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Hillsdale College recently received the archives of the late Sir Martin Gilbert, official biog­rapher of Winston Churchill. External Affairs

Hillsdale stu­dents and future gen­er­a­tions will have access to eye-witness accounts to the Holo­caust, thanks to the college’s recent acqui­sition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s archives.

Hillsdale College recently acquired the entire working library and archives of the late Gilbert, the official biog­rapher of Sir Winston Churchill from 1968 to 2012, who died in 2015.

The col­lection fea­tures Martin’s research on the Holo­caust, including notes on con­ver­sa­tions with wit­nesses and sur­vivors and doc­u­ments from the national archives of the United States and United Kingdom, according to a Hillsdale College press release. The col­lection also includes pub­lished and unpub­lished diaries and memoirs of sur­vivors, an anno­tated diary of the sec­retary of the Kovno ghetto, and research on the British Mandate for Palestine and the first 70 years of Israel’s estab­lishment.

The college pur­chased Gilbert’s entire working library and archives in 2017, which included the Holo­caust mate­rials, according to Soren Geiger, director of research for the Churchill Project, but due to European Union reg­u­la­tions, the col­lection only just arrived to campus this past Christmas. Packed in shipping con­tainers in the Fowler Main­te­nance Building, the archive awaits to be trans­ported, unwrapped, and cat­a­loged. The acqui­sition of this col­lection is the result of the college’s Churchill Project, which seeks to promote Churchill schol­arship.

Geiger said the college hopes to make as much of the col­lection available to the public where pos­sible and appro­priate. He also said the college plans to partner with insti­tu­tions such as the Holo­caust Memorial Center in Detroit on research and schol­arship due to the sig­nif­i­cance of this col­lection.

Gilbert’s col­lection is sig­nif­icant because of the per­sonal approach he took as a his­torian, Geiger said.

“Gilbert, as a his­torian, reacted against the popular method of researching and writing the history of the Holo­caust, which was to focus pri­marily on the scale, scope, and sta­tistics of the atrocity. This approach relied heavily on German records,” Geiger said in an email. “Gilbert believed it was important to tell the story of the people who suf­fered, so he cor­re­sponded with and inter­viewed as many sur­vivors as he could. The letters and interview tran­scripts, in addition to other items that together com­prise the Gilbert Holo­caust col­lection, are a valuable means both of under­standing the Holo­caust and also of pre­serving the memory and voices of those whose lives were shat­tered by it.”

Gilbert was the first his­torian to take this approach, according to junior Josiah Leinbach, a Churchill fellow who is cur­rently cat­a­loging the Gilbert archives.

“Prior to Sir Martin, most Holo­caust research was done from the per­spective of the German regime. So it was done using German doc­u­ments and reports and things. And it was very causal and imper­sonal,” Leinbach said. “Sir Martin made it per­sonal by actually inter­viewing Holo­caust sur­vivors. He was the first to do this and it was a very con­tro­versial step at the time because it was seen as pro­pa­ganda and thought to be poor his­torical schol­arship. But Sir Martin argued that you could not tell the story of the Holo­caust without inter­viewing those who actually went through it.”

Esther Gilbert, the widow of Sir Martin, said that many Holo­caust sur­vivors who talked to her husband had never told anyone of their expe­rience before.

“Of par­ticular sig­nif­i­cance in the Holo­caust papers are the man­u­scripts, letters and cor­re­spon­dence of sur­vivors and eye­wit­nesses, and the notes Sir Martin made during con­ver­sa­tions with them,” Gilbert said. “Many of the sur­vivors had dif­fi­culty recounting their trau­matic expe­ri­ences; many had told no one until they met or heard from Sir Martin. So that cor­re­spon­dence is very pre­cious, and will be very important for further study.”

Gilbert said that many of these sur­vivors are gone, which makes her husband’s archive par­tic­u­larly mean­ingful as it pre­serves their memory.

“In their letters and cor­re­spon­dence with him, they wrote what they remem­bered, what came to mind.  He may have asked spe­cific ques­tions to clarify a point, but in the main, the letters were an oppor­tunity for sur­vivors to write their stories in their own way, in their own voice, not by being inter­viewed or having to fill out a ques­tion­naire,” she said. “Sadly, many of them are now gone so this par­ticular part of the archive is espe­cially mean­ingful.”

Larry Arnn, pres­ident of Hillsdale College, said it is an honor for the college to maintain the archive and pre­serve the mem­ories of the sur­vivors for future gen­er­a­tions.

“Sir Martin Gilbert, who was also the official biog­rapher of Sir Winston Churchill, spent decades locating original records and col­lecting eye­witness accounts of the Holo­caust,” Arnn said in a press release statement. “This his­torical evi­dence will serve as a vital resource for researchers and scholars, and we are honored to pre­serve this knowledge for future gen­er­a­tions.”