Online collection helps people remember, research Holocaust

NARA, Footnote.com project takes records about looted assets and concentration camps online

The National Archives and Records Administration has teamed with Footnote.com, an online historical archiving service, to make millions of Holocaust-era records available online — and to memorialize Holocaust victims with Facebook pages.

The virtual Vietnam memorial

Last year, the National Archives and Records Administration teamed with Footnote.com on another digital preservation project: a searchable replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.

The wall features the names of the more than 58,000 service members who died or were listed as missing in the Vietnam War.

Footnote.com stitched together nearly 1,500 photographs of the wall to create one digital, searchable image.

The company also worked with NARA to make photos from the war available on its Web site and link service records and casualty reports to the names on the wall.

Visitors can search or browse the site by a service member's name, branch of service, hometown or enlistment type. Entries feature photographs and comments posted by other visitors, such as personal remembrances, details on combat situations and requests to connect with family members of fallen comrades.

NARA officials said the massive collection of records about looted assets, concentration camp registers and proceedings of the Nuremberg war crime trials will form part of the Web’s largest interactive collection of Holocaust records. The release of the initial 500,000 images of individual documents will make research easier and greatly increase access.

“We cannot afford to forget this period in our history,” said Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist and author of the book "America and the Return of Nazi Contraband: The Recovery of Europe’s Cultural Treasures."

Footnote.com, which specializes in making digital records from historic documents, plans to eventually digitize about 1 million images of Holocaust-related documents — at no cost to NARA. Users will be able to access the documents for a fee through Footnote.com, but access will be free at NARA research facilities. And the documents will be available on Footnote.com for no charge during October.

In addition, people can use Footnote.com’s social-networking tool to develop Facebook-like pages to memorialize Holocaust victims. Footnote’s "I Remember" application lets people share photos, comments and stories about victims. Users can create and access the pages through Footnote.com and then share them on Facebook.

“The reason why we put the social component on Footnote rather than just being a repository is [that] there are so many more pieces of the puzzle that need to come together,” said Justin Schroepfer, director of marketing at Footnote.com.

Researchers began taking an active interest in Holocaust-era assets in the late 1990s. At first, they focused on dormant Swiss bank accounts and looted gold, but within several years, interest expanded to looted cultural property and artwork, according to the NARA.

To meet the demand, the agency launched an ambitious project to put on microfilm some 2.3 million pages related to the records, said James Hastings, director of access programs at NARA.

Before the agency began putting documents on microfilm, people could only view original materials at NARA’s facility in College Park, Md. Microfilming was the first step in transforming the research process, said Greg Bradsher, a senior archivist at NARA who compiled a 1,200-page guide for researching Holocaust-era assets.

“Once we started microfilming, that meant microfilm could be purchased or loaned and could be used elsewhere,” he said.

Digitization was the next step. “Rather than sitting down in front of a microfilm reader or a bunch of boxes and going page after page after page, there will be some search capabilities that will allow you to do word searches,” Bradsher said. “It just simply speeds up the whole process of research.”

Because digitization is costly, NARA works out agreements with companies to help digitize the agency’s materials. For online access to Footnote.com’s roughly 60 million historical documents, users pay $79.95 per year, $11.95 per month or $2.95 for an individual image.

The new online Holocaust collection has nearly 600 personal accounts provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Ardelia Hall Collection of records related to the Nazi looting of Jewish possessions. In addition, NARA officials are working with British and German government archives to make other asset records available online, Hastings said, and they hope the French archives will also participate.

However, Bradsher and Hastings said that although the records will be more readily available and searchable, the complexity of the topic and the documents involved will still require sophisticated research skills.

“What digitization and online access does is it democratizes access,” Hastings said. “All of a sudden, what was open only to the select few who could come to the research room is now open to everybody.” The effect of that access “will be interesting to see.”

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