This summer an EmployEd internship at the Centre for Research Collections in the University Library enabled student Kimyana Scherer to help archivist Louise Williams gain greater insight into the personal archive donated by neurologist Dr Ernst Levin along with his extensive medical archive. Ernst Levin came to Scotland as a refugee from Nazi Germany and established a successful career in Edinburgh.
Thus far hardly any work has been carried out on this personal archive, but Louise and Kimyana’s wonderful work demonstrates that there is scope for further investigation. The personal archive of Ernst Levin sits alongside other large private archives which are coming to light in recent years. Scholarship on these archives expands not only our historical knowledge about the lives of ordinary individuals in different parts of Europe during the the 1930s and 1940s, but it also suggests important new research avenues. The Levin archive – like the Dorrith Sim Collection I am working on – expands backwards into the nineteenth century and forwards far into the post-war decades. What we find in these collections can be narrated in many different ways, not all of which directly speak to what is currently conceived as Holocaust history and memory. Rather, it seems to me, these archives ask historians to rethink current categories of historiography in relation to the Holocaust, to Holocaust remembrance, to the histories of everyday life, as well as to biography and family history. Private lives which become part of public history have the ability to allow readers to come close to the depths of the ordinary. Here the items an individual chose to collect, preserve, and take on their flight from persecution and genocide, and what they amassed thereafter become the subject of inquiry, allowing historians to enter very personal and private spaces. What fascinates is the refraction of world historical events through such private lives, the decision-making processes which lead individuals and families to take one course of action, rather than another, the limitations of knowledge at the time, and the – often devastating – consequences for their lives. We may not gain insights from such archives which change our understanding of the big historical narratives, but we will expand our ability to view historical events through the eyes of those who were directly affected by them. It is an exciting time to work in this field, and a great privilege to be able to access such rich and varied collections.
Kimyana has blogged about her work here: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/levin/