Archivists, Archival Records, and Looted Cultural Property Research
Dr. Greg Bradsher, Director, Holocaust-Era Assets Records Project, National Archives & Records Administration,
at the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets,
October 3, 2000
I would like to commence my presentation by thanking the Lithuanian government for hosting this important international forum and by thanking the organizing committee and its chair Mr. Zingeris for putting together such a wonderful conference. I would also like to thank my friend Dr. Wesley Fisher for inviting me to participate in this workshop and for bringing together such a distinguished panel.
I should note at the beginning of my talk that while my remarks are primarily addressed to my archival colleagues it is essential that the users of our archives and our political leaders understand and appreciate the work involved in making our archives truly accessible.
Many governmental archival institutions have accumulated vast quantities of records relating to the identification, recovery, administration, and disposition of Holocaust-Era looted cultural property. This is certainly true of the United States National Archives where we have custody of some 20 million pages of records relating to Holocaust-Era assets, including looted cultural property.
During World War II numerous United States Government agencies created millions of pages of records relating to cultural property. They did so for four specific purposes: 1) to protect, whenever possible, cultural property from being damaged by the Allied military forces; 2) to keep cultural property from being used as a financial assets by the Axis; 3) to keep looted cultural property from being sent to Safehaven in the neutral nations, Latin America, and even the United States; and, 4) to facilitate the identification and recovery of the looted cultural property. After the war the U.S. Government created millions of pages of records relating to the recovery, administration, and disposition of the cultural property and other assets.
Archival research in these looted cultural property-related records and those in other countries can be greatly facilitated if we archivists can accomplish four important tasks.
First, we need to create specialized finding aids, as has been the case in several countries, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. For most archival institutions it is a indulgence to produce specialized finding aids when so much fundamental archival descriptive works needs to be done. Nonetheless, specialized finding aids need to be produced because they not only assist researchers obtain information in a more timely manner, but they actually protect records from unnecessary use. That is, when a specialized finding aid directs a researcher to a specific file the researcher will not have to needlessly rummage through a larger body of material looking for specific information, thereby protecting the documents from overuse.
Second, we need to work with our users to identify key series of records, and then create appropriate box, folder, file, and document lists. This is something my institution is presently doing with provenance and claims researchers. We have found this identification process useful not only because we have learned more about the importance of our holdings, but also because the researchers themselves have acquired more knowledge about our holdings and the relative value of specific records to their research. For an archival institution, an educated user is a real time-saver for the archives staff.
Third, we need to digitize key documents and series of records and put them, along with finding aids, on the Internet. Relevant research papers and reference guides should also be placed on the Internet. The more information researchers have before coming to an archival institution, the better-off both the researchers and the archival institution will be.
And fourth, we need to assiduously work within our respective legal and legislative systems for greater openness of archives, both with respect to privacy concerns and national security constraints.
In order to accomplish what I just set forth as our tasks, we must work to obtain a political and institutional commitment to giving a topmost priority, including the resources, to archival activities relating to Holocaust-Era assets. Unless we archivists lobby vigorously for obtaining a priority and the vital resources, our Holocaust-Era assets work may be buried and lost in the numerous priorities of any archival institution.
Therefore, we archivists engaged in Holocaust-Era assets activities cannot afford to be passive creatures, as is our normal practice. We must diligently work to gain the vocal support of our researchers and galvanize the commitment of our political leaders to ensure that our archival holdings and we are in a most effective position to assist our researchers in the successful completion of their labors.
At the U.S. National Archives, we have been quite productive, and I believe successful, the past five years in Holocaust-Era assets activities. We have assisted over 1,000 researchers; established a specific website for Holocaust-Era Assets Records at NARA; produced specialized finding aids, including my 1,100-page finding aid; obtained legislation for great archival openness (The Nazi War Crimes Records Disclosure Act of 1998); assisted in the declassification of millions of pages of records (for information about these declassified records please see the Interagency Working Group on Nazi War Criminal Records); sponsored an international symposium in December 1998 on Holocaust-Era assets records and research; and, this past August we hosted a major meeting on provenance and claims research.
But none of our accomplishments would have happened if we did not have an institutional commitment from Assistant Archivist of the United States, Dr. Michael Kurtz; the energetic interest and involvement by our legislative leaders; and, a cooperative relationship with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States as well as with the commissions of numerous counties, including those of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, and government historians and archivists in dozens of countries, especially the United Kingdom. Furthermore our successes can be attributed to our close working relationship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Department of State's Historical Office, and Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel's Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, the personal and political support and encouragement of Stuart E. Eizenstat.
Let me close by saying that much has been accomplished by all of us, and we can be justly proud of our work. But, as we all know, more needs to be done, particularly with respect to the four tasks I referenced earlier. Let us confidently trust that this workshop today, and the Vilnius Forum itself, will provide us the encouragement, tools, and ideas to make ourselves more effective partners in the process of turning history into justice.