The first generation of Holocaust researchers approached the task of documentation with three implicit goals: they set out to present a complete picture of the Holocaust, one that was not dominated by the perspective of the perpetrators. They sought to preserve the memory of the destroyed Jewish culture and the innumerable dead. Last but not least, they wanted to include evidence for judicial proceedings.

© The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Israel / The Photo Archive
Joseph Wulf (middle) and two other members of the Jewish Historical Commission working on material recovered from the Oyneg Shabes archive, place and date unknown.

For many, the documentation of what happened began during the time of persecution, because the level of violence exceeded all crimes in human history. Ghetto inmates recorded their experiences in diaries. Groups were formed to systematically document the extent of persecution and suffering. They had to work in secret as the hostile environment made their work difficult and dangerous.

After liberation, some of the survivors founded historical commissions to continue documenting the crimes. It was not merely the extent of the catastrophe that posed a challenge. The lack of material sources and continuing anti-Semitism in their countries of origin also hindered their research. Ultimately, the survivors had to contend with very practical questions in destitute post-war Europe: how should witness reports be recorded if there were not even pens and paper?


© Ursula Böhme
Simon Wiesenthal visiting Joseph Wulf in July 1974.

In addition to such reports, the commission also conducted research investigations inside the former concentration camps and gathered German documents. The success of these efforts was determined by the extent to which the Germans and their collaborators had managed to destroy files and cover their traces.

© Yad Vashem Photo Archive, Jerusalem. 8839/1
Members of the Jewish Historical Commission assorting recently recovered material of the archive of Oyneg Shabes, Warsaw, 1950.
© The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Israel /The Photo Archive
Hersz Wasser (right) and Rachel Auerbach, two of the three surviving members of Oyneg Shabes, were able to recover a part of the Ringelblum Archive, Warsaw, 1946. In tin boxes and milk cans, it had been buried in the Warsaw Ghetto so it would not fall into German hands.

Moreover, Jewish survivors often did not have a voice in post-war trials. There was very little interest in the Holocaust outside of their communities. This reinforced the intentions and efforts of the first generation of Holocaust researchers: They wanted the perspective of the victims to be acknowledged in in the postwar trials against perpetrators.

Beginning in the years during the war, Jewish researchers gathered multiple sources about the Holocaust. In historic commissions they continued their work after 1945: they founded research centres and built up archives, they published journals and edited publications. Through this, Holocaust research was established as an academic discipline. The expansive scope of materials formed the foundation for important institutions dedicated to the commemoration, research and documentation of the genocide.

© Wiener Library Collections
Emblem of the Jewish Historical Commission
of Krakow.

In 1947, the activities of the Polish Central Jewish Historical Commission were transferred to the newly established Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. The underground archive Oyneg Shabes was its central resource. To date, this institute is considered the most important research institution on Jewish history in Poland.

© Wiener Library Collections
Eyewitness account of the Holocaust, collected by Eva Reichmann in the 1950s. It includes a description of the uprising in Treblinka extermination camp in 1943.

In Israel, too, research institutions have been established in addition to places of remembrance: Holocaust survivors, including fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, founded the Ghetto Fighters’ House in 1949. Since then, it documents Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust and anti-Semitic persecution. The Jewish resistance in the ghettos and camps continues to be a focal point. The Yad Vashem State Memorial, founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, prioritizes the narratives of individuals and their fates. Today, its archive is the most extensive collection of sources on the Holocaust. In 1993, Yad Vashem founded the International School for Holocaust Studies. It has a pedagogical department that develops teaching materials and offers training for teachers from all over the world.

In 1933, Alfred Wiener und David Cohen founded the Wiener Library, initially named the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam. It gathered information about the persecution of Jews in Germany. In 1939, the collections were moved to London. After the end of the war, the Wiener Library was turned into a research institution and a public library. Its collection of documents formed an essential basis for the indictments at the Nuremberg trials. Today, the collection holds more than 1 million articles, newspaper clippings, photographs and testimonies of those affected.