History Student Archives the Past at Holocaust Museum

Posted: May 16, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Rebecca Erbelding with diary
Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist with the Holocaust Memorial Museum, displays a photo album of Auschwitz officers.
USHMM, Photo by Max Reid

People tell Rebecca Erbelding secrets that they won’t even tell their spouses, their siblings or their children.

As an archivist for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Mason doctoral student gets to hear many of the survivors’ stories firsthand. Others she gleans from the mementos — diaries, journals, photographs — that arrive in the mail each day and fill her office. These artifacts tell the personal histories of Holocaust survivors, and in her role of archivist, she is often the first person to see the donations that come into the museum.

In the museum archives where she works, one can hear a flurry of languages — Hungarian, French, Spanish, Dutch — as employees talk with survivors or try to track down information internationally. Erbelding, who has a master’s degree in history from Mason and is currently working on a PhD in the same field, also knows the basics of Spanish, German, French and Italian — and this talent helps her spot key information when looking at various artifacts.

This talent came in handy last January when Erbelding received a photo album in the mail. What she discovered inside landed her on the front page of the New York Times, an interview in a documentary on the National Geographic Channel, and in the New Yorker, among other major media outlets.

The photo album, donated anonymously, was the property of Karl Hoecker, a German who was adjutant to the commandant of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz from May 1944 to January 1945. The album shows pictures of Auschwitz officers enjoying recreational activities: secretaries and officials singing, relaxing, running from the rain and eating. The key photo for Erbelding depicts dozens of officers arranged on a hill, singing. They include prominent — and ominous — figures such as Richard Baer, Otto Moll and Josef Mengele, the doctor who conducted experiments on prisoners.

“You get a visceral reaction seeing how much fun they’re having,” she says. “And you know they didn’t have any remorse for what was happening.”

Erbelding still gets emotional when she finds the time to walk the floors of the permanent exhibition. “It’s better if I’m giving a tour,” she says, “because then I have a purpose to focus on. But if I’m not, well, then the video at the end of the museum tour gets me every time. I know some of those people in that video, and I know what they went through.”

With all the emotional stories she hears and the horrors and tragedies she reads about, people ask her how she keeps an upbeat attitude — especially after five years of working at the museum.

“Sometimes you do [get depressed],” she says. “But it puts my life in perspective — in a happy way. When I get a flat tire, it doesn’t really affect me as much. There are things just not worth getting upset over. The people I’ve met have survived amazing things, and when you approach it that way you don’t get as upset.”

Though her field of study at Mason is American history, Erbelding wants to find some way to use the rich resources she has at the Holocaust Museum to fuel her research. She would like to write more about the War Refuge Board that was formed in 1944 by Franklin Roosevelt, a topic that has not been explored in-depth by scholars.

“I find my work to be both an honor and a privilege. I know that in 10 years time, there will be very few survivors left, but my colleagues and I will be able to tell their stories, remember their families and continue the fight against genocides happening to anyone else,” she says. “To be trusted with that responsibility is something very special.”

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