Every month we discuss one archive which has been particularly useful for a French historian. Unsurprisingly, most of these are in France… however this month, we travel to the United States where Dr Daniel Lee (Oxford) has been using the archives in Washington D.C.
At first glance, an extended research trip to Washington D.C. may not seem a priority for those of us interested in studying the experiences of Jews in France and the French Empire during the Second World War. While the US National Archives (NARA) and the Library of Congress contains important material, these holdings are slim pickings when placed alongside the scores of written and oral sources that are held in public and private collections across France and North Africa. Recently, however, scholars of Vichy and the Jews have bypassed Paris and headed instead to Washington to conduct their research. Clearly, a trip to DC is further (though not by very much) than a trip to the new National Archives at Pierrefitte. What, then, explains the decision of established scholars (that includes Jean-Marc Dreyfus, Vicki Caron, Susan Gilson Miller, Renée Poznanski, Daniel Schroeter and Susan Rubin Suleiman), and masses of junior researchers to temporarily turn their backs on the coffee machines at the BN? The answer is the resources of the library and archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
To conduct research at the USHMM is a delight. Over the last twenty years, the archive has scanned material from across France and made it freely available to researchers using its reading room. The library has an enormous French history section (that includes published primary and secondary literature). I cannot reiterate just how accessible the collections are; not only are there no ‘dérogations’ whatsoever, but the archive also permits photos to be taken of its collections. In contrast to the British Library that charges almost 40 pence a copy, the scanner at the USHMM is entirely free (very handy when copying a dossier containing several hundred pages). The icing on the cake is that researchers are allowed – and even encouraged – to upload entire digitized collections (that sometimes run into tens of thousands of pages) onto their USB key or external hard drive for their perusal once they return home.
The archival collections holds material accumulated from all over France, North Africa and Israel (to name only three locations). It contains archival series that are essential to any study of Vichy and the Jews (e.g. AJ38, the files of the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives from the French National Archives), alongside lesser known records, the originals of which are held at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine and other depositories. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Peggy Frankston who has tracked down so many documents, the USHMM archive contains crucial information that pertains to the experiences of Jews in the localities (information from all of France’s departmental archives) and in the archives of France’s former overseas empire. In addition, I was very pleased to find a large number of newspapers from the period (such as La Gerbe and Je Suis Partout) and to have full access to so many oral history projects (including the USC Shoah Foundation).
The library staff is extremely knowledgeable about the collections and is very willing to share its expertise with researchers. French historian Diane Afoumado is in charge of the International Tracing Service (ITS) at the USHMM; a valuable tool for anyone tracing individuals during or after the Second World War.
A month’s research in DC is the equivalent of a summer running from Pierrefitte to the CDJC to the Alliance. Gone are the days of putting 20 euros onto a photocopy card at the BN, only to be denied access to the machine by the librarian because of an unknown law on copying rights.
For anyone worried about the cost of the trip to DC to conduct the research, help is at hand! The Museum offers very generous visiting fellowships that range from 3 months to the whole year.
Daniel Lee is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in History at Brasenose College, Oxford. He spent part of the academic year 2014–2015 as a Ben and Zelda Cohen Visiting Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he researched the experiences of Tunisian Jewry during WWII. Daniel Lee’s book, Pétain’s Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940–42, was published in 2014 with Oxford University Press.