Past, present and future are very close together in this old tobacco factory in Heidelberg. While Southwest Germany’s only software giant has set up its “AppHaus” on the upper floors and is developing applications for the future in a loft atmosphere, Ittai Tamari tries to capture the past on the second floor. So that it can also be understood in the future.
Tamari says of himself that he is “someone who cannot let go so easily” – at home he hardly has any space for furniture because 8000 books are piled up along the walls. Such a passion for collecting is certainly not a hindrance if you want to build up and expand something like a central memory of a community. That is exactly what Ittai Tamari does. For five years he has headed the “Central Archives for Research into the History of Jews in Germany”.
The institution was founded in 1987 to document Jewish life in German-speaking countries after 1945. After years in cramped cellars, the archive has now moved, the new rooms in the old factory floor, through which Tamari leads in a hurry, will be inaugurated with a ceremony on Tuesday. The archive manager proudly shows fireproof cardboard boxes, rows of rolling shelves that can be easily moved despite their tons of content, “You see? You just have to turn the crank on the side very lightly.”
“Hello, I’m from the State Security Service – could I see the premises because of the ceremony on Tuesday?”
The documents for what Tamari calls “a miracle” are piling up on 2300 meters of shelves: records from Frankfurt soup kitchens shortly after the end of the war, where Jewish survivors coming from Poland were stranded after long marches. Minutes of board meetings of revitalized Jewish communities in which major socio-political issues and small personal disputes were negotiated. Estates and bequests of Jewish writers and intellectuals, family papers in an antique seaman’s suitcase, craftsmen’s bills and construction plans, for example for the new synagogue on Munich’s Jakobsplatz. After the Nazi era, Jews hardly stayed in Germany because they wanted to, says Tamari. “They stayed because nobody else wanted them.” And that from this collection of physically or mentally handicapped people a community life could flourish again: “That could not be foreseen.”
It is important to Tamari that future generations can approach this miracle one day – “through real data, not metadata”. After all, every writing of history is an interpretation that follows the perspectives of its time. In 200 years, however, people would certainly look at the past very differently than they do today. “If we don’t keep the sources, I’m afraid that all that remains of Judaism in Germany is ‘Schindler’s List’,” he says. The monstrosity of industrial mass murder by the Nazis often outshone the fact that there was Jewish life in Germany before, during and after the Shoah. And gives.
The miracle that he documents is still a “miracle in the making”: “We still have to work to ensure that the next generation stays here,” says Tamari. “We are still quarreling.” And as if to illustrate his words, he would long for a life in which not every Jewish institution, every Jewish festival has to be guarded by the police, shortly afterwards a gentleman stands in the foyer, short hair, polo shirt. “Hello,” he says, “I’m from the State Security Service – could I see the premises because of the ceremony on Tuesday?”
The premises – Tamari calls them an “archival paradise”. So not in a conversation with the civil servant who is more interested in entrances and exits, but when he is out and about in the republic to convince religious communities or private individuals that his factory floor in Heidelberg is the ideal place for their documents. He and his employees would send digital versions of the documents to the donors at any time if they needed them, “the community secretary in the basement won’t find them any faster either”. And donors would have the right for 70 years to refuse or approve requests for the inspection of documents by scientists, interested parties or genealogists – “longer than anywhere else”.
From 1905 to 1938 there was already the “General Archives of German Jews”
Before the documents are put into the stackable boxes that protect against fire and water, they have to be “demetallized” – every profession has its own vocabulary. So get out paper clips and staples, they could damage the paper with rust. Then the content is roughly tagged. In his private life, Tamari simply likes to stack his books along the wall, but professionally he works towards building a collection of documents and a digital database that is networked with other institutions around the world.
Because his archive, supported by the Central Council of Jews, had a forerunner, the “General Archive of German Jews”, which existed from 1905 to 1938. When the Nazis seized it, they didn’t destroy the documents – “they were useful for tracking down Jews,” says Tamari. After the end of the war, the Americans took large parts of the material with them; it is now stored in Cincinnati. Some files went to Jerusalem, others to Russia. Documents on Jews who emigrated via France are in Paris, those of those who fled to Italy are in Milan. And although he would like to have all these files here in Heidelberg, he has to be a realist, says Tamari. “Nobody will return their holdings.”
So far, however, the network he dreams of has “more holes than knots,” admits Tamari. When collecting documents for databases, the backlog in the central archive is “currently around 75 percent”. Transferring the past into the future is only possible in small steps at the Heidelberg tobacco factory.