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How Do you Repair a Broken World? Conflict(ing) Archives after the Holocaust


In contrast to the portrayal of archives as neutral sites that contain evidence of times past, this paper examines the construction of three archives during and after the Holocaust to highlight the challenges involved in gathering, preserving, and sharing documents produced by victimized populations. Specifically, I analyze the construction of, and conflicts among, the archives of the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine in Paris, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, and the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Each archive purports to contain the history of Jews in France during the Holocaust and strived in its aftermath not only to gather the remnants of European Jewish history but to reconstitute it, leading to contestations over what it meant to be Jewish in turn. Through analysis of the conflicts among these three archives, I show how debates over the possession of documents after genocide became symbolic debates about Jewish history and identity that would shape each of these archives for generations to come. I generalize from the example to discuss the practical implications of working with conflicting archives and examine the broader lessons for social scientists who wish to give “voice to the voiceless” by working with documents produced by victimized populations.

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  1. 1.

    Szajkowski to the Tcherikowers, April 22, 1941, in YIVO RG 81, folios 151,158–61, in Leff (2015, 62).

  2. 2.; The term “elephants” here is in reference to a lyric by the musical group, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, that itself paraphrases an well-known African proverb, “When two elephants are fighting/ (The grass dem’ a-suffer)/ Which is the position of the civilian?”

  3. 3.

    Importantly, and as I have argued elsewhere (e.g., Luft 2015, 2020b), in many conflicts, these categories are not so neat. A perpetrator in one situation can be victimized or a rescuer in another, suggesting that even the phrase “victims’ archives” is worthy of unpacking and analysis, as who defines belongingness in any of these categories is informed by contentious politics.

  4. 4.

  5. 5.

    This is but one example of the ethical challenges of working with Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, discussed by Einwohner. The others include concerns about how the “standard protocols and practices of social science data management can unintentionally dehumanize research subjects” and problems with writing up the results.

  6. 6.

    The full list of indexing terms can be viewed at

  7. 7.

    This problem is not limited to data on war and genocide but other forms of violence, as well. For example, a large and excellent body of work on colonialism has discussed these concerns in depth (e.g., Bailkin 2015; Bastian 2006; Shetty and Bellamy 2000; Stoler 2009), while African-American historian and scholar of literature Saidiya Hartmann (1997, 2007) has powerfully reimagined the experiences of enslaved women whose voices are frequently missing in archives using what she terms “critical fabulations,” a combination of archival and historical research with critical theory and fiction. In historical and archival research on genocide, Caswell (2010, 2014), Robinson (2014), and Weld (2014) have produced excellent studies of record keeping, its processes, silences, and challenges, in the wake of mass violence.

  8. 8.

    I am grateful to Sunmin Kim for his helpful framing of these three projects.

  9. 9.

    For a list of archives dispersed by the ERR, see Patricia Grimstead’s remarkable ERR Project, which provides up-to-date information on the current locations of ERR files and related sources worldwide:

  10. 10.

    The UGIF was an organization established by the Vichy government’s Office of Jewish Affairs to consolidate all the Jewish organizations of France into one single unit.

  11. 11.

    Poznanski (1999, 51) discovered the original document at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which was then reproduced in Perego and Poznanski (2013, 11) and cited by Heuman (2015, 37) and Jockusch (2012, 52).

  12. 12.

    “Voici quelques mots en ce que nous voulons,” Archives of the Central Consistory during World War II, Maurice Moch Collection at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, Paris, reel 1, folder 4, in Jockusch (2012, 53).

  13. 13.

    Indeed, the authors of the CDJC’s agenda noted, “There is no doubt that at this current moment our coreligionists in other countries are also compiling documentations concerning their respective countries.” ibid., in Jockusch (2012, 52).

  14. 14.

    Emanuel Ringleblum was murdered by Nazis in the Pawiak prison in Warsaw in March 1944. Thus far, two of the three caches of documents from the Oyneg Shabbes archive have been recovered. The third is still missing.

  15. 15.

    Perego and Poznanski (2013, 11), in Heuman (2015, 49).

  16. 16.

    Yiddishkeit (in Yiddish, ייִדישקייט) is slang for the many varieties of traditional and Jewish popular culture.

  17. 17.

    Zamler (זאַמלער) is the Yiddish word for collector. As discussed further in the paper, YIVO encouraged volunteers from all over the world to become zamlers and gather materials for its archive.

  18. 18.

    Commission on Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, “Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis-Occupied Countries,” supplement to Jewish Social Studies 8, no. 1 (1946): 6, in Leff (2015, 128).

