New Archival Adventures

Today was my first foray into researching in German archives. So far I have only conducted extensive work in numerous Russian archives as well as a small amount of research in the USA at the Hoover Institution in California and the National Archives (NARA) in College Park, Maryland. Before I even came to Germany, I figured that the trip here would be far less painful than working in Russia. Each archive had an up to date website and I was able to contact and receive responses from archivists before my arrival. They helped me find files to order, which I did from America, that would be ready upon my arrival.

The day was off to an excellent start when I saw this beautiful Mercedes W124 on the way to the archive.

Sometime yesterday afternoon I arrived in Freiburg, Germany. I basically passed out from the travel and woke up early to arrive at the German Federal Military Archive a little after 8AM this morning. The building is fairly imposing and is surrounded by a very large metal fence. I walked up to what looked like a security guard kiosk and told the man there that this was my first time at the archive and that I was trying to find the reading room. He was super friendly and said that all I had to do was sign into a ledger. At the end of the day, I was to sign out. If I wanted to pop down the block to the café for a snack or coffee, I did not have to sign out. He then told me to go to a building near his kiosk, where there would be an automatic door. He pointed to a window on the first floor and said that I would be able to find lockers for my things there. I did indeed find the locker, which requires a 2 Euro coin to operate (good thing I got a chocolate croissant and a coffee on the way to the archive). I then found a man in the hallway, who happens to teach in the CUNY system, who told me how to get to the reading room. There was a friendly guy working at the desk and my ordered files were ready for me. All I had to do was once again sign a few forms agreeing to the terms of working in the archive and protecting the personal information contained within some of the folders. That was it. There was no need to show an ID. There was no need to sign the folders in and out. Nor did I have to sign inside the folder that I had read it, for what topic, and which pages.

Approaching the German Military Archive.

The staff was also extremely friendly and helpful. Although I read German fairly often for my research, I never speak it. It’s been roughly seven years since I have extensively spoken German, and that was at my undergraduate institution. The words are coming back, but my ability to string together a sentence is not helped by being tired from my travels. Thankfully the staff was patient and didn’t insist on switching to English, which was a fear that I had. Some Russian archival staff didn’t mind when I didn’t know the exact word or phrase for something, but others would quickly become angered and begin yelling. Here the most I got was a slight chuckle from my pauses trying to remember how to say a few words to describe the situation.

During my first day, I was able to read through eleven files. I have about four more that I ordered this morning that I didn’t get to. I also ordered another six folders before leaving. To do this amount of research in the Russian State Military Archive would have taken a minimum of two and a half weeks due to the five file request limit and a waiting period of four days to receive files. Much of the speed in processing the files is also because I can take photos of documents. In Russia, photographing archival materials is largely forbidden, so I spent much of my time fully reading through documents, taking notes, translating on the spot, or copying whole documents into my note taking program. While processing the large numbers of files to order from home I began to worry that my three-week trip to Germany would be too short. Currently I’m wondering if I budgeted far too much time to get through the files in the archives. I’m sure I’ll be able to fill up my free time.

On a last note, the afternoon security guard at the archive is Russian. I saw him reading a book in Russian and started to speak to him in Russian. He grew excited and asked me where I was from. Our conversation only ended because someone else came to the kiosk to access the archive. At the end of the day, he asked my name and where in the city I was staying. I asked if he would be there tomorrow and he happily replied yes. I think I have a new best friend.

Digital Mapping and Family History

It’s a new year and I’ve got a cool HASTAC Fellowship, so I’ve decided to add a blog component to my website to occasionally write about cool stuff related to my research, digital humanities, and mapping. I’ll be kicking this all off with a somewhat personal post. Those who have followed my personal travel blog from Russia might know of my brush with fate and how I was able to reconnect with part of my family that we hadn’t really been in contact with since my grandmother, her sisters, and her parents were evacuated by the British during the Russian Civil War. At least one member of my grandmother’s mother’s family remained in Simferopol, Crimea, and became a known Soviet poet, one who was the first to witness and write about the Holocaust. There’s actually a fantastic book written about him. I last saw his daughter in Moscow in July and again in October of 2017.

After my grandmother, her parents, and her sister came to America, my great-uncle was born. He passed away about a year ago and my father brought us some of the pictures and letters, which he had kept from his parents. It seems that my grandmother’s father’s family remained around present-day Ukraine. Some stayed in Kiev, others in Berdichev. Being a historian and the only living member of the family that speaks Russian, I was intrigued to look at the photos and letters. However, it soon became apparent that my knowledge of the history would become depressing.

One of the items that was most shocking was a photograph of the extended family. The bottom of the photo has a caption saying that Isaac was killed at the factory. The back of the photo, though, was much more troubling. It says that it was taken in Berdichev in 1923. Upon reading that, I immediately had a pit in my stomach. Berdichev was one of the major sites of the Holocaust, where the majority of the city’s Jewish population was exterminated. It is highly likely that all of those pictured perished.

A subsequent letter from 1948 between my great-grandparents and one relative from Kiev alludes to the toughness of the war. The author, Inda, notes that she had received a letter two years before, and only just found the time to write back. She states that her family was doing much better after the war, but that “it is painful to write about the others” and that “due to the officer beasts, many in the family perished.” Most in the Western world don’t understand the toll of the Second World War on the Soviet Union. 27 million Soviet citizens perished during the war, 2 million of whom were Jews in the Holocaust. It is not an exaggeration to say that every Soviet family was touched by the war and lost at least one person. While I had suspected some of this, I had never known the extent. Indeed, my own extended family suffered losses during the war.

This brings me to my connection between my personal life and my research. For the past few years, I have worked as a teaching assistant for a course on genocide and weapons of mass destruction. One year, we read Father Patrick DesBois’s The Holocaust By Bullets, which chronicles the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, primarily in the territory of the Soviet Union, beyond the major deathcamps such as Auschwitz or Treblinka. Unlike at those camps, where killing was mechanized and impersonal, the vast majority of the executions in Soviet territories was by cruder, personal means such as shootings. Berdichev was one of these sites. While using Father DesBois’s book, I found out about his interactive mapping project, as I was embarking upon my own work with German prisoner of war camps. I consider Father DesBois’s map of the Holocaust by Bullets to be one of the best interactive mapping projects I have ever come across. In addition to plotting the extermination sites, each location features information from relevant archival sources, either German or Soviet, as well as testimonies from those who remained. Anyone interested in historical GIS, digital humanities, the Holocaust, or the history of World War II should know of this resource. This mapping project quickly and easily conveys the magnitude of the exterminations. It also readily illustrates the human toll of the Second World War on the Eastern Front. More work of a similar nature should be done to visualize the economic and human destruction of the Second World War.