Supporting trips to memorial sites on the basis of documents from the Arolsen Archives: the documentED project

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Dr. Christian Höschler studied History, English, and Educational Sciences in Munich. He is Deputy Head of the Research and Education Department at the Arolsen Archives.

By Christian Höschler

The Arolsen Archives (known as the International Tracing Service, or ITS, up until May 2019) contain over 30 million documents with information on the fate of more than 17 million victims of Nazi persecution. The holdings include records from the National Socialist concentration camps, documents on forced labor during the Second World War, and material from the period after liberation which includes documents produced by the Allies during the occupation and the correspondence that the ITS exchanged with survivors and their relatives over a period of some decades. This unique collection holds great potential for historical-political educational work.

It is against this background that the Arolsen Archives are engaging in new educational activities which focus on teaching about the history of Nazi persecution. One example is a new project titled documentED – a portmanteau word combining documentsand education – which uses documents from the Arolsen Archives as the basis for preparing trips to concentration camp memorial sites and for relevant follow-up activities.

This article describes the concept behind the project, which is still in the early stages. Trials of the documentED project started in the summer of 2018; a number of memorial sites in the German-speaking world have been participating in this test phase. On the basis of the experience gained so far, the project will be included as a permanent element in the future educational offerings of the Arolsen Archives.

Basic concept

A school class is planning a trip to a concentration camp memorial site. What can the teacher do in advance to prepare the students for the visit? This is where the documentED project comes in. The Arolsen Archives offer so-called toolkits on their website, containing documents from  different concentration camps that are today kept in the Arolsen Archives. These toolkits can be downloaded by teachers and are ready-to-use.  When selecting the documents to be used in the project – typically, documents related to individual people are chosen, such as prisoner registration cards or questionnaires – the needs of teachers and students are taken into account. How much time is available for preparing the trip to the memorial site? Is the visit planned as a (half) day trip or will it be part of a project week? How much prior knowledge of the subject of Nazi persecution do the students have? What learning goals have been defined? Should students be given the opportunity to work on other documents after visiting the memorial as a follow-up to the trip to the historical site? These are just some of several important questions. For that reason, the documentED toolkit has been designed as a flexible resource and can be used in different ways, in accordance with the time and resources available. 

The Arolsen Archives can also compile an individual, “customized” documentED toolkit for a particular group, should this be required. This will usually involve using the ITS Digital Archive to research documents with a link to prisoners who originally came from the same town or region as the young people in the group. If, for example, a school class from Jena wants to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial site, the Arolsen Archives can search their holdings for documents on prisoners from Jena who were detained in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Relating learning to students' everyday lives

In the case of the individualized toolkit, when the Arolsen Archives find suitable documents, it should be possible to establish a connection with two localities that are familiar to the students – a connection with the memorial site the students are visiting and a connection with the place where the students live. These links can be used to help students relate what they learn to the circumstances of their own lives.

For instance, if a prisoner registration card from the Buchenwald concentration camp gives a prisoner's former address, this address may well be familiar to the students. The realization that a former victim of persecution came from the same place as the group which is now visiting the historical site where that person was imprisoned ideally arouses genuine interest on the part of the students: Who was this person who came from the same town as me? What was their background and what was their profession? Why were they arrested by the National Socialists and imprisoned in a concentration camp? Did they survive the persecution? If so, what was their life like after liberation?

Students can use the information that can be gleaned from the documents in the archive to examine the concrete fate of a specific individual. This can serve as the starting point for considering the structural history of Nazi persecution. This way of introducing the subject is both methodically and didactically more suitable than reading long factual texts in which Nazi persecution is described in all its horrible detail, but may largely remain abstract, for example.


Most of the documents in the Arolsen Archives that relate to the National Socialist concentration camps are perpetrator documents. They were used in a specific historical context, in this case in the context of concentration camp administration. Because documents of this type reflect the inhuman ideology of the National Socialists and are highly problematic in terms of their information content – the way prisoners' physical characteristics were recorded and the categories that were used to classify prisoners are just two examples of this – they can never be used in isolation in the context of educational activities. Instead, when used in the classroom, the documents need to be carefully deconstructed and must be viewed in relation to the context in which they were created. It is essential that students gain an understanding of who created the documents for what purpose and that they be made aware that the content of the documents must be viewed with a critical eye.

This is why the documentED project does not stop at providing raw source materials. It also encourages the use of the e-Guide, which can be accessed on the website of the Arolsen Archives and helps to explain the documents and put them into context. The e-Guide is a digital tool that describes the form and function of the most common types of documents found in the Arolsen Archives, including the most frequently found concentration camp documents. Central questions (Who created the document and what was the background to its creation? What needs to be taken into account when working with this document?) are answered in detail with an emphasis on the use of simple language.

This means that even pupils with little prior knowledge can work with the documents because the contextual knowledge they need is made available to them, in fact they can piece it together for themselves. On the one hand, this is intended to prevent students from drawing the wrong conclusions from source documents created by perpetrators. On the other hand, this method is especially suitable for research-based learning, which gives students the opportunity to develop the skills they need to deal with sources critically.

Information for teachers

In addition to the documents and the e-Guide, information for teachers constitutes the third component of the documentEDtoolkits. Accompanying texts aimed at teachers discuss fundamental aspects that the Arolsen Archives deem to be important when using the documents in an educational context.

Working with person-related documents on Nazi persecution and its consequences brings students into contact with the fate of individuals. However, the picture that results necessarily remains incomplete; it is impossible to reconstruct an entire path of persecution or a full biography. While it can be argued that the potential inherent in research-based learning constitutes a distinct advantage, missing information and gaps in the content – which can result from the existence of contradictory details in the documents – can present students with problems and can have a negative effect both on motivation and on learning outcomes.

This means that teachers have to be prepared for certain reactions from their students. They can remind students of the fragmentary nature of the documents – a fact which is of key importance for the critical analysis of historical sources – while encouraging them to conduct further research at the same time. Local archives are often the best place to go in order to find out more about the former persecutees or about the general history of Nazi persecution in a specific place. Alternatively, students can examine documents from the post-war period (documents from the Allied Displaced Persons camps, for example) in order to place knowledge acquired in connection with a visit to a memorial site into a broader context. documentED provides differentiated yet concise explanations of these and other points which are important when working with documents from the Arolsen Archives.

In summary, documentED toolkits are much more than just tailor-made collections of materials complete with valuable contextual information; they serve as an easy-to-use aid for any teacher who wants to use source materials about the history of Nazi persecution effectively in connection with a trip to a memorial site.


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