What Is the Point of an Archive?

BERLIN—Aubrey Pomerance is a permanent expat. A Canadian, he has lived in Germany for 25 years—seven of those as the chief archivist at the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Daniel Libeskind architectural marvel in the center of the city. Pomerance urges me to consider donating Valy’s letters to the museum. When I mention that her story is frustratingly incomplete, he waves a hand. “Be careful when you say incomplete,” he says. “There is no collection that documents a person’s life from moment of birth to moment of death. But you can cull a lot of information from one single document.” It is also very useful, I am discovering, to show them to readers who are particularly well-versed in women of the period and who know Berlin.

At the time I met him, Pomerance had already been to the archives in Bad Arolsen once, but on a very focused tour with no opportunity to explore on his own.

“Up until now, it has served the purpose of what its title is—the International Tracing Service—in other words, finding out fates,” Pomerance says, by way of introduction. He is very thin and never lost his Canadian “yeahs” and “abouts.” He is balding; the hair left may once have been a vibrant red, but it has faded into a very, very slight shade of strawberry. He is nearly paler than white, and he is wearing a pale blue shirt, as though he is attempting to blend into the fading bits of paper he works with. “Descendents were left without really knowing exactly how or where their relatives died. People need a sense of finality, and that’s what the ITS has been offering people—family members—for decades.” And yet he cautions me about how I should present what some historians believed was a crisis of bureaucracy that kept the ITS collections closed to public scrutiny. “This is not a German institution. I think it’s important you underline that,” he says, referring to the 11 countries that controlled the keys.“This is a shared responsibility.”

Pomerance mentions that he was shown a book in Arolsen that I might see there, too; it documents the number of lice on the heads of individual prisoners. “When you see those documents,” he says, “You think, ‘My goodness, there are people counting the number of lice on inmates’ heads. It’s part of the whole, greater picture. It kind of adds to the incomprehensibility of it all.’ ” Even such a small mention in this type of file was enough to secure for a former prisoner the postwar indemnity payments he or she was eligible for after the war. Or it might simply be the only evidence that a person lived at all.

“It is incredible what still can, all of a sudden, be discovered,” he remarks, musing on the discovery, eight years ago, by the Jewish community of Vienna, of a trove of files documenting the wartime history of the community and the wealth of information that has become available to researchers on the Internet. (On the Web site of the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, for example, I found the Gestapo mug shots for my cousin Chaja Wildmann and her husband.)

But nearly 70 years on, many believe that there are few “new” Holocaust discoveries to be found at Arolsen. Revelations, if they can be called that, are more likely to be of the kind I have made in my parents’ basement, in the words of the victims preserved for seven decades, the pleas for help. There is great interest in the large body of letters, relatively intact, written by Jews trapped in Europe to those outside. Though Valy’s letters were all opened by official “readers,” there are ways to parse the lines to hear what she’s really experiencing. They are not dissimilar to the pleas of Otto Frank, Anne’s father, discovered at the YIVO Institute in Manhattan two years ago, begging for immigration aid from relatives abroad throughout 1941.

The night before I interview Pomerance, I meet with Dr. Andrea Löw from the Institute of Contemporary History at a trendy little waffle shop in the Prenzlauer Berg quarter of what was formerly East Berlin. She is 34, and she is the first person I tell that I am pregnant. I blurt it out, perhaps because we are surrounded, crushed in, by baby carriages; perhaps because she is only a year older than me; and perhaps because, as always when I start on a Holocaust project, I feel very conscious of my own Jewishness. I tell her I am growing a little Jew. I’m not sure she finds this amusing.

For Andrea’s work, Valy’s letters are just as important as any lists or new information she might come across at ITS. She thinks she might be able to include a few in a multivolume collection of wartime documents she is helping to compile—her hope is to use the voices of victims to humanize the stiff bureaucratic decrees that bloodlessly lay out, day after day, the orders to persecute and separate Jews from German society. She reads a few of my photocopies as we eat our waffles. They are fairly typical, she says, looking for visas, affidavits, for exit doors. But she also wonders how my grandfather handled the demands of dozens of cousins and friends, desperate and angry that he got out and they didn’t? We talk about the moral ambiguities of the period: What did my grandfather owe these cousins and friends? Why didn’t he take Valy with him? In the box of letters, I found receipts that showed my grandfather was in the process of paying down loans from national refugee committees in amounts so low he couldn’t possibly have had any extra cash to send abroad. He was quite poor in Vienna to begin with—and, like many refugees, he arrived with barely enough to start his own life.

