Bearing witness

[CN: the Holocaust, genocide]

There’s one more other thing that had me sufficiently preoccupied that it delayed my return to JALC by 4 or 5 days. It was a new project (or obsession), but it’s one that deserves a much more thoughtful exploration than last night’s joking reference to “shiny new objects.”

It started last Wednesday, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Someone on one of the lefty/liberal FB groups I belong to posted a link to the Arolsen Archives#EveryNameCounts campaign, making the observation that the need to support this work is more pressing than it’s ever been, especially given the photos of those Capitol insurrectionists wearing anti-Semitic shirts with slogans like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6 Million was Not Enough.” (Also see this video from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum at around the 9 minute mark. Watch the whole thing if you can.)

A concentration camp prisoner intake card, slightly out of focus. Superimposed over are the words "#EveryNameCounts: An Initiative of the Arolsen Archives."

The Archives and this campaign are summarized thus in The NY Times:

The Arolsen Archives are the largest collection of their kind in the world, with more than 30 million original documents. They contain information on the wartime experiences of as many as 40 million people, including Jews executed in extermination camps and forced laborers conscripted from across Nazi-occupied Europe.

The documents, which take up 16 miles of shelving, include things like train manifests, delousing records, work detail assignments and execution records. [. . .]

The archive began scanning and digitizing its collection in the late 1980s. In the last year, 26 million scanned documents have been posted online. [. . .] “No one can overstate the importance of that archive,” said Deborah Dwork, a Holocaust historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “It’s quintessential.”

Yet searching the records for specific people remains difficult. Most of the archive’s collection — particularly handwritten prisoner lists from concentration camps and other hard-to-read material — is not indexed by name.

“We’ve had 20 or 30 staffers indexing documents day in and day out for 20 years, but we have 30 million documents,” [Archives Director Florine] Azoulay said. “It’s just not feasible to do it all ourselves.”

How Crowdsourcing Aided a Push to Preserve the Histories of Nazi Victims,” Andrew Curry

So the Archives began a crowdsourcing campaign to digitize the info on these scanned documents—a crowdsourcing effort that got an unanticipated boost once we all went into COVID lockdown.

Metal shelves filed with document boxes holding a portion of the International Tracing Service (ITS) records held by the Arolsen Archives and the International Center on Nazi Persecution.

When I learned all this last Wednesday, it moved me. And I agreed with the FB poster’s contextualization: this kind of work, this act of remembrance and memorial feels incredibly vital and important at this moment in our nation’s history.

So I made myself an account on the relevant crowdsourcing platform, walked through a tutorial or two and started digitizing some records.

All well and good—except for the way I got a little bit compulsive in those first few days. Wednesday night I stayed at my computer till 11:30 or later, and I spent other long stretches of time Thursday through Saturday compulsively engaged with these archives. I can’t even brag on getting some huge number of records digitized for all those obsessed hours.

Instead, I was googling terms, places, and abbreviations, and poring over this glossary to understand the terminology and classifications I was seeing on the cards I was digitizing.

I was also taking long, long moments to breathe into the small, wrenching details that kept emerging:

  • The emotional weight when a card marked both with an internment date and a date of death came up for transcription
  • The impact of seeing the prisoner photos attached to a small number of cards, looking into these pairs of eyes
  • Cards that would report the whereabouts of the prisoner’s spouse as “Auschwitz,” or, more hauntingly, “unknown”
  • Cards stamped with the words “Hollerith erfaßt,” meaning their information had been transferred onto computer punch cards.

All of which adds up to: the horrifying neatness, the efficient atrocity of this sort of record-keeping.

So I had myself a bit of a talking to Sunday evening. I’m going to keep contributing some time towards #EveryNameCounts. It feels meaningful to me. And it’s undeniably important, capturing these intimate acknowledgements of so many millions before these fragile bits of pulp and paper fade away.

An open laptop, showing the interface for the Arolsen Archives' online archive.

But I’m currently limiting myself to 5-10 records a day. Something that can add up to a meaningful contribution over time, without me tanking my mental health in order to be of service.

It’s a lifelong lesson: pushing beyond complacency without hurtling myself into unhealthy compulsion.


Image credits: All photos from the Press Photos page of the Arolsen Archives. Copyright: Arolsen Archives and the International Tracing Service (ITS).

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