Saturday, August 4, 2007

International Tracing Service

Arthur Max of the AP has published yet another piece on the saga of opening the ITS archives at Arolsen (see the LA Times here, or, if you have registration problems, Newsday). Since this is an issue I know about from very close up, a number of comments:

1. The Arolsen archives will have very little effect on the historical study of Nazism and the Holocaust, since they contain almost no general documentation that does not exist also elsewhere, where it has been open to researchers for years.

2. It may well be the single most important archive for tracing individuals who were persecuted by the Nazis, and to a degree, even for tracing individuals in the first post-war years, especially those who were in DP camps, or who went through the American consular services in Germany.

3. In spite of its being such an important source for information about individuals, most Jews murdered in the Holocaust will not appear in it, since they were not recorded at the time. This may not be what most people think ("The Nazis kept meticulous records, didn't they?"), but it is nonetheless fact. (No, the Nazis actually didn't keep records about most of the Jews they murdered).

4. There is a part of the ITS collection that was created in the first post-war years, when tens - or perhaps even hundreds - of thousands of survivors filled out forms detailing the names of those they had lost. These forms may be among the most important segments of the ITS collections, partly for what they contain, but also because unlike many other parts of the ITS archives, they were never open at all, and even the fact of their existence was not known. Sadly, this entire segment of the ITS collections will not be scanned for a while (probably a year or two), meaning it will NOT be accessible in 2008. This has nothing to do with malice from any direction, and is merely an organizational-logistic decision.

5. The pressure generated by Dr. Paul Shapiro and his colleagues at the USHMM which resulted in the Bonn Agreement (2006) detailing how the ITS archives will be digitally duplicated and made accessible in various countries, wrought a revolution. Until then, all sorts of agencies involved were obstructing access to the ITS collections; so far as we can tell, since then EVERYONE INVOLVED is actively working towards making the archives accessible. Reto Meister, the new director of the ITS, and his staff, are bending over backwards in their efforts to be helpful. Whatever problems still exist - and they are multiple and diverse - are now the result of objective difficulties.

6. The Bonn Agreement allows one digital copy per member country. No more. And it clearly forbids putting the copy on the Internet. The various publications, newspaper articles and other public statements calling for more than that are unfair. Attacking the USHMM, of all institutions, is, well, ungracious, to say the least.

7. Large segments of the ITS collections have been open to the public at Yad Vashem for decades. This is not to belittle the present achievement or its significance, but it is likely that some people now clamouring to see what is in the ITS collections could have had the information from Yad Vashem anytime they wanted over the past decades - and indeed, countless thousands of people have done so. On this point as on others, this blog is adverse to shrill populism and cynical emotional manipulation.

8. The reasons it will be so hard to create simple access to the ITS collections even once they are thrown open in the various national institutions, probably sometime in 2008, are very technical, but also very real. In a nutshell, they are the result of the fact that the structure of the collections at the ITS was never planned with public access in mind (and indeed, into the 1980s there was no public interest in the collections); the computerization projects undertaken at the ITS in the 1990s were also tailored to the very narrow purposes of the ITS as an institution, not those of a broad public. One can bemoan this, but it doesn't change the reality.

9. As a result, the best the various institutions are aiming at right now is to create a somewhat modified system in the various venues. Given the time constraints, technical challenges and costs involved, this is a reasonable decision, probably the only one. The result will be that queries will be processed by staff members, not the general public, and this may require weeks - though not years.

10. At some time in the future it should be possible to migrate the ITS collections into a system that would enable the general public merely to type a name into a computer and get the full relevant results from across the ITS collections. Theoritically we know how to do this, but it will be rather like re-tooling a pickup truck to be a Formula 1 race-winner: it's never been done before, and it won't be easy or cheap. In any case, it will not be possible between now and next year, and anyone demanding it is being unfair.

11. The ITS collections that will be opened in Washington, Jerusalem, Paris and eleswhere in 2008 will not be the complete ITS collections. Because of their size, the scanning of the entire collection will take another few years, and their processing could take even longer. Again, this is not malice, it is reality. At the moment, scanned and indexed archives containing tens of millions of documents are still very thin on the ground. To expect the ITS to be way ahead of what anyone else can do is unrealistic.


Avi said...

Very good piece of information! Unfortunately, most of the public, including the Jewish public, is unaware of it and will still be for a while...


Naomi said...

Hi Yaakov,

Very helpful and insightful information - thanks for summarizing! Kind regards, Naomi Sachs-Amrami (Ishai's daughter-in-law)