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 The collection also includes published and unpublished diaries and memoirs of survivors, an annotated diary of the secretary of the Kovno ghetto, and research on the British Mandate for Palestine and the first 70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.”