About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, Washington, DC.

August 18, 2011

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

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Thank you for that kind introduction. And my thanks to The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies for inviting so many of us from the National Archives to take part in this terrific Capital Conference. For me, it is a special honor to share the program with the Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sara Bloomfield, and your other distinguished speakers.

Having spent some time reviewing your conference program, I also want to congratulate the Association on the extraordinary depth and expanse of the topics covered in this conference.   I could easily have spent  the week with you!

More importantly, this remarkable conference, honors an ancient Jewish tradition and celebrates its re-birth. In Biblical times, genealogy was critically important: Kings had to be descendants of David, priests had to be descendants of Levi, High Priests had to be descendants of Aaron, and so on.

In the 20th Century, the Jewish genealogical tradition was reborn out of nightmarish tragedy, and the return of hope.

As Arthur Kurzweil, author of From Generation to Generation has said,

I believe that in the same way that the Talmud says that when the Temple was destroyed, they rebuilt by doing their family trees, in our generation we have the same task. As a rebuilding generation, we are doing our family trees to rebuild, to put the pieces back together again, to take that shattered people and to bring them back together again. Our work is mitzvah work…

That “mitzvah work” is the work we support every day at the National Archives.
 
I hope that many of you had a chance to hear the detailed presentations on the genealogical resources at National Archives, given here by our senior staff in the last few days. But with 51 pages of wonderful presentations and activities to choose from, I’ll understand if you missed one or two. If you haven’t, or still want to learn more, my staff will give a general introduction to the records of the National Archives tomorrow morning at 9:30. It will be a broad ranging panel discussion with lots of time for questions. And of course, we hope you’ll visit our research collections here in Washington, or in any of our 44 sites around the country.

Let me start at the beginning by letting you know who we are.  We are not the Library of Congress!   The National Archives’ core mission remains unchanged from the day we were created as a Federal agency in 1934: We collect, protect, and provide access to government documents of long-term historic or legal interest. That includes all presidential documents, about 2 percent to 3 percent of all records created by the United States government.

Two or three percent may not sound like much, but we now hold approximately 12 billion sheets of paper, 40 million photographs miles and miles of video and film, and 5.3 billion electronic records—the fastest growing part of the collection. To give you a sense of that growth: we house 20 million e-mails from the Clinton Administration, the total from the George W. Bush administration: 240 million.

While collecting and protecting the records are important responsibilities, even more important is our role in making them available.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government… that [W]henever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

His words resonate even more powerfully today. To keep a democracy healthy and vibrant in the 21st Century, its citizens must be well informed. Information, especially about the actions of government, must be circulated, available and put to use by as many people as possible.

At the Archives, this ideal is embedded in our mission. The work we do everyday is rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee their rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation and they also have the right to learn about the members of their families who came before them.

President Obama has made it clear that this ideal should also be part of the mission of all government agencies. Here’s how he put it when he issued his Open Government Directive at the beginning of his term:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Now, I have to admit that anyone who works here in the nation’s capital soon learns a painful lesson:  every once in a while, a gap can develop between noble ideals and gritty reality. 
So let me give you a real world example of what our commitment to openness means at the National Archives – an example that may well have involved some of the relatives of people in this room.

As many of you know, in 1995, Edgar Bronfman and other leaders of the World Jewish Congress went to Geneva. Their goal-- to talk with leading Swiss bankers about information the Swiss might have about bank accounts set up by Jews who died or lost everything in the Holocaust. The Swiss bankers were dismissive, saying they had found only a very few dormant accounts from World War II, Jewish and otherwise, which added up to a grand total of $32 million dollars. In effect, they told Bronfman to take it or leave it.

To say the least, Bronfman and his colleagues were not happy. In fact, they were furious, and determined to learn more.

Bronfman went to Senator Al D’Amato, a Republican from New York, who was also chair of the Senate Banking Committee, to see if he could help the World Jewish Congress learn more. On D’Amato’s staff was a young man named Gregg Rickman, who –as it turned out –has a masters degree in Jewish history and is the son-in-law of a Holocaust survivor.

