The use of person-related documents from the Arolsen Archives in the work of the Max Mannheimer Study Center Dachau

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Content-Author: Ingolf Seidel

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Steffen Jost, a historian, worked as an educator at the Max Mannheimer Study Center, Dachau, up until September 2018. In October 2018, he became Head of the Education Department of the Concentration Camp Memorial Site Dachau. Nina Ritz, M.A. Jewish Studies and Philosophy, was Head of the Max Mannheimer Study Center, Dachau, up until September 2019. In July 2019, she became Head of International Education Centers of the Volksbund German War Graves Committee, Berlin.

By Steffen Jost and Nina Ritz

The number of German schools that visit concentration camp memorial sites or documentation centers as part of their work on the subject of National Socialism is still rising. Depending on the type of school, the visit is normally scheduled in year 9 (Gymnasium and Realschule), sometimes even in year 8 (Hauptschule and Mittelschule). But visitors also include vocational schools (Berufsschulen), out-of-school youth groups, and international groups. While most of these groups take part in a short educational program, such as a guided tour, during their visit, a growing number of groups are interested in using the opportunity to return to specific topics they have already covered during school lessons or as part of a project. 

At the Max Mannheimer Study Center in Dachau, we have found that it is primarily groups or group leaders who book a study seminar that lasts several days who are interested in homing in on a specific topic to make their trip to the memorial site a more meaningful experience. These groups are not only interested in concrete historical knowledge, they also want to develop various skills. In June 2016, the Max Mannheimer Study Center joined forces with the International Tracing Service Bad Arolsen (ITS, now known as the Arolsen Archives) and launched a pilot project named Document Go in an effort to meet these needs more effectively. Groups who wanted to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial and take part in a study program were given documents that were specially selected for them from the holdings of the Arolsen Archives to help them prepare for their visit. These files (or file excerpts), which are full of fragments of biographical information about former prisoners, made it possible to establish a connection between the place a particular group came from and the Dachau concentration camp. 

Although working with historical documents above and beyond the short excerpts provided in school textbooks is a common feature of many history lessons today, many students are still fascinated when they are given the opportunity to apply the principles of research-based learning and work with a large quantity of historical documents or even whole files. The regional-historical approach, which involves working with a selection of documents on former Dachau prisoners who have some kind of geographical link to the group's place of origin, is an excellent means of highlighting the relevance of examining the historical topic. The Document Go project was therefore aimed at generating greater interest during the preparation phase before the actual trip to the memorial site. 

When person-related documents are used to help prepare a group for a visit to a memorial site, they should ideally be used in advance – under the supervision of teachers during history lessons, for example. However, groups that take part in a three-day study program at the Max Mannheimer Study Center can use the documents at the beginning of the seminar under the supervision of the educational specialists who work there. In practice, two different approaches proved popular. With the first approach, the whole group (max. 15 participants) divided into smaller groups and they all worked on documents about one and the same prisoner. With the second approach, the small groups worked on documents about different prisoners. 

In the first case, all the participants received the same set of documents and worked with them on their own. They were given the task of finding out as much as they could about the person and noting the information down. The groups all came together at the end and each one presented their results during a plenary session. The complexity and the scope of the historical documents as well as problems with their legibility meant that each group tended to find out different information, rather than duplicating the information found by other groups. The leaders could document the results visually either during or after the plenary session. 

When the groups were given documents about different people, they documented the results themselves during the group work phase. Experience showed that this approach took much longer and that it was both easier and more satisfying for the participants if they already had previous experience of working with sources. The results were then presented or shown to the whole group in various different ways (e.g. using a timeline). During the discussion phase, participants were then able to focus on a comparison of the different ways in which the documents came to be preserved, the various life paths and paths of persecution, and the underlying reasons for them.

With both approaches, key questions were written on a flip chart as an aid: Who is mentioned in the documents? Which places did the person spend time in? When, where, and why were they imprisoned? What did the person do before and after their imprisonment? What can we deduce about the person's personality?

The origin of the sources was also discussed in the plenary sessions. Discussions about the origins of concentration camp documents, DP documents, and compensation documents gave rise to new questions which were dealt with during the course of the study program. All in all, working on documents that give an insight into individual paths of persecution was not conducive to finding conclusive answers. On the contrary, we found that analyzing documents at the beginning of our programs – before the visit to the Dachau memorial site – led participants to formulate a great many questions of their own.

Using Arolsen Archives documents to prepare visits to memorial sites as practiced within the Document Go project and as further developed and continued by the Arolsen Archives with the documentED project has proved to be extremely valuable for the historical-political educational work of the Max Mannheimer Study Center. Although working with the documents requires all those involved to devote significantly more time in advance, this is justified by the educational experience which leaves a much more lasting impression on the participants.


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