Issue 13 /
August 2018 Focus Introduction

Holocaust Research and Archives in the Digital Age

DOI : 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/38
Virtual reconstruction of the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. Snapshot from the video “Room installation at the Wiener Library, Summer 2015,” ©Sytse Wierenga, Future Memory Foundation //


In 2003, one of the pioneers of digital history, Roy Rosenzweig, characterized the field’s status quo as follows: “one of the most vexing and interesting features of the digital era is the way that it unsettles traditional arrangements and forces us to ask basic questions that have been there all along.”1 For Rosenzweig, moreover, questions associated with the impact of the digital turn on historiography cannot be answered with reference to historians and their activities only.

On the contrary, he has consistently argued that it is important to explore these questions in the context of the changing roles and inter-relationship between historians, archivists, librarians, curators and the wider public in the preservation, curation, interpretation and dissemination of historical knowledge. What is true in regard to history and archives in general, also applies to the particular case of Holocaust studies and Holocaust archives. In a wide ranging recent lecture on the history and future of Holocaust research, Wendy Lower has singled out the opening up of archives through digitization and transnational integration as well as big data approaches to relevant sources as among the most important trends in contemporary Holocaust research.2 However, she also notes that while these trends have enriched the field and promise future insights, they have not yet coalesced into new, grand research directions. In her words the growth in Holocaust studies partially attributable to the digital turn is “impressive,” but the field remains “fragmentary” and “diffuse”: core questions and issues are debated from ever widening perspectives, but there is as yet little evidence that these debates will come to any firm conclusions any time soon.3

That the digital turn has injected vitality into Holocaust research and archives by opening up new directions and by reposing old questions in a new light is also the experience of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) project.4 EHRI has initiated this special issue, and the two editors, as well as three contributors (Blanke, Frankl and Kristel), are prominently involved in the project. At its heart, EHRI is an archival integration initiative that takes advantage of recent technological advances to integrate information about Holocaust-related archival sources that are currently dispersed across the world in an online environment. EHRI started its work in 2010 with funding provided by the European Union. It is a joint endeavor of a network of 24 partners, encompassing research institutions, archives, libraries, and memory institutions. Via its Online Portal (, EHRI currently provides access to information about more than 1900 Holocaust-related collection holding institutions, and tens of thousands of archival units held by such institutions. While the EHRI Portal and its underlying transnational integration of information is the project’s main outcome so far, it is by no means its only contribution to the digital transformation of Holocaust research and archives. As Blanke and Kristel show in their article, EHRI has also undertaken research into fundamental methodological and epistemological questions posed by the digital turn in Holocaust research, and it has explored the application of digital tools and methods on Holocaust data to gain new insights. Frankl, moreover, presents in his contribution the EHRI Document Blog: an experimental platform that allows contributors - historians and archivists alike - to contextualize, interpret and visualize Holocaust sources. As Frankl notes, the Document Blog is a “low-tech,” “small data” application, that allows contributors a low entry-point opportunity to explore some of the key affordances of digital methods such as new forms of non-linear narration or visual and interactive representation.  In addition, EHRI facilitates a transnational fellowship programme, offers extensive training and networking opportunities, and investigates methodological trends and issues through its programme of workshops and conferences. It is, in other words, an attempt to develop a comprehensive infrastructure that enables Holocaust researchers and archivists to take advantage of new digital tools, methods and opportunities, as well as to critically engage with the transformative effect of the digital turn on Holocaust research and archives.

Central to EHRI’s identity is a truly interdisciplinary and transnational orientation. Both are a direct outcome of the project’s gestation. As a proudly international consortium, a transnational approach underlies everything EHRI does. It reflects the European nature of the Holocaust and is reinforced by the fact that networked data do not respect geographical borders. Equally important is the project’s interdisciplinary character: the consortium brings together Holocaust researchers (broadly defined); archivists, librarians, curators and information specialists; as well as digital humanists and computer scientists. EHRI recognizes that the digital age holds considerable promise for the future of Holocaust research and archives. But these promises can only materialize if expertise and perspectives are widely shared across disciplinary and professional boundaries, and only if all stakeholders come together to cooperatively tackle impediments and challenges.