Rickman was interested, and he drafted letters to 11 U.S. government agencies, asking them for any records they might have on the disposition of the assets European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.
Ten of the agencies, said, “Sorry we don’t have anything,” or “it’s classified.” Only one agency stepped up.  The National Archives.

Senator D’Amato’s staff called the WJC to ask if they could borrow an intern for a few days to look through the documents. The Archives folks predicted it would only take that long to go through the material.

The WJC offered up a young woman named Miriam Kleiman, Who was between jobs at the time, had never been to the Archives before, and was surprised that she would simply be allowed in. She assumed that the only people who could use the Archives were scholars with PhD’s or professional researchers like Ken Burns. Instead, like everyone, she was welcomed.  And I hope if you take nothing else away from what I say tonight, you leave with this nugget.  These records are for EVERYONE.

Before Miriam headed over to the Archives, D’Amato’s staffer Greg Rickman told her he’d made an interesting discovery:  in 1944 the U.S. government started an investigation called “Project Safehaven” – an interagency program to track down and block the flow of German assets to neutral countries.  

So in March 1996, Miriam entered the Archives for the first time in her life, and sat down next to a cart holding 13 boxes of documents. She went through them, page by page. The first day, she found… nothing. But the next day, she found … THIS.

It is an intelligence document from Bern, Switzerland, labeled “Safehaven Report.” On it she found a list of nationals from nine European countries who had opened accounts in Switzerland before 1942.  And this Safehaven report, dated July 12, 1945, noted that the war was over – and these accounts had not been claimed.  She read down the list …

Isaac Cohen…Isidor Feldstein…Sache Klein…Baruch Halpern… Sigmund Mendelsohn…Richard and Julius Heimann, Eliain Eisinger, Zoltan Weiner, Robert Levy, Heinrich Gruenberg, Maurice Rothmann…

Most of the names on the list were clearly Jewish.

And the accounts were in everything from German marks to Swiss Francs. She raced to a pay phone and called Rickman. He said make a copy and come back here NOW.

Rickman took the document Miriam had found, and called the the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. He made an emergency request to have the amounts translated into current dollars. Later that day, CRS responded: the accounts totaled $20 million.

In other words, thanks to the openness of the National Archives, in two days an energetic amateur researcher found accounts from a single Swiss bank, adding up to more than half of the total accounts the Swiss claimed they were still holding.

As we now know, that document found in the National Archives was just the tip of the iceberg. Miriam Kleiman’s actions led to hearings by Senator D’Amato’s banking committee, then the House Banking Committee, followed by a class action suit on behalf of survivors and their heirs, and a report by President Clinton’s Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstadt. It also set off the biggest wave of archival research since Alex Haley's "Roots" in the mid-1970s.

Ambassador Eizenstadt, in his book, Imperfect Justice, described the scene at the Archives:

“The research at the National Archives had a frenetic, Marx Brothers quality.  The little-known archives facility in College Park, Maryland, was suddenly besieged by researchers from all the parties.  Soon there was a battle not only in the halls of Congress and in the courts but among researchers.  [NARA staff archivist] Greg Bradsher told me that he often felt like a referee between competing researchers, each hoarding boxes of important documents and spying over one another’s shoulders.  The Swiss researchers called Rickman ‘devil boy.’  At the battle’s height in 1997, there were almost fifty researchers working for the Swiss Bankers Association, for lawyers representing the Swiss and the Holocaust victims, and for the State Department, all trying to elbow their way into a small area to examine documents.” 

In 1998, the Swiss Banks class action lawsuit settled for $1.25 billion. 

Even more important than the money, perhaps, is the fact that history’s view of the Holocaust changed forever. Until the late 1990s, the world knew that the Holocaust was the most terrible act of murder in world history. Now the world knows it was also the greatest theft.

This document also changed the Archives. I think it’s safe to say we’re now the world’s leading resource on Holocaust-era assets. Our holdings include vitally important documents not only on bank accounts, but on unclaimed insurance policies and looted art. Our “finding aid” to Holocaust-era assets documents– just the guide itself – is more than 1100 pages long! Every year, we’re working with partners to digitize the material and put it on line.

