Afterlives and Historical Echoes: The Launch of the EHRI Portal

13 Apr Afterlives and Historical Echoes: The Launch of the EHRI Portal

“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

David Eagleman’s short story, Metamorphisis  was quoted by Ms Aliki Arouh, Archivist of the Thessalonika Jewish Archives and third generation Holocaust survivor herself, in the most emotionally gripping speech of last month’s launch event for the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure in Berlin.

In other words, a person dies once the moment they take their last breath, then again when their loved ones utter their goodbyes, and finally – in the most definitive way – a person dies at the moment when the world forgets they ever existed.

EHRI forestalls that last, most ultimate extinction. As attendees at the launch event learned, EHRI’s online portal makes as accessible as possible the entire archival record of the Holocaust that still exists in Europe. It keeps alive individual’s names and stories by re-inserting their archival footsteps back into the public domain.

More than this, as the project leaders emphasized on the day, EHRI is and will also be a research community. The availability of archival records are not enough to sustain life, according to Eagleman’s theory. Instead, it is about a community sharing information about the dead. Indeed, if their efforts over the first five years of the project’s existence are any indication, then the fostering of networks for information-sharing will be a strong priority for EHRI during this second phase of the project.

The importance of EHRI’s work cannot be overestimated. The inherent justice of giving an afterlife back to individuals from whom their first, physical life had been snatched in the most violent and sudden of ways seems blatantly clear.

Perhaps, it is for this reason – the obvious rightness and goodness of the task – that the EU has elected to continue the EHRI project by contributing a further 8 million Euros toward its development and expansion within the Horizon 2020 framework. This announcement was made Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General of DG Research and Innovation for the European Commission, to the approval and gratitude of the entire room.

On that day, in the Liebniz Hall of the Berlin-Brandenburger Academy, it seemed as though all of us were consumed with thoughts of reverberations, footprints and shadows.  Dr Connie Kristel, the EHRI Project Director, poetically concluded her speech by stating that, “Astronomers reach for the stars, and historians reach for their echoes.”

We the audience, though, didn’t need to look all the way to the stars to grasp her point. The weighty columns supporting Liebiz Hall are pockmarked throughout with bullet holes. A stark physical reminder of this last great conflict to have shaken the European continent. Another historical echo, documenting and keeping alive a time long since passed.

Learn more about the EHRI Project. Use the portal.

Robin Nobel is the Senior Grants Manager of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv)