Why Internet Memory Is Important – Auschwitz

After posting a note about Jill Lepore’s essay The Cobweb: Can the Internet be archived?, I found a great example of why memory and sources (like a footnote) are important.

Today, 26 January 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Telegraph gave this lead into its reprinting of the obituary of Rudolf Vrba:

Rudolf Vrba escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 and was one of the first people to give first-hand evidence of the gas chambers, mass murder and plans to exterminate a million Jews. Nearly 70 years on from the liberation of the concentration camp, the Telegraph looks back on his legacy

So horrific was the testimony from Rudolf Vrba, that the members of the Jewish Council in Hungary couldn’t quite believe what they were hearing.

Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who escaped with him in April 1944, drew up a detailed plan of Auschwtiz and its gas chambers, providing compelling evidence of what had previously been considered embellishment. It has since emerged that reports from inside Auschwitz, compiled by the Polish Underground State and the Polish Government in Exile and written by Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki among others, had in fact reached some Western allies before 1944, but action had not been taken.

Vrba and Wetzler’s detailed, first-hand report about how Nazis were systematically killing Jews was compiled into the Wetzler-Vrba report and sent shockwaves around the world when it was circulated and picked up by international media in 1944.

It still took some weeks before the report was accepted and credited after it was written – something that Vrba said had contributed to the deaths of an estimated 50,000 Hungarian Jews. Just weeks before their escape, German forces had invaded Hungary, and Jews there were already being shipped to Auschwitz. It wasn’t until the report made the headlines in international media that Hungary stopped the deportation in July of 1944.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Monday 26th January, here is the Telegraph’s obituary of Vrba, who died in 2006, and is credited for opening the world’s eyes to the horrors of Auschwitz:

The obituary is very moving but if you need to read The Auschwitz Protocol / The Vrba-Wetzler Report to get a true sense of the horror that was Auschwitz.

The report is all the more chilling because of the lack of hype and matter of fact tone of the report. Quite different from the news we experience every day.

Remembering an event such as Auschwitz is important, not to relive old wrongs but to attempt to avoid repeating those same wrongs again. Remembering Auschwitz did not prevent any of the bloodiness of the second half of the 20th century. Which if anything, exceeded the bloodiness of the first half, when famine, drought, disease and human neglect or malice are taken into account.

But Auschwitz will live on in the memories of survivors and their children. Equally important, it will live on as a well documented event. Dislodging it from the historical record will take more than time.

Can the same be said about many of the events and reports of events that now live only in digital media? We have done badly enough with revisionist history on actual events (see who defeated Germany). How much worse will we do when “history” can simply disappear? (As much already has from government archives no doubt.)

Preserving discovery and analysis of the content of archives presumes there are archives to be mined for subjects and relationships between them. Talk to your local librarian about how to best support long term archiving in your organization, locality and national government. The history we loose could well be your own.

I first saw the basis for this post in Vintage Infodesign [105].

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