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Holocaust archives go online

By Rachel Tepper, JTA

January 14, 2010 | 6:28 pm

Efforts to track down U.S.-held records that may assist Holocaust restitution claims are now a click—and possibly a fee—away.

The U.S. National Archives and Footnote.com, a fee-based history research Web site, recently launched the largest online interactive collection of Holocaust records.

The collection organizes more than 1 million Holocaust-era records, including concentration camp registers and documents from Dachau, Mauthausen, Auschwitz and Flossenburg; captured German records including deportation and death lists from concentration camps; Nuremberg war crimes trial proceedings; and about 26,000 photos from the National Archives.

While the total number of Holocaust records in the National Archives’ possession is not known conclusively because many have yet to be assessed and processed, archivists estimate that the material available on Footnote.com accounts for 10 percent of its current holdings.

The database also contains the Ardelia Hall Collection, which includes records relating to the Nazi looting of Jewish possessions such as artwork and other cultural objects.  The collection is named for Ardelia Hall, the U.S. State Department’s arts and monuments adviser who worked extensively with the records between 1954 and 1961.

The records now available in Footnote.com’s databases have been in the public domain in the archival research rooms of the National Archives here. The new endeavor marks the first time the documents have been available online and made searchable.

In addition to the emotional impact of researching one’s family history, the developers hope that information detailing stolen Jewish possessions might aid in restitution battles.

Holocaust survivors and their families are still battling with several European governments over the issue of restitution, in particular the return of artwork stolen by the Nazis and the communists in Central and Eastern Europe.

The project also has a considerable social networking component; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum provided to Footnote.com the material for some 600 interactive personal accounts of those who survived or perished in the Holocaust. Footnote’s technology allows visitors to search for names and add photos, comments and stories, share their insights and create pages to highlight their discoveries.

“These pages tell a personal story that is not included in the history textbooks,” said Russ Wilding, CEO of Footnote.com. “They give visitors a firsthand glimpse into the tragic events of the Holocaust and allow users to engage with content such as maps, photos, timelines and personal accounts of victims and survivors through over 1 million documents.”

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum official records on Footnote.com will supplement data already on the museum’s Web site and bring the stories of Holocaust victims and survivors to a wider audience, thus creating a richer research experience.

The information on Footnote.com will link back to additional material on the museum’s Web site, said Michael Gurnberger, the museum’s director of collections.

Gurnberger believes that having several sites featuring the material will increase the potential for learning and meaningful research.

“It’s not only to reach more people,” he said of Footnote.com. “It’s also to bring them back to our Web site so they can learn more. That’s our mission.”

Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, welcomed the availability of the archives’ collection but voiced some concerns.

“Any initiative that provides access to Holocaust-related documentation is positive,” Rosensaft said. “Of course, having it in conjunction with the National Archives and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is extremely important because it provides a serious legitimacy to the project.”

He added, however, that the limitations of the database must be made clear. While the database includes a large amount of historical material, Rosensaft said, it represents only a sliver of the records kept during the Holocaust and do not make for a complete picture of events during that time.

Rosensaft warned users that major discoveries are “a longshot under any circumstances.”

He also voiced concern over the project’s social networking element, saying that scholars and users need to “keep in mind the difference between an objective document and a subjective one that is being created based on memory.”

There’s always a risk of memory fading, he says, of dates being approximations and information being inaccurate as a result, despite the best intentions of the author.

Access to the collections has been free, but full access eventually was expected to be reserved for those with paid memberships.

Memberships on Footnote.com are $79.95 annually and $11.95 monthly. Users, however, can use the databases on a “pay-per-image” basis for $2.95 per record. Access to the “Stories” section of the site and pages created with Footnote’s social media tools were expected to remain free.

Rosensaft expressed displeasure that access to the records ultimately would become fee-based. Documents that have been in the public domain, he said, should not be part of a profit-making venture, especially in regard to research for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

“There should not be a price tag on that,” he stressed.

Still, Rosensaft anticipated that Holocaust survivors and their descendants would welcome the resource.

“I think the community is going to be very appreciative,” he said.

Despite any misgivings about the project, Rosensaft acknowledged that the large scale of the project is particularly exciting.

“We cannot afford to forget this period in our history,” said Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist of the United States and author of “America and the Return of Nazi Contraband: The Recovery of Europe’s Cultural Treasures.” “Working with Footnote, these records will become more widely accessible, and will help people now and in the future learn more about the events and impact of the Holocaust.”

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