Archival Distractions

By Kaete O'Connell

Planning a research trip can be tedious and frustrating. You never know quite how long it will take to read through all the material you wish to see, and for grad students time and money are often in short supply. Even with amazing finding aids and helpful archivists, there are always archival surprises as well as unwelcomed distractions. Surprises are great! Like when an archivist pulls out an unprocessed collection and grants you a sneak peek. Or when you stumble upon that perfect document chock full of useful source material. 

Distractions are a different story. I’ll be flipping through a file and suddenly realize an hour of precious time was lost reading barely legible onion skins – none of which is significant! I used to beat myself up over distractions. I’ve read months of beautifully written correspondence between GIs and their loved ones, letters that were so endearing I couldn’t tear myself away. Some have made me smile, others have made me blush, and once I was so misty eyed I walked out of the reading room. Few, if any, of these distractions will make their way into my project, but they do humanize it.

Some of the best archival distractions are the blackholes that lead you to something entirely new and exciting, something worth investigating a little further. My favorite occurred on an afternoon at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. I was leafing through papers that belonged to an intelligence officer stationed in Berlin after World War II. Specifically, I was looking for commentary on the food situation and Black Market, which I did find. But I also stumbled upon a bizarre story about Fiorello La Guardia’s sister. At the time, La Guardia was best known as the New York City mayor, but he would soon take over as director of UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The intelligence officer’s unpublished typescript recollected an investigation into the appearance of $20 bills (USD) in the British Sector of Berlin. American currency was forbidden in occupied Germany. Oddly enough these bills were not discovered on the Black Market, but in a recently reopened bank where they were exchanged for the local currency (Reichsmarks). The culprit was a 70-year-old widow, Gemma La Guardia Gluck. Gemma explained to the authorities that she received the bills from her brother, the Mayor of New York via correspondence delivered by the American Red Cross. Occupation officials were stunned when American Red Cross representatives confirmed the story.


I was equally surprised and launched a Google search into Gemma La Guardia Gluck. How did the daughter of Italian immigrants, sister to the Mayor of New York City, end up living in postwar Berlin? That’s when I learned she married a man of Hungarian Jewish descent and was living in Budapest when it was taken by the Nazis. She was deported to Mauthausen as a political prisoner (her relationship to La Guardia was publicized) and then imprisoned in the Ravensbrück women’s camp. She survived the war and arrived in Berlin as a Displaced Person. I was left with many questions, mostly informed by my knowledge of La Guardia’s role in UNRRA. I immediately purchased Gemma’s memoir and added it to the rapidly growing “read for fun” pile in my bedroom. I’m a long way away from any future projects, but if permitted a daydream or two, I’d love to revisit Gemma’s story in the future. Hers was one of those perfect distractions that reminded me why I fell in love with research: the burning questions, the thrill of the search, and the satisfaction when one’s mind is sufficiently blown by new information. I may have lost a few hours of productivity in the archive, but it was worth every second.

Kaete O'Connell is a PhD student at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Her dissertation explores food relief in Germany after WW2.