In this month’s guest blog, Barnabas Balint reflects on the relationship between the digital and the material archive in his attempts to help others engage with sources related to his research.
In July 2021, I (Barnabas) published a piece for the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure’s Document Blog, an experimental space for researchers to share interesting items from archival collections and test out digital humanities methods for presenting them. I chose a collection of letters I had come across while researching my master’s dissertation about Jewish youth groups during the Second World War in France. Keen to show readers the richness of the letters in details that aren’t immediately obvious, I sought out several digital tools for drawing these out.
As a piece of work researched and written predominantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, my master’s work was always going to be steeped in the digital. I have yet to physically see the documents that I relied upon for my research – in fact, I doubt I ever will. The collection of letters at the centre of this post sit in the Archives of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and I have viewed them merely as scans available through their online archive. This is an incredible and efficient way of research – particularly during a pandemic – but places the starting point of the discussion already in the digital sphere. It also limits the ways I could engage with the sources, getting little idea of the size or feel of letters that would have meant so much to their sender and recipient.
The letters served as the main point of contact between Robert Gamzon, head of the Jewish Scouts of France (Éclaireurs Israélites de France, EIF), and his wife and children in hiding. They were exchanged at an incredibly dangerous time when Gamzon oversaw the development of a resistance network and witnessed the arrest of many of his friends and colleagues. To be unable to physically hold the letters makes it difficult to appreciate the size and fragility of the once material connection between distant family members. The letters carry an immense emotional weight, which is easily lost when simply viewing them on a screen, where parts can be enlarged, and brightness changed.
As well as connecting family at a time of crisis, the letters also held a second purpose, as a means of communicating news about the persecution of the Jews and the growing scout underground and resistance network. For this, Gamzon employed coded language, so that the details would not easily fall into the hands of the enemy and harm those in his charge. Decoding Gamzon’s writing requires an understanding of his approach to his work, as well as the broader context of the French Jewish Scout and resistance movements at the time the letters were written. As a researcher, these details are known from months of reading and multi-archival work, immersing oneself in the lives of those we study. Articulating all the context needed to a wider audience, however, presents a further challenge. It is here that digital tools come to the fore.
Options for Visualisations
The digital visualisations I used in my EHRI blog post came from discussions with the international EHRI team, for whose comments and advice I am truly grateful. At first, we considered an interactive timeline, laying out both developments in the war and those referred to in the letters. This would enable people to view the letters within the chronological context of wartime France, as well as see how and when news about events was presented in the letters. This was an important visualisation to consider and plan, but did not contribute to understanding the coded language or personal nature of the sources and was ultimately dropped.
Another visualisation that was considered but not used was to create a map plotting the location of individuals in the letters. Mapping sources and trajectories is an incredibly powerful tool, one that I have used in other settings to show experiences of movement, the diverse backgrounds of prisoner transports, and people’s lives pre-deportation. You can read more about how I used ArcGIS to create maps from concentration camp prisoner registration cards in a blog post for the Institute for Historical Research’s History Lab.
Mapping Gamzon’s letters would show the locations referred to in them and help understand how different parts of France were connected not only through grand historical narratives, but also through the personal. Unfortunately, however, the letters lacked specific location details, referring to only towns or cities in the circumstances where they did mention places. There was also little visible movement on Gamzon’s part (apart from between a couple of places in southern France), and only snippets of information about others’, so the details that could be shown on a map would be minimal.
Ultimately, we decided on a digitally annotated letter. This made it possible to show the letters themselves as well as providing the specific contextual information to explain individual coded phrases. The viewer can hover over the letter to view a phrase and click for an English translation and details that explain its meaning and background. This was particularly effective for the letters, where certain phrases had multiple meanings, both personally and institutionally, as the duality of the letters’ purpose was exposed. Annotations like this reveal the reading between the lines that is only possible with extensive further research and knowledge. It enables the letter to be decoded and for multiple instances of coded language – more that would be discussed in the text – to be presented for people to view.
This visualisation has power beyond the explanatory; it also engages people with the research. The reader can view and access the primary source in total themselves, without having to rely on the snippets of quotes that I chose. This democratisation of the sources gives people the opportunity to analyse the material for themselves and to scrutinise my conclusions and inferences with their own critical thinking. By showing the source and indicating the inferences I made in specific detail – down to the level of individual words and phrases – the process of my own research gains transparency too.
There are, of course, limits to this. I have only translated parts of the source, so for those unable to read the French they rely nonetheless on the parts that I have chosen and on my own translation. A full translation of the sources in their entirety would help make them more accessible, but would also contribute further to the disconnect between the letters themselves and the digital reading of them.
This disconnect is a major hurdle not only for historians but, also, for archivists, curators, and those working in Holocaust remembrance online. Digital tools take the content of the archive out and into the reader’s screen – straight onto their desk or into their hands on a phone, wherever they are. This gives a proximity and closeness to the documents that members of the public wouldn’t normally have, enabling them to have something similar to what Jeffrey Shandler termed a ‘direct encounter’ with individuals in the past when talking about video testimonies. But, as an EHRI report on bringing digital archives into the public sphere reflected, simply representing historical actors and events could have the effect of reducing
‘complex reality and human mobility into something stable, petrified and trivialised’.
Clickable snippets explaining the letter help decode it but also simplify the inherent complexity of the letters. When we apply digital tools to understand archival sources, we interact with them, changing the way they articulate their meaning. As we grapple with powerful new tools, we also need to be acutely aware of their impact on our sources.
We decided to use the annotated letter in this instance because it was the most effective; it enabled me to decode the letters, show the multiple meanings with which they were imbued, and present them as an insight into my research. Had there been further geographical data, or fewer coded words, it is possible that one of the other visualisations would have been used instead. This highlights the importance of using digital tools as a means and not an end; they are tools to help us understand and illustrate our research, and need to be used – as we would with other methods – in the way that brings the best impact.
Just as scholars argued over the benefits and pitfalls of oral histories in the 1990s, so must we now work out how to make the most of the opportunities offered by the digital. Perhaps the biggest challenge for this debate will be that the variety of digital tools lend themselves to multiple uses. As I discovered when planning the visualisations for my EHRI blog post, identifying which type of digital tool is best used in which circumstance takes much trial and error and self-awareness.
Barnabas Balint is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Dr Zoe Waxman. His multi-lingual research (in English, French, and Hungarian) combines the history of childhood, gender, and identity, to explore Jewish responses to persecution. Currently, his PhD project focuses on developing age as an intersectional category of analysis for Jewish youth in Hungary during the Holocaust.