman, president of the Claims Conference. “The historical significance cannot be understated; decades from now these archives will be here for future use – from families searching for their own history to educators who we rely upon to further the teaching of the Holocaust. Thanks to these archives, the Claims Conference has been able to document tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors’ persecution and establish the proof that can be necessary for compensation.”

USHMM researcher Steve Vitto sharing documents with a Holocaust survivor and her family USHMM

The Claims Conference supports the extensive efforts of the world’s leading Holocaust memorial institutions, including the USHMM and Yad Vashem. They work on complementary tracks and often together to locate archives and, in some cases, rescue collections whether from ultimate decay after many years in musty drawers and boxes (much of the paper was of poor quality, decades ago), or from authorities who prefer that they not be public. Some documents are in private hands, but most are in government offices (and some important collections of documents are yet to be declassified). Once the documents are obtained, they are scanned, digitized and kept organized according to the original institutions’ archives.

“We are doing our best and working as fast as we can,” says Haim Gertner, director of the Yad Vashem Archive Division and Fred Hillman Chair of Holocaust Documentation. “Every year we are bringing millions of scans of documents from all over Europe, using the best technology to catalogue the information.” He says that they deal with many requests in a number of languages, both in person and online. The specialists working on archival projects are not only historians, but also psychologists, physicians, journalists and filmmakers. The database is available online for free, so that someone can search all the information they have about a specific survivor. As a result, millions of people use the database every year.

“Yad Vashem has developed state-of-the-art proprietary methods for cataloging and making accessible these documents from the period of the Holocaust. It is our moral obligation to disseminate the information we possess from the Holocaust and therefore are gradually making it available online, whenever possible.”

Ioanid at the USHMM explains that access to records is not always easy and grows more complicated as one goes further East. While the Germans were meticulous about record keeping about their actions inside the camps, the killings often went without documentation.

“From country to country, from region to region, even from perpetrator to perpetrator, the quality and quantity of records may vary,” Ioanid says.

Some communal documents are scattered, as in Salonika, Greece, where the large Jewish community was almost wiped out by the Nazis. Some of the community records were held in the former Soviet Union, and others in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Germany. Ioanid and his staff faced the challenge of fitting all of the puzzle pieces together. Now, all the surviving  Salonika records are copied and again in one place.

Having the documents in a central archive facilitates research. For example, someone doing research about wartime activities in France or Poland might have to consult 50 or so departments and archives in Paris or Warsaw (and other places), while they are all recovered in the central archive of the USHMM.

Hannah Rosenbaum, the Claims Conference’s program manager in Research, Education and Documentation, oversees programs outside of Israel centered on Holocaust education, documentation, research and film projects. Rosenbaum explains, “Our work on archival accessibility is meaningful for both scholarly research and individuals looking to uncover unknown family history. We have also found the accessibility of this material to be useful in our Holocaust education programming. Teachers who are seeking to engage their students will often bring in primary sources such as letters, diaries or pictures, which allow students to better connect to these events.”

Both Gertner and Ioanid credit the Claims Conference with heavily supporting this work. At both institutions, there is a sense of urgency in collecting materials now, as there is a window of opportunity. There is no guarantee that archives abroad that are open will remain open next week or even tomorrow.

For further information, please see the  websites: Ushmm.org; Yadvashem.org.

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