When we initiated this special issue, we had hoped to receive contributions from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and from across a wide geographic area. In this regard we have undoubtedly succeeded. The present issue features articles from historians, archivists, museum curators, educators, and digital humanists working across Europe, the United States, and Israel. Given this diversity in terms of contributors, it is unsurprising that the articles assembled here address a wide variety of questions, and approach these from markedly diverse perspectives. This is no doubt partially an indication of a field in flux where efforts are “diffuse” and “fragmentary,” as indicated by Lower, and, indeed, testifies that the digital turn has “unsettled traditional arrangements” and that we are still awaiting a new consensus regarding fundamental issues as suggested by Rosenzweig. However, the kaleidoscopic nature of this special issue equally attests to the richness of the research undertaken in the field. It demonstrates that the digital transformation of Holocaust archives and research is well underway, and that its implications are extensively explored and vigorously debated.

As the contributions to this special issue cover a wide range of topics and approach these from notably diverse vantage points, it is not possible to draw up an analytically tight synopsis that would elucidate the state of play in the field as a whole. Nevertheless, reading across the special issue, we can detect three themes that weave the individual contributions together, and indicate areas where future research may fruitfully concentrate on.

The first such field is centered around new methodological approaches to analyze Holocaust sources in order to gain knowledge and insights. The opening up of archives, mass digitization, and digital tools have made quantitative approaches for the analysis and interpretation of Holocaust archives a possibility. By turning sources into raw data, and by approaching these data with algorithms rather than the historian’s traditional interpretative techniques, quantification poses vital questions about both the ends and means of historical research.5 It is in this context that Rosenzweig’s invocation that the digital age has granted age-old questions a new lease of life is particularly relevant. Indeed, the increasing application of digital methods forces us to reconsider some of the foundational issues in the history and methodology of historiography: What kind of knowledge does history produce? What is the relationship between knowledge, meaning and understanding? What is the role of the historian in the interpretative process? Are the traditional methodological tools used by historians – source criticism, philology, diplomatics, etc. – still adequate to deal with digitally enabled research or do they need to be reconsidered? What is history’s focal point – the individual or the general – a question with particular importance to the study of the Holocaust, as it brings to the forefront the issue of how we preserve the individual experiences and memories of victims in the face of our ability to detect patterns, trends and networks by digitally reading large data archives.

Such questions are addressed in Blanke and Kristel’s contribution to this special issue, entitled "Historical Research and Evidence in the Digital Age: The Case for New Approaches in Holocaust Research.” Taking the experience of EHRI as a starting point, Blanke and Kristel explore in detail some of the fundamental implications of the "digital transformation of sources and evidence in Holocaust research.” Their article calls for methodological reflection and innovation in three core areas: first, (digital) historians need to understand how computers “read” documents, and particularly how digitally assisted source identification via search engines impacts upon research; second, they advocate the development of methods to establish the online provenance of information in order to enable new forms of digital source criticism; third, they urge historians to improve their validation practices in regard to research results gained through machine-analysis of large-scale datasets.

Methodological issues are also at the forefront of Papamichos’ article “From the Lone Survivor to the Networked Self: Social Networks Meet the Digital Holocaust Archive.” Reporting on the results of the research project "Bonds of Survivors" which is based on the analysis of video interviews held by the Fortunoff Archives and Visual History Archives, Papamichos argues that social relationships played an important role in the life of Jewish survivors from the Greek city of Thessaloniki. By focusing on the networked self, Papamichos challenges enduring images of the Holocaust: “isolated individuals” and “lone survivors.” These images have shaped the organizational systems of the audio-visual archives which are themselves based on the paradigmatic model of the individual survivor interview. By using social network modelling and analysis, Papamichos eschews the prevalent focus on individual experiences and memories and directs our attention towards the under-explored social dimension of life in the camps. As Papamichos notes, this change of perspective helps “historians [to] better understand how Holocaust survivors managed to reconstruct a social universe in the camps and navigate within it under extremely adverse circumstances.”

While Papamichos’ point-of-departure is the social network, Schellenbacher’s article “Memento Vienna: How an online tool presenting digitized Holocaust-related data and archival material is offering new insights into the Holocaust in Vienna” demonstrates how mapping and usage of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can sharpen our understanding of the importance of space in the formulation and execution of Nazi policies towards the relocation and eventual deportation of the Jewish populations. Memento Vienna is an online tool that maps the last-known residences of Viennese Holocaust victims and facilitates access to additional archival sources relevant to such victims. Whereas it primarily serves as an educational tool, Schellenbacher shows its research potential by enabling “new insights into the details and motives of the relocation of Jews in a city like Vienna, [by] highlighting areas of ghettoization as well as areas that have been made “judenfrei” [‘free of Jews’].”

