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An archive of sorrow

Published on 22 December 2021
‘When I’ve made a few lists, I often go to the Names Monument – I live nearby – and lay a stone for the families whose belongings I’ve just transcribed.’ Thus said one of the volunteers for the ‘Paper Witnesses’ project, during the study day on 18 November 2021. Project officers Floris Kunert, Eva van Leeuwen and Hinke Piersma write about how working with an ‘archive of sorrow’ affects people.

The aim of Paper Witnesses is to make the archive of the looting institution Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) accessible. The archive is a record of the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of Dutch Jews. The looting of household effects, the ERR’s task, marked an important point in the process of marginalisation and disenfranchisement, which took place bureaucratically in the Netherlands through a multitude of rules and regulations.

During the German occupation, the archive was used to record people’s belongings in meticulous detail, from coat racks to clothing, and from linoleum floor tiles to spoons. In the 1950s, the same archive allowed the value of these possessions to be estimated. On these grounds, survivors or next of kin could submit claims for damages to what was then the Federal Republic of Germany.


The emotional impact of working with a Holocaust archive

With the Paper Witnesses project, in which a hundred volunteers are transcribing thousands of inventory lists, the archive has gained a new significance. There is no longer any question of taking a businesslike approach. These days, the dominant feeling is one of horror at the violation of what should have been a safe space, and at how ERR employees trampled the private sphere underfoot.

Transcribing the thousands of forms has a significant impact on volunteers. The scale of the events makes an impression: in some neighbourhoods, almost every house in a street was affected, and homes were emptied across the country. Our volunteers are touched by the numerous personal tragedies that unfolded after Hitler came to power in 1933. ‘Nur kleider [clothing only]’ is noted on many a list, because the person had already lost all their possessions on the run, or because they had to leave things behind when ordered to move to a designated ‘Jewish neighbourhood’. Some forms, however, record still-intact household contents in the minutest detail. This sparks interest in a person’s life story. Volunteers imagine what the inside of a house might have looked like, and sometimes look it up on the map. Working with the material gives rise to feelings of anger and grief, but also relief on occasions, when it turns out the person in question survived the war.

Transcribing lists of children’s toys makes a particular impression, as does writing down the household effects of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish couples. It feels confrontational to see the division of belongings between ‘Jew’ and ‘Aryan’ in such black-and-white terms. Sometimes a person’s final belongings are reduced to ‘wertlose Sachen [worthless things]’, something that also feels particularly cruel, according to volunteers.


The emotional significance of the loss of possessions

There has been little research to date into the emotional significance of losing possessions. Perhaps because it is difficult to analyse the self-evident nature of the things that surround us, it is hard to describe the feeling of security they give. How can one express the self-evident nature of an armchair or one’s pots and pans? What words can sufficiently describe the insecurity one feels when strange hands pull open drawers and rummage through one’s things, room by room?

In her book In memory of memory (2019), Maria Stepanova writes that archives contain an ‘abundance of lives’. If history has a ‘narrow neck’ and needs but a few magnified details, the archive ‘takes us back to the one-off, the uniqueness of each unknown event’. This is also true of the ERR archive. Every form with a name, an address, a place and a household inventory represents a story of loss.

Sometimes ERR employees included personal information about the inhabitants, such as their profession, or hinted that the person might have gone into hiding. ‘Der Jud ist 14 tagen vergangen nicht mehr zurück gekommen [the Jew disappeared 14 days ago and has not returned]’, reads the text on one of the forms. The ERR archive also contains lists relating to artists and musicians, such as the painter Bertha van Bruggen and the violinist and leader of the Residentieorkest, Sam Swaap. In May 1942, ERR employees recorded the latter’s greatest possessions as three violins, including a Vuillaume. Orphanages did not escape a visit from the ERR employees, either. The archive includes the form for Bernard Salomon Themans, who, together with his wife Judik, cared for some seventy orphans in the Jewish Orphanage in Utrecht. Hardly any of them survived the war, but the inventory has been preserved.

Although the forms were drawn up by the perpetrators, the victims’ stories can be read between the lines. In this sense, the forms are a little like faded photos, offering a snapshot of thousands of individuals and families who found themselves in a vulnerable position. They reveal people who were excluded from society, whose means of making a living had been taken away, who were driven out of their familiar surroundings.

With Paper Witnesses, we want to help to reveal the immense scale of the disenfranchisement and looting, and what it meant to the people who were affected by it.

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