31 augustus 2022
Spotlight: European Holocaust Research Infrastructure - NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies
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31 augustus 2022
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The first two months of 2021 showed a seven-fold increase in antisemitic content on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram in French and over a thirteen-fold increase in antisemitic content in German. “With antisemitism worryingly on the rise in Europe, making evidence-based historical records on the Holocaust available transnationally is the best weapon we have against Holocaust distortion and denial”, says Reto Speck, researcher at the Dutch NIOD Institute of War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) and co-director of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI).
“Sadly but true the generation of eye-witnesses to the Holocaust is passing away. This makes it extremely important to store all accounts we have safely and digitally so new generations of both researchers and citizens will be able to access trustworthy information on history’s darkest chapter”, says Reto Speck. ”For more than ten years already the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) seeks to promote transnational Holocaust research, commemoration and education by making as many Holocaust resources accessible online. The EHRI allows researchers across the globe not only access to these resources, but also work with them through the innovative digital humanities tools provided by the EHRI. Since the establishment in 2010 NIOD has been leading EHRI. NIOD is the Dutch Institute of War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and one of the institutes of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences,. In 2019, the Netherlands offered to host the EHRI as a permanent institution, underlining the importance the country attaches to EHRI.
The Netherlands was involved in EHRI from the very start. The consortium started its work all the way back in 2010, under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research & Innovation, as a consortium of 19 partners from 7 countries. The Directorate General Research and Development wanted to see an attempt to integrate the dispersed European research landscape, leading to a call for an activity to support the integration of the Holocaust research community. The first EU-funded projects (EHRI-1, 2010-2015 and EHRI-2, 2015-2019) brought together all the most important archival institutions from Europe and beyond, including famous institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem in Israel. Speck says the main problem they wanted to overcome was the enormous fragmentation and dispersal of Holocaust research, sources and services. Twelve years later, the online EHRI portal brings together information about archives and their content from 2200 institutions and counting.
In 2018 a new milestone was reached as EHRI was added to the ESFRI Roadmap in 2018. It is now running a dedicated project for the preparation of a permanent European research infrastructure (EHRI-PP, 2019-2023). This provided a legal and financial framework to secure the long-term future of transnational Holocaust research. “You shouldn’t underestimate how much work it takes to achieve consensus among all stakeholders around these preparatory documents, but we hope to have EHRI fully operational by January 2025,” says Speck A date not chosen by coincidence, as it concurs with the 80 year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Establishing this permanent research infrastructure after twelve years of operations was not a sinecure, as establishing a European research infrastructure requires enough commitment from Members States. With NIOD stepping in as host and provisional members from nine countries, EHRI seems well on its way to make the deadline of 27 January 2025.“ The leadership of NIOD in the past twelve years has been fundamental. They managed to build a high degree of trust and cooperation between all the participating institutions, which wasn’t that evident in the past with rivalries between some of those”. The leadership also brought advantages to NIOD itself, as they are now recognized as a very important international player in the domain. It underlines the Netherlands Holocaust research community has always punched above its weight internationally”, says Reto Speck.
The work of EHRI is far from over though, as it seeks to expand the community even further through another project (EHRI-3, 2020-2024). Although many archival institutions were added to the community over the past ten years, too many are still missing. In the first five years, EHRI concentrated on institutions with big collections to add critical mass. In the second phase, EHRI focused its energy on institutions in South, Central and Eastern Europe, which traditionally were much less plugged in to the European research landscape. Still missing are the so called micro-archives, for example a small private collection or local community archive. “These collection holders often work under precarious circumstances financially and politically. Yet they hold extremely important documentation that needs to preserved”, says Reto Speck.
Reaching out to micro-archives not only benefits EHRI. It also addresses a critical challenge in Holocaust research: the digital divide. On the one hand, there are institutions that digitalized huge amounts of their collection, making it easily accessible for researchers. On the other hand, analog micro-archives risk disappearing when their archivists are no longer able to continue. “Although we should welcome this digital transition, there is a huge risk researchers will focus only on documents that are conveniently available rather than the ones most suited to answer their research question, creating a selection bias. Before the micro-archives disappear without trace, we try to include these collection holders and secure their holdings.”
Reminiscing about the achievements of EHRI in the past ten years, Reto Speck is proud that the main services are now an undeniable part of the Holocaust research community. Researchers are aware of EHRI and consider its services essential for conducting research. Next to the online portal and its digital support tools, EHRI set up the Conny Kristel Fellowship Programme, allowing researchers, especially PhD candidates with limited resources, access to key archives and collections related to the Holocaust around the world. Furthermore EHRI organizes many training seminars, introductory courses for the wider public, workshops and conferences. “Judging from the feedback we get from researchers and citizens, we address a real need with our project.”
EHRI’s impact goes far beyond the research community. Not only researchers visit the portal and events; authors, documentary makers and journalists also find their way to EHRI services. “I was totally struck by the amount of journalists present at a workshop on geographical analysis of the Holocaust,” says Speck. “You do not often see such a keen interest of the wider community in other scientific disciplines.” The most concrete example of EHRI making impact, however, is the prominent placein the European Commission’s first-ever strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. The Commission recognizes the work and further development of EHRI as one of the key pillars of the strategy. It also asks EHRI to expand their research on manifestations of antisemitism that led to the Holocaust. The recent circulation of old antisemitic conspiracy theories by politicians and citizens only underlines this. “To contribute to the strategy EHRI aims to work with stakeholders such as the European coordinator on combating antisemitism, to make direct social impact on policies like these”, says Reto Speck. “We have offered the Commission our scientific input on policies and access to the infrastructure. EHRI by itself cannot fight the fight against Holocaust distortion, but by cooperating with our wider-known project partners, policy makers and other stakeholders, we can make a big contribution.”
EHRI was added to the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI)-roadmap in 2018 and is one of the 22 research infrastructure projects in the prepatory phase. Next to this Europe has 41 implemented permanent research infrastructures. The Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU marks research infrastructure as a main priority. In autumn Council Conclusions and a Brno Declaration about the subject are set to be adopted. The goal is to call member states to invest the extra billion euros which are neccessary for eleven new research infrastructures. With both a European as international conference the topic will be in the spotlight coming half year.