Papamichos’ and Schellenbacher’s respective discussions of the importance of space and networks as organizational units of Holocaust archives lead us to our second common theme. Indeed, computers do not solely excel at analyzing large amounts of data, they have also fundamentally transformed the ways by which information and knowledge are organized and (re-)presented. As the articles in this special issue attest, questions of digital knowledge organization and representation preoccupy archivists, researchers and museum curators alike, and have significant implications on how information and knowledge about the Holocaust are shared with, and consumed by, the public. Within this large field of concern, two aspects deserve highlighting. First, the question of how crucial contextual information, elucidating the provenance and authenticity of a given archival source or indeed any information object, can be expressed and safeguarded in digital environments.  Secondly, digital representations have challenged traditional notions of narrative. Linear narrations in which the author/curator exerts considerable control on how a reader/visitor may proceed through an argument or an exhibition are increasingly supplanted by representations that support non-linear, interactive pathways, allowing multi-faceted, bi-directional and notably indeterminate explorations.6

Blanke and Kristel approach the question on how the traditional archival principle of provenance can be adapted to the requirements of digital environments from a theoretical point-of-view. Weber, by contrast, offers a practical approach on how contextual information about digitized archival sources can be made easily accessible to users. Her article “Contextualizing Holocaust Documents of the International Tracing Service (ITS) through an Interactive Online Guide,” describes a project by the ITS to develop an online system that provides rich contextual information about digitized documents relating to concentration camp inmates.  The ITS guides describe and analyze the 30 most common documents types, and helps users to decode and unlock these documents by answering questions about their provenance, usage and their specific interpretive challenges.

Both Trebacz and Frankl outline how digital environments enable interactivity and challenge traditional notion of narration. Trebacz's article, “The Ghetto Model as an Alternative form of presenting Holocaust Archives. Chance or Threat?,” analyses the design of a model of the Litzmannstadt ghetto that is currently being built at the Radegast Station Museum in Lodz. When developing the model, the curators together with historians, museologists and educators asked themselves questions such as: "Can this story be told at all? And, if it is so, how should we tell it? [...] Can the story be told only with words? Or should it be told with the use of the objects, which would make a visitor to reach for these objects, touch the place and feel it in a truly tangible way?.” Underlying these questions is the idea that museums are no longer mere temples of the past but living places full of (hi)stories where, through touchable objects (like the model will be), visitors can get in contact with the past and interact with it. In the case of the model described by Trebacz, this interaction is further facilitated by a dedicated website and mobile application where visitors can not only explore relevant archival materials but also contribute themselves by adding memories, personal data, and photographs of ghetto survivors and their families, thereby participating directly in the narration of the story.

Frankl’s article, “Blogging As a Research Method? The EHRI Document Blog,” analyses blogging as a serious academic activity. According to Frankl, “the EHRI Document Blog is an open, experimental space that tackles questions related to Holocaust documentation, sources, and digital methodology,” and particularly focuses on provenance and history of the Holocaust-related sources. One of the key features of the EHRI Document Blog is that it seamlessly integrates metadata about archival collections, visualizations and text. This integration invites “authors to develop non-linear narratives by weaving their text together with interactive components, thus letting their readers discover the subject in different ways and to ‘read’ through the article along different trajectories.” Frankl firmly locates the EHRI Document Blog in the “scientific blogging” field and, therefore, considers it as much more than a just knowledge dissemination vehicle. On the contrary, he shows that blogging can be a valid research method in itself: grappling with the medium can lead bloggers to new research insights and sharpen their understanding of information lacunas and inherent uncertainties in their posts’ underlying evidence bases.

 The third common theme relates to the rearrangement of traditional boundaries between archivists, curators, researchers and the general public in the research process. In the past, this process could be conceptualized as linear with clearly demarcated lines of responsibilities: archivists and curators collect and preserve traces of the past which are then analyzed and interpreted by researchers who, in turn, make their insights available to the interested public. Yet it is clear that the advent of digital technologies has significantly disrupted this arrangement, and formerly clearly defined roles are currently in a state of flux. On the one hand, we can detect a growing rapprochement between archivists and historians after a long period in which their concerns, activities and outlook have been drifting apart.7 There is a growing recognition that the benefits of the digital transformation of archives and historical research can only be realized if the associated challenges are tackled collaboratively, and if expertise and experiences are shared across professional boundaries. In this sense, EHRI with its collaborative model is but a manifestation of a much more general trend. At the same time, the much advertised potential of the internet to lead a “democratization of knowledge” has not only manifested itself by increased online availability of archival sources and research results, but also by the public taking an increasingly active part in the research process itself.  Be it through blogging, crowd-sourcing or other digitally enabled platforms of active engagement, previously passive consumers of archives and research are increasingly becoming co-producers themselves.

