The e-Guide to the Arolsen Archives: a versatile online tool that can also be used in historical education

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Christiane Weber, a historian, is a Research Associate in the Research and Education Department of the Arolsen Archives. She is responsible for designing and implementing the e-Guide, which aims to describe the most common documents which exist on concentration camp inmates, DPs and forced laborers.

By Christiane Weber

In order to understand documents from the Arolsen Archives (known as the International Tracing Service, ITS, up until May 2019) in the sense indicated by the term source analysis, pupils and teachers who work with archival documents in educational contexts need a broad knowledge both of the historical context in which the documents were created and of the details they contain.

This knowledge has been brought together in the e-Guide of the Arolsen Archives. The e-Guide (the "e" stands for electronic) is available on the internet free of charge and provides detailed information on the documents most commonly found in the Arolsen Archives. The emphasis is not so much on individual index cards that represent the personal fate of a concentration camp inmate, forced laborer, or Displaced Person, but rather on the type of document itself. Documents that are related to individuals, such as questionnaires and index cards, take center stage. They include prisoner registration cards from the concentration camps, registration cards of Displaced Persons, and registration documents for forced laborers, for example. In addition to the historical context of their use (who used the document, why, how, when, and what for? Where was it issued and by whom?), abbreviations and other details that appear on the documents are explained in simple language. There is one sample card per document and a zoom function is provided. Individual sections of the sample document (so-called overlays) are highlighted to indicate that explanations are available. 

The explanations make the documents and the information they contain readable, explain their historical function and the context in which they were created, and clarify content that would otherwise be impossible to understand. Even abbreviations which may seem unimportant at first can reveal a great deal about the fates of the people for whom the cards were created – but they have to be decoded first, because the documents do not speak for themselves. For example, even experts are often uncertain what it means when the name of a camp appears in a specific position on a card: does this signify that the person concerned was imprisoned there previously or does it indicate that they were deported there from somewhere else? Nor is it immediately clear to anyone who looks at a personal effects card that these cards list personal property that was confiscated from concentration camp prisoners, for example. And without contextual knowledge, it is almost impossible to understand what the details and abbreviations on a labor assignment card mean, to mention a third example. 

As well as explanations, the e-Guide also contains a wealth of further information, including quotations from accounts given by survivors and, above all, a large number of documents that shed light on the specific historical context. The e-Guide also presents the different variations of specific types of documents.

There are three ways of accessing the descriptions of the documents: as well as providing a conventional list of the names of the cards and a full-text search, the e-Guide also features a visual point of access. Small images of all the cards covered by the e-Guide are displayed when the web page is opened. This means that users who are looking for information of a general nature can click on cards that arouse their interest. A filter function guides users to the correct description, even if they do not know exactly what kind of document they have in front of them.

The interactive design of the e-Guide caters for different levels of prior knowledge because it enables users to decide for themselves how much information they need. The target audiences of the e-Guide are very diverse and include family members and survivors from Germany and abroad who receive documents from the Arolsen Archives in response to their inquiries, students and academics who work with the documents, as well as users of the online archive. However, the e-Guide is particularly suitable for use in history lessons in schools or in out-of-school education. Teachers can consult the e-Guide in advance to familiarize themselves with the context of the historical documents they plan to use during their lessons. But students, too, can also use the e-Guide to find out about the documents themselves in the context of research-based learning

The e-Guide was developed with the support of various memorial sites, researchers from all over the world, and longstanding employees of the Arolsen Archives. It can be accessed in English and German at https://eguide.arolsen-archives.org, and it is growing all the time. The first documents to be included in the e-Guide were about 30 of the most common concentration camp documents and descriptions of the most frequently found documents on Displaced Persons. Information on the documents about forced laborers is planned to go online in 2021.

If you have any ideas or suggestions for us, please e-mail us at eguide [at] arolsen-archives [dot] org or call us on +49 5691 629 324. We look forward to hearing from you.


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