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School of Information Sciences talks archival data from Holocaust

Katharina Hering speaks about reparation and restitution files in German state archives and the role of archivists in making these files available for research. | Megan Sunners / Staff Photographer

Katharina Hering speaks about reparation and restitution files in German state archives and the role of archivists in making these files available for research. | Megan Sunners / Staff Photographer

Katharina Hering speaks about reparation and restitution files in German state archives and the role of archivists in making these files available for research. | Megan Sunners / Staff Photographer

By Amina Doghri / Staff Writer

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Editor’s note: When this article appeared in print, the number of attendees and the number of people who have filed for pension claims based on reparation filings were incorrect. Additionally, there were discrepancies about the restitution and reparation files of Holocaust survivors and their families — which the talk was about — versus German archives in general. The article has been updated throughout.

Ruth Fauman-Fichman’s great-grandmother, a Jew living in Munich, Germany, was fined for renting her house to someone who wasn’t Jewish in 1933.

In 1942, she was transported to a working camp. Two years later, she died of hunger and typhus in Theresienstadt concentration camp in the former German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

In 2014, Fauman-Fichman, from Squirrel Hill, traveled to Germany to learn more about her family’s past, including her great-grandmother’s history, from state archival data.

“I was interested to find out more about members of my family,” she said. “But as of today, I learned that unless you have a name, they can’t look for anything for you.”

The records of personal and confidential information of Holocaust victims and survivors — based on claims requested by Holocaust survivors after 1945 — are stored by region, or state, in Germany. But new technology and the passage of time is raising questions about the best way to store and publicize these files. Archivists worry that accessibility without consent from victims or their families could potentially cause further legal or emotional humiliation.

Because the restitution and reparation files remain closed for different periods of time depending on individual state laws, archivists and researchers have been determining for years the best ways to handle the records and what role they play in this process, according to Katharina Hering, project archivist for the National Equal Justice Library at Georgetown Law.

On Monday afternoon, archivists and researchers discussed how to preserve the files and maintain the dignity of living descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors at a panel discussion. The lecture, titled “Holocaust Reparation and Restitution Files in German State Archives,” was part of the School of Information Sciences’ Bernadette Callery Archives Lecture Series.

The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh Jewish Studies Program and the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center sponsored the event in Alumni Hall. With about 200 people in attendance, the panelists raised ethical concerns regarding public access to state archival data. In the end, though, the panelists gave more questions than answers about how to handle the records.

As interest in reparation, restitution and pension claims — a way for the German government to financially compensate for land, business and personal family losses from World War II and the Nazi German persecution — enters the twenty-first century, Hering said archivists are struggling to decide how much information should be made available and who should have access.

The panelists questioned whether the reality of personal and confidential information, such as medical records or cause of death, becoming publicly accessible would be humiliating or undignified for the victims of the Holocaust and their ancestors.

“There is a large file of controversial information that includes personal information,” Hering, a 2010 graduate from Pitt’s School of Information Sciences, said. “Accessibility without consent [of victims or their families] raises issues especially with people.”

According to Hering, 1.5 million people filed for pension claims based on the first reparation filings in the early 1950s, although the guidelines for eligibility changed several times.

There are specific files  in Bavaria, Germany, which were a concentrated focus of the talk, that are closed for 60 years after creation according to Bavarian law. Each German state determines how long the files are sealed.

“The embargo for restitution and reparation files is expiring, and more files are being transferred to state archives. [This is an] ongoing issue at German archives,” Hering said.

Dr. Adam Shear, associate professor in the religious studies and history department at Pitt, said that since digitization of documents is so expensive, digital versions may not always be the best option. Ultimately, he said, it comes down to the purpose of the file for a certain person.

“[It depends if] there’s a real need to tell the story. Sometimes the story is important, but [there] might be other factors that limit access,” Shear said.

The person handling the document also has an obligation to uphold certain moral and ethical standards, according to Richard J. Cox, professor of archival studies in the School of Information Sciences. The panel, though, could not settle on any concrete answers as to what those standards should be.

“The question about ethics is an ongoing topic of debate in research and society. [This question] prompts more questions than answers. A lot of this [ethical debate] is fluid and changing on a case-by-case basis,” Cox said.

Deborah Cherry, 47, from Regent Square, who attended the event, shared concerns about the possibility of the dissemination of the records on the web, especially those as sensitive as compensation for Holocaust survivors and their families. She was concerned about what internet access could mean not only for researchers but also victims’ families.

“It’s a balancing game with preserving the privacy, especially for people who have legitimate access to some [of the documents],” Cherry said. “I’m not always sure where to draw the line.”

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School of Information Sciences talks archival data from Holocaust