It’s June in Berlin, and the city is blooming, warm and inviting and hip and cool. I’m eager to get going. I want to ask people about who Valy might have been and what she might have experienced. But I also want to know what the popular—and academic—expectations are for the Bad Arolsen ITS archives. I want to know, so to speak, whether there is anything in that bag for me.

Before I get to Arolsen, I have two stops to make. The first is to Wolfgang Benz, director of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, deep in former West Berlin. He was born in 1941, and when he is asked why he is a Holocaust historian, he parries with “Why do you use a pencil?” He is a pessimist, at best, about the public potential for ITS. He believes it is much ballyhoo about nothing—stirred up largely by misinformed Americans. “This was the campaign,” he says, running his hands through wildly unkempt white hair. “The greatest archives of the Holocaust!” He makes his voice deep and mean, “And the Germans! The Germans! They will not show us! Terrible! Terrible! You must! It’s garbage.” He slumps back in his chair. The archives are just “lists,” he tells me. Names and camps. It’s good primarily—if not entirely—for archivists or historians. And for restitution cases. The only “scandal” of Arolsen, he says, is when the “82-year-old Ukrainian man” asks for compensation for being a forced laborer, and the archive staff is not fast enough with information to ensure he receives payment in his lifetime. Benz warns me that there was no way Valy survived her deportation. “January 1943?” He shudders. It was a terrible month—and year—to be deported. Still, “these archives are not of interest. Archives are dusty rooms for historians,” he sighs. “What is the importance of an archive?”

The next morning, I board a slick Intercity-Express train for Weimar and then take a bus down what was once nicknamed the “Blood Road,” to Buchenwald, the concentration camp 20 minutes outside the city of Goethe. I am visiting Volkhard Knigge, director of the camp memorial. We’d spoken by phone some years before, and I was curious whether the opening of the doors at the International Tracing Service had changed the permanent exhibition or the future direction of the sprawling memorial. A number of Holocaust scholars believe that ITS’s great purpose will be to help create sites of memory, geographic locations that mark and explain where the Holocaust took place, especially now that the eyewitnesses are dying. There are hundreds of small former camp sites and sub-Kommandos (divisions of larger concentration camps) scattered across Germany and Poland. The material on the victims who passed through—and died—in these almost-forgotten locations is probably most complete at the archives in Bad Arolsen.

Knigge is dressed like an art-gallery owner—black jacket, black button-down shirt, black jeans, white hair. He teaches cultural studies and the history of memory in Jena. His wife, he tells me later as he drives me back to the train station, is an Israeli artist. Knigge rejects the idea that there is nothing at ITS. “There is material from all the camps,” he says, as well as DP camp material and all the postwar trial materials. Before this year, he says, “more than 90 percent of the Buchenwald records were in Bad Arolsen. We could see meters and meters and meters [of documents], but we didn’t have the right to look in. As historians, we had to find our ways to do research without Arolsen. … Most of the documents collected were personal documents. But we now have much more precise information about camp inmates, about transports.”

One way around the ITS stonewalling was to go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. All Buchenwald’s Jewish files were there as well, copies of the Bad Arolsen holdings taken as mimeographs in the early 1950s, before the ITS archives were closed. And yet Buchenwald’s history is hardly just a Jewish one—the majority of prisoners were not Jewish.

Yet now that he’s had a look inside, Knigge cautions that opening ITS doesn’t mean rewriting the history of the Holocaust. Rather, “it is a bit like completing a mosaic: You had some stones before; now you have many more, and the picture becomes much more clear.” He thinks there is more there for laypeople than Benz believes. “For survivor families, we can reconstruct much more precisely, with much more detail, the biographies of prisoners. And we know much more [about] how the concentration camps worked together; we know much more about transports.”

He also has an answer to Benz’s rhetorical question about the importance of archives. “I think archives are kind of … living monuments. They are more important than monuments. A monument is just a monument, a symbol. But an archive is an original authentic expression of what happened in history. It is, in a way, living history.” He is very earnest, despite his generally dry demeanor. “It is something like a bridge to the past.” He sees Arolsen as an important pedagogical tool—giving students new and tangible materials to understand people who existed and were extinguished.

I am eager to get there. At my request, the ITS has already pulled Valy’s files as well as the files of a few cousins. I will find them on arrival.