We’ve also been working with other nations and Jewish organizations to make information on Holocaust-era assets more available.

Just this May, for example, we helped launch an international web portal that links researchers to of descriptions of records and, in many cases, digital images of the records that relate to cultural property that was stolen, looted, seized, forcibly sold, or otherwise lost during the Nazi-era.  Our partners include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Claims Conference, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Germany among other international record holders.

You can find that portal, and links to all our holocaust material at our website: www.archives.gov.
Every day, discoveries—large and small—are being made in the records of the country.

An important footnote to the story is that that amateur researcher, Miriam Kleiman, was hired by a law firm working on the class action suits. Then she joined … the National Archives, where she works today.

While we have long been Stop Number One for genealogy researchers, it’s safe to say that The National Archives, is now even more open and accessible than we were on that day 15 years ago when Miriam found this document.

Let me mention just a few examples. In the past, researchers spent long hours looking at page after page and taking hand-written notes. Now, researchers come armed with scanners, digital cameras, and other electronic devices to copy traditional paper records, and we have installed WiFi in our Washington and College Park buildings to help them do their work.

Many –but certainly not all -- of the documents researchers need today are available on the Internet. Our online presence grows richer every day, giving genealogists more and more material.
Our web site – www.archives.gov --has been made easier to use.  It includes a genealogy portal. It offers tutorials for those starting out in genealogy research as well as links to web sites that contain resources for professionals and amateurs alike.

But we’re not waiting for people to come to our web site.

We’re reaching out to them by way of social media. In fact, we plan to be a leader in government in the use of social media.

We have eleven blogs, one of which is mine. We have 29 Facebook pages for Presidential libraries and regional archives as well as individual programs and offices within the Archives. We have a YouTube site… you’ll find us on Flickr, and on Twitter and Foursquare.

These projects are only the beginning, however, especially as we focus on becoming more accessible on the iPad, iPhone, and Droid.

All these Web and social media platforms are infused with information that could be of use in genealogy research, and now we have a tool to search them all.

We call it Online Public Access, or OPA.  We launched OPA late last year.  It provides a public portal for access to our digitized records and information about our records.  You could call it a Google for the Archives.

This search tool can be vitally important to your research because -- as you’ve learned in many of the presentations this week -- more and more, genealogy data is available on the Internet. But as we meet here today, genealogy research still depends to a great extent on traditional paper records. That’s why we are doing all we can to digitize as much of our traditional holdings as quickly as possible.

The National Archives has ongoing external digitization partnerships with organizations that have an interest in genealogical records. Family Search, Ancestry, and Footnote have scanned many of our most popular microfilm publications. Now, they are digitizing records not on microfilm that were only available in a specific NARA facility.

As a result of these partnerships, approximately 130 million images of NARA records are currently online, many of them with newly-created indexes.  One which will be of particular interest to you is the 1930s and 1940s birth, marriage, and death records from American consuls in Germany and Eastern Europe

We also have a wealth of information on microfilm that could be of particular interest. The 1940 census for example, asked not only where a person was living on April 1, 1940, but also on April 1, 1935. In other words, those census records give you the chance to track family members who fled Europe in the middle of the decade.

By the way, I’m very happy to report that by the time of your next Conference the 1940 census, now on microfilm, will be available free online from any computer. In fact, it will be on the web on April 2, 2012.

So, I hope that gives you a sense of the range of uses to which the records of our country have been and will be used to explore our past—personally or nationally—and the commitment on our part to support you in your work. 

And the discoveries will multiply as more and more records are made available and used.  So the stories like the one reported in last Sunday’s New York Times about Ralph Branca, the Dodgers relief pitcher in THE game against the Giants in 1951.  Branca, raised a Roman Catholic and now 85 years old, recently learned of his Jewish heritage.  Thanks to the good work of a Hungarian Jewish genealogy group he was connected with his true history.

That’s the work that everyone in this room is about.  So…keep up the good work!

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