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‟A Social History of the Holocaust”

Dan Stone, Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway University of London, spent four weeks in the archive of the ITS researching for his project ‟Tracing the Holocaust”. For this project the scholar has been using the digital copy of the ITS archive accessible at the Wiener Library in London. At the ITS in Bad Arolsen the British historian looked through those documents that have not yet been digitized. His three-year research project is funded by The Leverhulme Trust.

What is your research project about?

The first part will be a brief institutional history of the ITS. Following on that, I would like to benefit from the ITS documents to write a history of the Holocaust that does not start out with the authorities. It should be a bottom-up view instead, more of a social history of the Holocaust. For this the ITS offers a wealth of information. It’s ironic that, for some parts, a history from below can only be written with documents from above. It is precisely there where you can often find details about people.

Were you able to find any enlightening documents?

Yes, for example I found copies of police reports from Romania from the years 1942 and 1943. They provide information about Roma families who were deported to Transnistria and, once there, fled back to Romania. Some documents contain meticulous descriptions of these people. This contradicts the oft-heard opinion that the National Socialist genocide in Romania was carried out in a much less organized way. The authorities had very precise – if stereotyped – information about the deportees.

Copies of letters from survivors from Czechoslovakia who were persecuted and deported as ‟half-Jews” (Mischlinge) by the Nazis are also very interesting. After 1945, these survivors had written to IRO employees saying that after being persecuted because of their Jewish roots they were now being persecuted in their own country because they spoke German. You can find accounts of their circumstances in the letters. They asked the IRO for help in emigrating because they didn’t see a future for themselves in Czechoslovakia.

The ITS archive offers plenty of topics and approaches. What do you want to focus on?

At the moment I’m just gathering information, and I’m quite overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Maybe it’s not necessary at this point to have a specific focus. But, among other things, I’m planning to look into some unknown satellite camps. A large number of the camps haven’t been given much scholarly attention as yet, for example very little is known about Concentration Camp Gross-Rosen in English-speaking academic circles.  

I would also like to demonstrate that the Holocaust was a widespread crime which affected all European countries and beyond. For me, it is important to view European history as a common history and not to look at it solely from a national perspective. This is also significant in today’s political climate. The ascent of right-wing populism in Europe is proof that the memory of Nazism is not exclusively a German problem. I understand the right-wing populist movements as being to some extent contemporary successors to wartime factions and fascist-oriented collaborators.

The ITS is not a “traditional” archive, in that the documents had previously been described and used for the sole purpose of serving the needs of a tracing service. How much of an effect does this have on scholarly work?

It’s not as easy for me as it may be for local historians, who research a lot at the ITS. When you have specific questions you can quickly find the documents. It’s different with broader-scale projects. You make discoveries, but there’s always something serendipitous about these. This reflects the development of the archive itself, the structure of which has strongly depended on chance.

But the ITS is becoming increasingly better-known internationally. Being able to use this archive is very important for doctoral students and other scholars. By the way, in my lectures I’m always drawing attention to the potential of the ITS. My colleagues probably think that’s all I ever talk about.