Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Holocaust Restitution

The movement of the past decade or two to provide restitution for the victims of the Holocaust also brought with it an intense use of archives and other records, as well as efforts to hide or destroy these sources. Michael J. Bazyler and Roger P. Alford, eds., Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy (New York: New York University Press, 2006) provides an interesting window into this, with essays by lawyers, government officials, and the victims themselves. The essays are grouped around the various litigations concerning the banks, slave labor, insurance payments, and looted art. There are also essays providing a general overview and legacy implications of the restitution battles.

Some of what is in this volume will be very familiar to archivists and their colleagues. William Slany, for example, notes the important role of the National Archives, arguing that the reports on the looted assets of Holocaust victims “could not have been written by mobilized federal historians and researchers without the enthusiastic support and full resources of the National Archives, which became the headquarters of the international research in Holocaust-era assets” (p. 35). The passing of generations and the fading memory of the war and the Holocaust also bring forth concerns about a loss of just what happened in this war. Deborah Sturman reflects on how the Holocaust litigation has affected Germany’s remembrance and understanding of its role in the war: “As the war becomes ever more distant, Germans become more readily willing to disregard (or at least consider resolved) the crimes of the war and the Holocaust and instead focus on the Allies’ wartime and postwar excesses” (pp. 217-218). She believes that “with each successive generation having a less personal relationship to, or first-hand knowledge of, the war and its participants, Germany’s willingness to assume either moral or economic responsibility towards the victims has declined” (p. 219). Archivists and the users of archives recognize that this is just one of many reasons why archives are so important in our society.

There are some surprises, concerning the nature of recordkeeping and the Holocaust victims, in this volume. Edward Korman’s essay on the influence of the Swiss banks on the history of that industry in the Second World War is interesting in this regard. Noting that for a long time Swiss banks regularly disposed of Second World War-era accounts after ten years, as legally allowed for by their laws, and the ending of this with the Federal Decree of 1996 declaring such destruction as being illegal, Korman chronicles that such destruction has continued to the present: “What we do know is that for 40 percent of bank accounts open or opened in Switzerland between 1933 and 1945, there is no record at all, and for the rest, there is often no more than a customer registry card” (p. 129). While the notion of Swiss neutrality during the war had long ago disappeared, the knowledge that banking and other critical records had continued to be destroyed after the revelations about the country’s support of the Third Reich became public is all the more startling.

While this volume provides a lot of useful commentary on the legal and political maneuverings concerning Holocaust restitution, it also gives voice to the victims themselves. For example, an individual used for slave labor by a company manufacturing aircraft for the Third Reich, writes, “Hitler took away my father’s name and gave him a number. The insurance companies took it away again. It isn’t on any revealed lists and they pretend that he never existed. I want them to acknowledge that he lived, that he died, and that the way he died matters to his son and to the grandchildren he never knew” (p. 100). It is these personal testimonies that make all the more compelling the importance of archives in providing evidence about the horrors inflicted upon the Jews of Europe by the Third Reich and its allies.