September 1, 2022

Archives as a Defense of Truth

Jill Hershorin Archivist and Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest NJ

Today, in our world of disinformation and “fake news,” it can be challenging to weed through the noise to get to the actual truth. As an archivist, I like to consider myself something of a truth warrior.

Historical records are a primary source, a first-hand or contemporary account of an event or topic usually found in original documents and objects that were created at the time. These materials are the most direct evidence of a time or event because they were created by people or things that were there at the time or event.

The concept of archival practices of documents “freezing” a time or event in history comes from the ancient Roman law concept known as preserving the perpetual memory. This concept assumes archival documents as fact. The other Roman concept known as public faith looks at the role these documents are seen as providing truth to the society in which they serve. Contemporary archives still hold these practices and what we as archivists must rely on to be an unbiased “legacy keeper” of the community in which we serve. We are keepers of evidence.

In post-civil war America, northern publishers began adapting history books to placate southerners, essentially publishing a separate version of Civil War history for those states. For example, they depicted enslaved people as happy and content. And soon, southern narratives began to appear in northern textbooks as well. (Marquez, n.d.) This kind of retelling history is a commonly used tactic to avoid discussing real issues in society – that of race, class, or gender to name a few.

What has been the most upsetting and concerning currently are the factions of people who feel the need to change their version of events in history. Revisionism isn’t a 19th or 20th century idea, but it happens today. The spread of disinformation has become more prevalent today due to the reach of social media and the ease in which it can be spread. And with large numbers of people being told that there is “fake news” or are being coerced into questioning what was once fact and now conspiracy, archives are more important than ever.

One particularly alarming example of rewriting history is, of course, Holocaust denial. In Ohio, a bill known as the “Both Sides Bill” is being proposed which says that educators should teach the perspective of the German solider when teaching Holocaust studies in classrooms. This bill would make “failing to fairly present both sides of a political or ideological belief or position” conduct unbecoming of an Ohio educator. Co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula) suggests that the Holocaust could be taught from the perspective of the Nazis and mischaracterized the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. This wildly offensive and inappropriate viewpoint is another argument that archives should be viewed as one of the many reliable sources of evidence.

This whitewashing of history is dangerous, and it is up to the community to know its history and to be able to produce evidence at a moment’s notice. Without history, a society shares no common memory of where it has been, what its core values are, or what decisions of the past account for present circumstances. That’s why I’ll proudly take on Maureen Dowd’s assessment of my peers and myself in her 2007 OpEd piece that “Archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington” – well, NJ in this case.

The Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest has been the archival repository serving the Greater MetroWest region for over 30 years. The Jewish Federation with its Jewish Historical Society and the Holocaust Council departments realizes the importance of always bringing attention to the grossly dishonest groups that deny the Holocaust existed.

The Federation also shares the Jewish Historical Society’s adherence to the Society of American Archivist’s Core Values and Code of Ethics. To view its collections or to learn more about the JHS, please visit our website.

You can support this important work by becoming a member of The Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest.