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Learning from Biographies

What value do documents on victims of Nazi persecution hold for archive education? This question was the focus of the 31st archive educators’ conference with some sixty participants from archives and memorials in Germany and Switzerland. Taking place at the International Tracing Service (ITS) for the first time in late May, the conference shed light on the different ways biographical documents can be used for learning by research and discovery.

“Archive educators often offer projects on Nazi-related topics because that’s something school students are interested in. Research in archives represents an opportunity to explore history but also to learn about individuals who might have even been the same age as the student, or come from the same town.” Annekatrin Schaller, the head of the archive and history education study group in the Verband deutscher Archivarinnen und Archivare (Association of German Archivists), is sure it was the conference theme that drew so many participants to the event. “The ITS is a very suspenseful place for all of us. But the topic of ‘learning from biographies’ also seems to strike a special chord these days.”

Hardly had the opening lecture come to an end than a discussion ensued about how people can learn from biographies and whether material of this kind can or should be used for political education. And these questions came up again and again throughout the archive educators’ conference, which has been taking place regularly since 1988. At this year’s gathering, various methods, contents and forms of biography-oriented projects on National Socialist history were introduced. The participants took advantage of the opportunity to communicate in depth on professional matters.

For those present, the significance of biographical documents for archive education is beyond debate: “History is made from sources – sources someone selects,” Annekatrin Schaller pointed out. “In the archives we have the authentic sources. Thanks to their plurality, there’s no end to the questions that can be explored.”

Many of the participants arrived a day early to carry out research in the ITS database. In most cases their concern was to establish which of the ITS’s document holdings might be of interest as complements to the municipal archives. International Tracing Service director Floriane Hohenberg was delighted about the fact that the conference yielded ideas for cooperation between the ITS and the archives and memorials on regional history projects based on biographical sources.