Working with historical documents from the Arolsen Archives in an educational context

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Dr. Akim Jah, a political scientist, is a Research Associate in the Research and Education Department of the Arolsen Archives.

By Akim Jah

The Arolsen Archives (known as the International Tracing Service, ITS, up until May 2019) hold millions of documents related to persecution under National Socialism, the Holocaust and Displaced Persons. They include official documents and forms, index cards from administrative bodies but also registration documents, lists of names, and documents connected with applications of various kinds. Many of the documents are about individual people, they relate to specific persons, in particular to former victims of National Socialist persecution. The documents are paradigmatically suitable for use in historical education in the context of archival pedagogy. They provide an ideal approach to the subject of persecution during National Socialism and the Holocaust, or to the history of the immediate post-war period and the situation of Displaced Persons. 

The concept of working with historical documents in an educational context is rooted in the assumption that these documents provide an opportunity to learn about the period in question and about the contexts within which the source documents were created. But what does this kind of learning look like in practice? Which steps need to be taken to ensure that historical documents are subjected to qualified examination and which learning goals are connected with this approach? Which potentials does it ultimately offer for historical education? The present article explores these questions and outlines a step-by-step procedure for using historical documents in educational contexts. Working with historical sources is understood as a methodological-didactic approach which enables young people to learn to assess and interpret sources independently. 

Archival documents as source materials for historical education

Unlike factual texts about history, archival documents cannot be seen in isolation, i.e., they are – perforce – not self-explanatory. What we see and read when we look at documents superficially is not necessarily congruent with their historical significance. Because they were produced in a specific context and for a specific purpose, they reflect the views of the person who created them and contain only information that was relevant to the specific function that the document had at the time. Seen from today's perspective or from the point of view of someone who is not an expert, the information contained in such documents is often neither easy to understand nor clear. What is more, historical documents usually reflect the standpoint of their author, which can reveal itself in the way the contents are formulated, for example, or in terminology that may be discriminatory, trivializing, or euphemistic in nature. This applies similarly to index cards and forms such as questionnaires. These too were created for a specific purpose and reflect a specific standpoint. And the people who filled out such forms were tied to the structure and the rules laid down for appropriate entries, i.e. they were restricted in the answers they could give. Moreover, they found themselves in a specific (coercive) situation and were also pursuing their own interests. It should also be noted that some forms were filled out by third parties, not by the respondents themselves. Supplementary elements (added later) in the form of stamps or comments also need to be taken into consideration.  

Consequently, historical documents have to be deciphered, read critically, interpreted, and put into context before they can be understood. Reading a historical document is quite different from reading a factual text as the examination of a historical document may well not lead to all the facts being established beyond doubt, nor must such an examination leave no questions unanswered and no contradictions unresolved. It may, however, give rise to new questions in turn, which can make it necessary for students to consult other sources and even carry out further (archival) research of their own. 

The steps to be taken when examining documents in an educational context are similar to the methods of historical research and comprise comprehensionsource criticism and source interpretation. Ideally, these steps should be followed when using a document in an educational context, if necessary in an abbreviated form, and appropriate guidance should be given by the teacher or educator.

Comprehension, source criticism and source interpretation

Comprehension refers to the process of understanding what kind of document we have before us, i.e. finding out when, for whom, and for what purposes it was created, and what its key message is. Some of this information (the name of the document, for example) can be deduced from the document itself, while other information has to be deciphered, decoded or interpreted first. Many documents, especially forms or index cards which have already been filled out, contain entries that are legible, but which are almost impossible to understand without specific explanatory information, or which can only be understood to a limited degree without it. In order to put a document into its specific historical context and understand the meaning of the terms, abbreviations and references it contains, it may be necessary to have recourse to information which already exists. When working with documents from the Arolsen Archives, there are two ways of dealing with this: 1. The workshop outlines and educational materials provided by the Arolsen Archives contain historical information and contextualizations which put the documents in context and make them "readable." 2. The online e-Guide to the Arolsen Archives uses a graphical user interface to describe common types of document and explain entries that are found frequently in forms and administrative files in particular.

Once the comprehension phase has been completed, the next step is to investigate the content by performing source criticism. This is the process of evaluating the document in respect of its credibility, its plausibility and its accuracy. This can take the form of immanent criticism, e.g. by recognizing that the young age noted on a prisoner registration card from a concentration camp cannot be reconciled with the profession given on the same card. This may also involve comparing different sources, e.g. analyzing and explaining contradictory information contained in different documents. In the spirit of the concept of research-based learning, this can involve gathering together various pieces of information about a person from different documents and subjecting them to a critical comparison. Questions as to the interests and the perspective of the author are also a component part of source criticism. 

Finally, source interpretation consists of putting the information that has been gathered into the historical context and evaluating it in the context of a specific question. Source interpretation requires a certain amount of historical knowledge. In a classroom situation, this means that students can use knowledge acquired during previous lessons or can explore the context while they work with the sources. So at this point, the emphasis is no longer just on the information that was gathered during the comprehension phase, but has now shifted to more general historical knowledge. This is especially true when working with biographical documents: the focus here is not on individual biographical details or the reconstruction of a biography, but on structural issues such as persecution under National Socialism, detention in concentration camps, or the situation and perspectives of displaced persons after liberation. 

The underlying aim of subjecting historical documents to critical examination is therefore not limited to the mere acquisition of information, but goes beyond that to further students' analytical and interpretational skills, which, for example, is an element in the core curricula of German schools.


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