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Improved Access to the ITS Memory of the World

The International Tracing Service (ITS) enables ever-improving access to the 85 percent of its documents on National Socialist crimes and their victims that has now been digitized. Within the scope of this most recent international workshop in March in Bad Arolsen “Improving Access to the ITS Archives,” staff from the ITS and its copyholding partner organizations from the member states of the ITS governing body, the International Commission, exchanged ideas about the search possibilities on the ITS digital archive.

As early as 2007 the ITS started distributing copies of its ever more digitized archive to its International Commission partner organizations, allowing people around the world to work with the ITS documents. ITS Director Floriane Hohenberg is making plans to have the ITS provide stronger support to the digital archive copyholders in the future: “We intend to organize workshops in regular intervals to improve access for users on an international scale, because we see the ITS as the nucleus of the network around the digital ITS archive and as the provider of knowhow.”

Accordingly, staff from the organizations with a digital archive copy came to Bad Arolsen to take part in a workshop held between 21 and 23 March 2016 and jointly organized by the ITS, the Wiener Library, London, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This was the second event in a serious of workshops externally funded and planned through 2018 by the three institutions. 

Learning from Experience

What are the current challenges for the users of the digital archive? Which search strategies and tools make sense? And how can the copyholders benefit from the experience gained by the ITS tracing teams? These were the focal questions addressed during the event at the ITS. Dr. Henning Borggräfe, provisional head of the ITS Research and Education Branch, opened the workshop with a presentation about the structure of the ITS archive and the current developments of the archive in view of its historical background. The participants formed working groups and, under the guidance of ITS staff, learned about the ITS Central Name Index (CNI) as the original key to its documents, the three primary groups of collections, namely those on concentration camps, ghettos and other places of detention, the group of documents on NS forced labor as well as the group of Allied post-war documents on displacement and emigration of survivors of Nazi persecution. After presentations providing information on these groups of collections, small groups of participants worked on sample searches, the results of which were discussed in the subsequent forum.

“The goal of our workshop series is to have organized exchanges of ideas about the challenges and possibilities of working with the digital archive,“ explained Christine Schmidt, Director of Research at the Wiener Library in London. “There is so much to learn from each other. This second workshop in Bad Arolsen was about working together directly with the staff members of the ITS and sharing solutions. And it worked! Everybody learned from the experience.”

Enormous Research Potential

In his lecture, the British historian Dan Stone emphasized the value of the ITS collections in constituting a major resource for topics that have not yet been sufficiently studied: “The vast documentary holdings of the ITS now permit an unparalleled understanding of individuals’ experiences of the Nazi camps, the Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps after 1945 and international refugee politics in the context of the Cold War.” He presented his three-year research project “Tracing the Holocaust”, which is based on a description of the activities of the ITS and by using select archival collections, intends to illustrate how European history must be viewed as a shared common history, and not merely from a national perspective alone.

The historian Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Director of the Visiting Scholar Programs from the USHMM, presented her current book Nazi Persecution and Postwar Repercussions: The International Tracing Service Archive and Holocaust Research, which offers new insights into decision-making in genocidal settings, the factors that drive it, and its far-reaching consequences. “We copyholders are the ambassadors of the ITS Archive“, Brown-Fleming says. “We have to raise a broader awareness of this unique and significant archive.”

Tailor-made Workshops for Partners

Each of the eleven member states of the International Commission of the ITS is entitled to receive and make publicly available a digital copy in their countries. Currently, seven of the member states have designated partner institutions in their countries that offer users access to the digitized ITS collections.

Representatives of the Centre de Documentation et de Recherche sur la Résistance in Luxemburg, the French Archives Nationales, the Polish Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and a guest from one non-copyholding institution, the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, participated in the workshop in Bad Arolsen.

The ITS will offer tailor-made workshops for individual digital archive copyholders in the future with the kick-off event, a training workshop for staff of the Polish IPN (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej), which will take place in Warsaw later in 2016.