Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Researching in the USHMM's Shappell Center

I recently spent time at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Shappell Center (located in Bowie, Maryland), finding documents relating to my relatives.  Before going, it's important to have done your homework, reserving materials and logging what you hope to find in each record set.  You'll have a set amount of time to do your research, so advance planning is critical to make sure you can get everything you want while there.

Remember, there are many record sets that are Holocaust-related, but there are also many record sets related to pre-war European Jewry (and some non-Jewish communities as well).

Before going, you must make an appointment.  This is important, because if you want to review any non-digitized records while there, you must request those at least a week in advance of your appointment--and must link them to an existing appointment.  So how do you find what you would want to see on a visit?

  1. Start at https://collections.ushmm.org/search/
  2.  In the search entry, try searching for your town(s) of interest--using all possible spellings and versions of that town name.  Also search for your surnames of interest, also using spelling variations.
    1. As a sub-note, also search in foreign languages that might be used.  In many cases, the search engines will still find documents, but in others it does not.  You wouldn't want to miss potential documents because a finding aid was only written in a foreign language.
  3.  Look at the results and click on any that might be of interest.

Some record sets are available to peruse at home.  Don't waste your precious time at the library on those

A record set you can see from home, not worth a trip to the Shappell Center

My previous post talks about how to navigate those record sets that are available from home, so I won't go into those here.

But there are also many record sets that are only available on-site, including many that have been digitized but are not accessible remotely, generally because of agreements between USHMM and the repository owner.  When on-site, you'll be able to see (and digitally save onto a USHMM-provided thumb drive) images from these record sets.  Even though you don't need to specifically request these record sets to be made accessible before the 7-day advance cutoff, you'll want to make sure that you've captured what you want from each such record set and any additional information from the finding aid that can help you quickly find what you want.

Many of the digitized collections were digitized off microfilms.  So it's important to capture the reel number and any other information that will tell you where on the reel your images of interest are located and have that information ready for your visit in order to find things as quickly as possible.

There may also be items that aren't digitized--especially books and videos (one of my reserved items was a VHS tape), as well as some items still only on microfilm.  Those definitely need to be requested and linked to an existing appointment at least 7 days before your visit to be sure they're available to you.  You can create an appointment and then add items as you find them; there's no need to request them all at once.

Shappell Center

When you get to the Shappell Center, you'll need to park right outside the fence.  There is plenty of parking on the road leading up to the center.  At the gate, you'll need to show your ID, and they'll confirm that you have an appointment and let you in.  Once inside, you'll go through a security checkpoint, and you'll need to leave any coats and bags in a locker.  This included a small purse that I'd brought.  I was able to bring my phone and papers with me upstairs, and a laptop would have been permitted as well (without a case).  The building is beautiful and looks rather new.

When they say the reading room opens at 10:00, they mean it.  I was there about 15 minutes early, and I waited in a lounge/cafeteria area until 10.  Once the reading room opened, I went in, and a helpful reference librarian demonstrated how to find the digital record sets that I wanted to see and also gave me a thumb drive to save images.

I learned that it was most efficient to use the reference guides for particular record sets in conjunction with the list of items that I had generated in advance of my visit.  For example, with one record set that contained documents for thousands of people,  I opened the images associated with the correct reel, but that directory contained over 2000 images associated with hundreds of people.  I was able to open a random image, identify the person associated with the image, and see if that person appeared before or after my person of interest within the reference guide.  That helped me to zero in on the images that I wanted much more quickly.  Once I found the right person, I would make sure that I captured all images associated with the person, save it to my thumb drive, and move onto the next thing I wanted.

Digitized record found for my fourth cousin twice removed in the Shappell Center (and it's one of the few I found in English!)

Once you find the images that are of interest, save them all to your thumb drive.  Wait to review them in more detail until you're home, or at least have saved everything you planned to on your trip, to make sure you do not run out of time in your appointment window.

Book requested in advance--ready for my review

After I captured all of the digital images that were on my wish list, I went onto the other items I'd requested.  One was a book that I'd already seen at CJH but which I realized later I wanted to find additional information that I'd missed checking for on my CJH visit.  As you can see above, the book was ready for me in the reading room; I just had to ask the reference librarian who got it for me within seconds.  I was able to write down some things and take a few photographs of pages to review later; there are also scanning facilities which I didn't use.

I also looked at a video with a potential relative's Holocaust testimony, but I realized quickly that it was another person with the same name.  But there are video-watching stations that are available.

Record on my 3rd cousin 3x removed.  Original and translation with Google Translate.  I now know some of what happened to her during the war, and that she survived and was living in Toronto in 1963

You'll definitely want to make sure that there are record sets you'll want to review before making the trip.  USHMM-held record sets of interest for my father's and my maternal grandfather's sides of the family are all available online, so if those were the only line I was researching, I could have saved myself the trip.  But my maternal grandmother's line had multiple record sets of interest that were only available on site, and I saved hundreds of pages of images that I'm still going through.  And although most are in Hungarian, the majority are typed, and using Google translate on the images is giving me pretty good gists about the contents of the documents.

I'm still going through the images that I captured on my trip.  But for me, it was well worth the trip, and I found documents related to multiple relatives.  If you've been to the Shappell Center and have any insights to add, please comment below!

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  1. Hi Lara, I read the two posts about your Shappell Center visit with great interest. I followed all your suggestions, especially about getting completely organized in advance and, once I had my appointment set up, corresponding with the research librarian about materials of interest. The result was a very effective appointment in mid-December. I have now translated my Polish materials with Google Translate and have hired a Yiddish translator for my Yiddish materials. And I have learned a great deal about the likely outcomes of those relatives who were still in the shtetl Trzcianne when the Nazis arrived in 1941. Thank you for the very detailed notes you shared. They helped me greatly!

    1. I'm so thrilled to hear that! There's so much incredible information at the Shappell Center, but people don't realize what's there. I was so hoping this post would help others make use of its resources.