The democratization of knowledge and its implications are addressed in most contributions to this special issue. Schellenbacher, for instance, argues that Memento Vienna is not only a powerful research tool, but, above all, an educational resource that is mainly aimed at a “younger digital born audience, accustomed to social media and the use of GIS in their everyday life.” Frankl acknowledges the uses of blogging for public history activities, and Weber notes the suitability of the digital medium for the design of contextual archival research guides that are adaptable to the need of different audiences, including the general public. Trebacz, finally, relates the design of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto model to the participatory museum paradigm, where visitors are no longer seen as passive consumers, but as co-creators and co-authors of exhibitions.

However, the most sustained discussion of the role of the general public in the creation and dissemination of Holocaust knowledge and memory is provided by Herzl in her article “Wikishtetl: Commemorating Jewish Communities the Perished in the Holocaust through the Wikipedia Platform.” The Wikishtetl project is driven by a group of volunteer female teachers who accepted the challenge of editing Wikipedia’s entries about communities that were annihilated in the Holocaust. The process of collaborative writing typical of Wikipedia and the awareness that the final product will be open to a global audience, greatly contributed to the high emotional involvement of the participants during the research and the writing process and helped them to overcome initial technical difficulties. According to Herzl, the significance of using Wikipedia as a vehicle for Holocaust commemoration, instead of using traditional paper books or even other digital tools, is that memories relating to individuals or small communities “become integrated into the main international database of information.” She considers Wikipedia as the best “available means for the private individual to affect the opinions and points of view of the society in which he lives,” thereby enabling contributors to become an integral part of an open and shared knowledge infrastructure without borders.  

The editors of this special issue would like to thank the peer-reviewers who kindly reviewed all the articles. Special thanks are also due to Sara Airoldi, Marco Braghieri, Matteo Perissinotto and Rachel Pistol who expertly supported the editors throughout the publication process.

[1] Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” in The American Historical Review 108/3 (2003): 735–62, 760.
[2] Wendy Lower, “The History and Future of Holocaust Research,” in Tablet Magazine, April 26, 2018
[3] Ibid.
[4] For background information on the EHRI project, see Tobias Blanke, Veerle Vanden Daelen, Michal Frankl, Conny Kristel, Kepa Rodriguez and Reto Speck, “The Past and the Future of Holocaust Research: From Disparate Sources to an Integrated European Holocaust Research Infrastructure?” in Evolution der Informationsinfrastruktur: Forschung und Entwicklung als Kooperation von Bibliothek und Fachwissenschaft, eds. A.  Rapp et al., (Glückstadt: Verlag Werner Hülsbusch, 2013): 157-77 and  Tobias Blanke, Michael Bryant, Michal Frankl, Conny Kristel, Reto Speck, Veerle Vanden Daelen, “The European Holocaust Research Infrastructure Portal,” in ACM Journal on Computing and Cultural Heritage, 10/1 (2017): 1-17.
[5] On some of the opportunities and challenges associated with historians adopting “big data” methods, see, for instance, Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), especially chapter 4.
[6] See, for instance, Daniel J. Cohen, Michael Frisch, Patrick Gallagher et al., “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” in The Journal of American History, 95/2 (2008), esp. 467-72.
[7] See Francis X. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg, Processing the Past: Changing Authorities in History and the Archives, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists and the Changing Archival Landscape,” in American Archivist, 74/2 (2011): 600-62 and Petra Links, Reto Speck and Veerle Vanden Daelen, “Who Holds the Key to Holocaust-Related Sources: Authorship as Subjectivity in Finding Aids,” in Holocaust Studies, 22/1 (2016): 21-43.

Laura Brazzo is the Head of the historical archives of the Fondazione CDEC. She designed the CDEC Digital Library  - of which she’s currently the curator - and the publication of Linked Open Data resources about the Holocaust in Italy. Since 2015 she is involved in the activities of five work-packages of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure - EHRI Project.
Reto Speck is a Researcher at NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam and a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His research is centered around the impact of digital technologies on historiography and archival theory. Reto is the Deputy Director of the EHRI Project.

  How to quote this article:
Laura Brazzo, Reto Speck, "Introduction" in Holocaust Research and Archives in the Digital Age, eds. Laura Brazzo and Reto Speck, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of the Fondazione CDEC, n. 13, August 2018

DOI: 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/38