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Studying the Sources of the Holocaust

What can files tell us about the Holocaust? At the end of August 2016 the German Federal Archives, a partner in the transnational EHRI project, held a 10-day archive seminar on methods for evaluating German language documents with a Holocaust context. ITS staff member Akim Jah gave a talk about the archival holdings of the ITS, dedicating special attention to documents on the deportations of the Jews from the German Reich.

Holocaust-related documents were the focus of a seminar, hosted by the German Federal Archive at its location in Berlin-Lichterfelde. The event was targeted towards international historians, as well as staff members of archives and memorial sites, in particular those from Central and East Central Europe who work with documents from the Nazi era. In order to provide broader insights into the structures of the Nazi bureaucracy and its administrative procedures, experts from the Federal Archives held lectures not only about German administrative history, but also on topics such as the prosecution of Nazi crimes. Listeners to the talks should thus be able to understand the documents from the context of their provenance, thereby gaining insights into decision-making structures. Much time was also provided for hands-on work with topic-relevant source material. When carrying out the analyses and interpretation, the twelve seminar participants had the opportunity to work with documents’ copies as well as with originals for a comparison. Additionally there were both lectures providing background information as well as the opportunity for examining source repertoire within the framework of excursions, for example to the Jewish Museum Berlin and the House of the Wannsee Conference.

Akim Jah, Research Associate in the Research and Education Branch, introduced the International Tracing Service (ITS), explaining both its historical and its current tasks. The seminar participants expressed an interest in learning more about the archive, the history of its holdings, and about access to the documents. The historian also talked about one of his research focuses, the deportation of the Jews from the German Reich. Using documents both from the archive of the ITS as well as from other archives as examples he illustrated who had been responsible for which action organizing the transports. As an example of archival source work with deportation lists he showed copies of lists of names of the so-called 90th “Alterstransports” (transport of the aged) that had left Berlin for the Theresienstadt Ghetto on 28 May 1943. Starting with the documentation of a survivor of this transport he offered some insights into the diverse types of documents from the period after 1945 that were created as a result of Allies’ and ITS’ activities.

The seminar was a part of the EHRI program aiming at improving the European infrastructure for Holocaust studies by facilitating access to Holocaust-relevant archive material, spreading knowledge about sources and stimulating innovative, interdisciplinary and transnational research. In this light Tobias Herrmann from the German Federal Archive, one of the organizers, was very satisfied with the outcome. “The participants, who came from ten different countries, embraced the multi-faceted program with open minds and dedication and, for their part, contributed special knowledge from their regions about the history of the Holocaust. They will return to their home countries with a broadened understanding and awareness of German sources and their evaluation potential, and use their influence as educators to fully implement the targets of the EHRI project.”