Arolsen Archives: "Crowdsourcing is crowd wisdom at its best"

Throughout 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a significant challenge to commemoration of the Holocaust. In response, the IHRA Chair Ambassador Michaela Küchler has announced the German Presidency's focus on digital commemoration as a field which is likely to grow in importance for Holocaust education, remembrance and research.

To learn more about this topic, we spoke to Floriane Azoulay, Director of the Arolsen Archives, about their digital initiative #everynamecounts.

1) Why is digital commemoration important?

'Right now, digital commemoration is the only option we have if we want to join with others to remember the victims and honor their legacy. In the future, commemoration events will be hybrid, like almost every other type of social interaction today.

In that sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and has opened up valuable new opportunities for us to reach audiences that we have never been able to reach before.'

2) What has the #everynamecounts initiative accomplished?

'#everynamecounts is a crowdsourcing initiative of the Arolsen Archives that aims at building a digital memorial for the victims of Nazi persecution. Within a few months, a community of passionate volunteers has indexed more than 1.5 million historical documents from concentration camps.

Our more than 10,000 registered volunteers are engaged in countless online conversations that build bridges between remembrance of the past and civic engagement today.

Not only does the metadata created in this way enrich the online archive and help make it a more powerful tool for research, it also helps transform the archive into a digital monument. Every piece of information that is digitized is an expression of solidarity with the victims of the crimes committed by the Nazis.

Our more than 10,000 registered volunteers are engaged in countless online conversations that build bridges between remembrance of the past and civic engagement today. Young people who have no personal connection to the Holocaust are grateful for this opportunity to make a personal and lasting contribution to a meaningful initiative whose aim is to ensure that the names of these victims will not be forgotten, and that their stories will be told.  

And so, the real beauty of the initiative is that you do not need to have any special knowledge or resources in order to join in and make a real contribution. But at the same time, if you have detailed knowledge of specific aspects of Nazi persecution, you are very welcome to share this knowledge with the community. Crowdsourcing is crowd wisdom at its best.'

3) What are the next steps for the initiative?

'The worldwide launch of the initiative on 27 January 2021 is the next step: We need the help of a much larger crowd to help us index all the historical documents from concentration camps and prisons that are held in our archives. We are grateful that our international partners, such as the IHRA, the United Nations, and UNESCO have already agreed to support the initiative and are encouraging their staff and their partners to contribute. We hope that many other partners will join us.

We will run a social media campaign throughout the spring of 2021 marking the days of the liberation of the concentration camps and, of course, Liberation Day on 8 May. In parallel with the social media campaign and starting in March 2021, we will roll out a comprehensive program of activities around #everynamecounts in German schools. Our goal is to involve as many schools as possible with the support of the German authorities.

Our experience has shown that the #everynamecounts initiative is a great place to start a conversation with students about antisemitism, racism, and more generally about the pervasive impact of bias. It is our modest contribution to the current challenges posed by the rise of intolerance and extremism. Here as well, we are looking for partners to join the schools initiative.

We also plan to expand the data our volunteers record in the context of the crowdsourcing project to include the names of relatives of concentration camp inmates who are mentioned in the documents. This new aspect of the #everynamecounts campaign is very important, as it is highly likely that the relatives of Jewish prisoners were victims of persecution themselves.'

4) Can you reveal what the Arolsen Archives is planning for the coming year in the field of digital commemoration?

'We are honored that the Embassy of the Republic of France has agreed to host our first open air digital commemoration event on 21 January 2021, the day that marks the anniversary of the signature of the Élysée Treaty. Under the auspices of the friendship between France and Germany, we will project a multi-media installation onto the building of the French Embassy as a form of digital commemoration. It will be shown every day until 27 January, 2021, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The environment in which a digital commemoration event takes has an integral role to play. We felt it was essential to choose the right context to support our message – but at the same time, it is important to be aware that the context itself opens up new possibilities and offers additional layers of interpretation.

Perhaps I can put it this way: the context gives the event strong roots, but also gives it wings. In our case, it provides the opportunity to bring the issue right into our midst – the Pariser Platz and Brandenburg Gate are in the very center of Berlin, so tourists will “stumble” upon it. Once again, it is all about reaching new audiences, about catching them unawares with a thought-provoking experience in an unexpected environment.

We think that the contemporary, sleek facade of the building of the French Embassy in the intimate and historically significant setting of the Pariser Platz is a very dignified and prestigious place to remember the names of victims of the Nazis. I will not reveal any more at present, but the installation is, of course, about names – and it is intimately connected with our #everynamecounts initiative to build a digital memorial for the victims of the Nazis.'

The Arolsen Archives is a Permanent International Partner of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Learn more about #everynamecounts, and their other initiatives, at arolsen-archives.org.

Photo: Students enter names into the #everynamecounts database. Image: Arolsen Archives.