Friday, November 27, 2015

A Case of Strange Provenance

          An isolated incident of apartment renovation in Budapest turned into an archival miracle and historical breakthrough. The Telegraph reports that while a Hungarian couple renovated their Budapest apartment this year, they found Holocaust-era documents tucked into a hole in the wall. What was hidden in the walls were 6300 immaculately preserved 1944 census records that documented Budapest just before the liquidation of its over 200,000 Hungarian Jews. The documents listed the name of every individual that lived in each apartment building in Budapest, including inhabitants’ religious affiliation. After the census was completed, large groups of Hungarian Jews were moved into “Yellow Star Houses.” With this discovery, historians can better understand the latter two years of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Hungary. You can read more about it here:

            The discovery is not only intriguing for its content, but also for the physical condition of the records. The couple donated the records to the Budapest City Archives, where head archivist Istvan Kenyeres was astounded at the pristine state of condition of the documents. With the exception of yellowing, the ink was still legible on the documents. The archival staff is now working to literally iron out the papers for future storage and use.  

            But what is most intriguing is that the documents were found within the encasings of a wall. We’ve discussed in class that archivists make extensive contacts with donors and other institutions in locating sources of documents. However, I imagine that the strange discovery of documents like this makes provenance an interesting factor in assessing the history and value of the records. The Telegraph doesn’t make mention of any understanding of how the records ended up there in the first place. Who stored them there and why?

            This is an interesting case study in how documents are found, and I imagine that archivists come across situations like this at least once in their career. I wonder what other documents are out there hiding somewhere just waiting to be found. Finding out how they were placed where they were is the challenge of provenance, especially in a situation like this where secrecy was likely involved. I hope the answer sheds light on the content of the documents themselves. 

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