  19. 19.

    Alex Bein, Yisra’el Halpern to Ben Zion Dinaburg, “‘Al hatsalat ha-‘arkhiyonim ha-yehudim min ha-golah ṿe-rikuzam ba-‘arets,” 29 Oct. 1951, CZA P64/148/1/1 in Lustig (2017, 279).

  20. 20.

    Yisra’el Klausner, introducing Alex Bein, “Hartsa’ah du”ḥ ‘al nesi‘ati,” 1957, CZA P64/20/I in Lustig (2017, 245).

  21. 21.

    “Reshimah ‘ara‘it shel ha-ḥomer ha-te‘udati she-nitḳabel me-germanyah,” CZA L33/1882 in Lustig (2017, 260).

  22. 22.

    “Ha-‘asifah ha-kelalit ha-shenatit shel ha-ḥevrah,” 2 Feb. 1950, CAHJP IHS/9 in Lustig (2017, 273).

  23. 23.

    Of course, this viewpoint is not limited to the past nor to Dinur exclusively but is popular among Zionists in Israel and worldwide still today.

  24. 24.

    CDJC, Les Juifs en Europe, 23 in Jockusch (2012, 3).

  25. 25.

    Moshe Mark Prager, “The State of Research Activity on the Destruction of Israel in Europe and the Program of Concentrating the Documentation in the General Archives of Yad Vashem (Report on My Trip and Research in Europe, January–May 1947),” June 17, 1947, VA AM1, folder 527, frame 191 in Jockusch (2012, 161–62).

  26. 26.

    Heuman 2015, 23.

  27. 27.

    Szajkowski to R. Tcherikower, September 30, 1945, in YIVO RG 81, folio 152,129, in Leff (2015, 99).

  28. 28.

    Szajkowski to R. Tcherikower, France, February 29, 1945 [sic], in YIVO RG 81, folio 151,836; and July 6, 1945, in YIVO RG 81, folio 152,006, ibid.

  29. 29.

    ‘Procés-verbal de la r.union du comit. Directeur du CDJC’, 8 November 1950, CDJC, MDXXXVI, boite 2, p. 2 in Heuman (2015, 92).

  30. 30.

  31. 31.

    Simon Dubnow was rounded up and ghettoized in Riga, Latvia by the Nazis in July 1941. Survivors recall that Dubnow encouraged Jews in the Riga Ghetto to create records of the atrocities perpetrated against them by Nazis, regularly proclaiming to them in Yiddish, “Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt!” (“Jews, write and record!”). Dubnow was murdered by Nazis in December 1941.

  32. 32.

    Yedies fun YIVO, Sept. 1943, in Lustig (2017, 216).

  33. 33.

    A full recounting of Szajkowski’s undertakings in France and elsewhere is beyond the scope of this paper, and his story is more complicated than this brief summary can attest. Jewish historian Lisa Leff's (2015) excellent The Archive Thief tells the full story of his exploits.

  34. 34.

    Bein, “Din ṿe-ḥeshbon mi-nesi‘ati le-‘eropah,” 19 Dec. 1949, L33/1439 in Lustig (2017, 252)

  35. 35.

    Like the article’s title, this phrasing is a play on the Jewish concept of tikkun olam as well as the concept of עוֹלָם הַבָּא (olam ha-ba). While tikkun olam refers to the responsibility for Jewish people to act to repair the world. In Jewish theology, Olam Ha-ba refers to the world after death. For many Jews, the Olam Ha-ba also refers to the era of the Messiah.

  36. 36.

    Indeed, sometimes a serendipitous finding can change the subject of a research project altogether. Shai Dromi (2020) provides a brief summary of this in a recent essay where he describes how private documents that he found at the International Committee of the Red Cross archives in Geneva, which were distinct from what he originally looked for, eventually became the basis for his book Above the Fray: The Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector.

  37. 37.

    The full quote, which is most commonly attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca, is “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”


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I thank Claudio Benzecry, Andrew Deneer, Sunmin Kim, Jared McBride, and Debbie Sharnak for their helpful feedback on previous drafts of this paper. I am also grateful for comments received at the Social Science History annual conference in November 2019.

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Correspondence to Aliza Luft.

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The duty to repair the world through good deeds and service, also known as tikkun olam (in Hebrew, תיקון עולם), is widely considered by Jews worldwide to be a pillar of Jewish tradition.

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Luft, A. How Do you Repair a Broken World? Conflict(ing) Archives after the Holocaust. Qual Sociol 43, 317–343 (2020).

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  • Archives
  • Conflict
  • Holocaust
  • France