International Shoah Archivists Forum Established

Wesley A. Fisher, September 2004

The archival record of what is perhaps the most documented of genocides—the Holocaust—is now scattered to almost every country of the world. Subject to physical deterioration and often to political manipulation, the record is of interest not only to historians but also to survivors and their families, as well as increasingly to the general public. Extraordinary efforts—many of them funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany ("The Claims Conference")—have been made in recent decades to identify and bring together this documentation. The Claims Conference, which represents world Jewry in negotiating for compensation and restitution for victims of Nazi persecution (and their heirs), administers compensation funds, recovers unclaimed Jewish property, and allocates funds to institutions that provide social welfare services to Holocaust survivors and preserve the memory and lessons of the Shoah.

Although there has been some limited coordination among individual archives, no mechanism has hitherto been set up to encourage general international cooperation among archives of the Holocaust. Concerned with the need to ensure full preservation of the documentation of the Holocaust and universal access to that documentation, the Claims Conference has begun an initiative under the general title of the International Shoah Archivists Working Forum.

A steering committee has been formed consisting of representatives of Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine, as well as Tuvia Friling, the state archivist of Israel and professor of history at Ben-Gurion University, and Richard Breitman, professor of history at American University and editor of the journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Representatives from more than 30 archives from Israel, Europe, and North America that specialize in Holocaust-related materials participated in the first large-scale meeting of the forum, held March 23–25, 2004, in New York City. They agreed on the importance and desirability of cooperating in order to preserve, collect, and provide access to the documentation of the Holocaust. Many of the participants noted that the meeting marked a very positive change in the interrelations of the various institutions.

The forum initiated a project to ensure that at the very least, descriptions of all relevant collections are completed and made available over the Internet by the end of 2005. Although a unified thesaurus and a central worldwide catalog of Holocaust-related archives is likely to be difficult to realize, the participating archives agreed to share the thesauri and software that they have developed to date as a first step in the direction of such a possible unified thesaurus. For example, Yad Vashem has developed an extensive geographic database in relation to the Holocaust that should be useful all over the world.

It was estimated that the archives participating in the forum combined hold approximately 150 million pages of original or microfilmed text documents and that there remain at least 50 to 100 million pages scattered in various countries that still need to be identified and assembled. Among the documents that have to be copied and brought together are the Holocaust-related holdings of the Vatican and the intelligence agencies in Eastern Europe, the proceedings of the various official historical commissions that have worked on this history during the past decade, war criminal documents in U.S. and British archives, and others. The forum decided to maintain a list of projects accomplished to date and to create a listserv to discuss current acquisition and microfilming projects and plans.

Much discussion focused on digitization and on Internet access to Holocaust-related archives. The State Archives of Israel, Yad Vashem, and other Israeli institutions are digitizing their holdings, and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine and many other institutions elsewhere in the world are moving in the same direction. Although there was consensus on the general desirability of making the documentation of the Holocaust accessible and on the use of the Internet for providing finding aids and descriptions of collections, there were differences of opinion as to whether all the documents should be made available on the Internet. Posting a selection of documents for educational use in consultation with educators was considered preferable to mass uploading. The Internet is being used more and more for scholarly research, but it is not yet clear what effects mass posting of Holocaust documentation to the Internet will have on scholarship. The Claims Conference has recently sponsored the creation at Yad Vashem of a Digital Encoding Center to pool resources for the use of all Israeli Holocaust-related institutions, and the possibility was raised of replicating this experience in additional locations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

—Wesley A. Fisher is director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.