When most people think of Yad Vashem they may recall the state-of-the-art Holocaust History Museum and its outdoor memorials that inspire visitors from around the world seeking to learn more about the cataclysmic events of the Holocaust.  But standing behind the scenes, along with its International Research Institute, Library and School for Holocaust Studies, is Yad Vashem’s famed Archives – home to the largest collection of Holocaust documentation in the world.

The documentation housed at Yad Vashem is one of the important treasures of the Jewish people. It serves as the basis for Holocaust research, for the creation of exhibitions and museums, for commemoration activities, as well as for the education of future generations. The documents serve as proof of the Holocaust, and are vital for understanding its scope and meaning, as well as the fate of its victims. Yad Vashem recently began implementing a broad-ranging project to digitally scan all the documents preserved in its Archives. With more than 130 million pages of documentation, 400,000 photographs and over 101,000 survivor testimonies, this project is an enormous undertaking.

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While at first glance the project may seem straightforward many questions arise when dealing with millions of pages of historical documentation.  For example, how do you prioritize them? How do you decide which machine is suitable for which document?  How do you make sure the quality of the original is preserved and may be reliably reconstructed from the digital copy? How do you connect them to information in the computerized catalogue?

Obviously, the complexity of the project is much greater than it appears. First, much of the documentation arrives unsorted, and the millions of pages need to be prepared for scanning.  Each page must be arranged and paginated, the staples and paper clips removed, and offered “first aid” treatment for crumbling documents in Yad Vashem’s special preservation laboratory.  Only then can the document be sent to be scanned. Once the file is scanned, it can be linked to a computerized catalogue, so that it can be located and used in the future.

The sorting is performed in the Archives’ storerooms by a team of about ten experts fluent in the languages in which the documents were created. After preservation treatment, the documents are taken to a digitization room, where staff members scan them and test their quality using state-of-the-art equipment such as high-speed double-sided color scanners and desktop cameras. A high-tech computerized system is installed at all the workstations that connects them together, and extracts the data from Yad Vashem’s computerized catalogue and, finally, updates the online catalogue.

With an enormous collection of documentation that has been gathered over a long time, including some boxes that had not been opened in many years, Dr. Haim Gertner, Director of the Archives Division at Yad Vashem notes that there are new "treasures" discovered every day.

“In one of the notebooks we scanned this year, I found a letter written by Eliezer Gandwerger, an orphaned boy from the Mogilev ghetto, to his Hebrew teacher, who educated him for three years at the ghetto’s orphanage. In a handsome script and fluent Hebrew Eliezer wrote: ‘Memory is the only heaven from which man cannot be banished.’ This sentence has accompanied me throughout the whole project,” recalls Dr. Gertner.  “This emotional procedure of opening boxes, shaking off the dust and meeting with the documents leads our staff, young and old alike, to rediscover the power of the original document and its emotional, instructional and moral strength. Leafing through photographs, personal documents and testimonies on the yellowing pages proves anew every day the importance of documentation as the cornerstone for the memory of the Holocaust, and for the restoration of the person behind each and every document.”

The current scanning rate stands at about 100,000 pages a month, so by the end of the 2010 over one million pages will have been scanned.  The continued operation of the digitization project is based on raising additional funding.  With the location of additional resources, Yad Vashem plans to increase the amount of scanners and purchase an advanced high-speed device for scanning microfilm, thus completing the project within the next few years thus making it available to future generations.

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