At archives convention, U.S. archivist boasts an American dream for Czech history buffs

The Czech Central State Archives are having their fiftieth birthday. And to celebrate, archivists and historians from around the world are participating in a three-day conference that began Wednesday in Prague. Archivist Amy Schmidt was the lone American presenter among the estimated 250 participants.

Schmidt says she wants Czechs to know that a great deal of their history is carefully preserved in the United States. She is a specialist in the U.S. National Archives' collection of World War II-era documents about Central Europe and the Balkans. She says many of the most interesting records are never looked at.

Schmidt reckons that the section of most interest to Czech historians is the collection of records from the American intelligence agencies. The records were once top secret, but Schmidt says all of them are now open to the public.

"It is pretty much completely open for World War II, including the latest installment, which is considered the sources and methods files. We have massive, massive amounts of intelligence material on Czech and Slovak relations of all kinds during World War II," Schmidt said.

"For the post-war period there's a lot of interest because we have records of property restitution including things like Czech and Slovak case files for looted art property [and] cultural property that were handled by the U.S. government. We have a lot of material on the topic of war crimes: a lot of war crimes investigations, witness reports and that kind of thing for war crimes that were committed in Czech territory," she continued.

In addition to reports about Czech property taken by Germans during the war, there are other records that shed light on the controversial deportation of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. And some are rarely taken from the shelves.

"The ally control commission, of which the United States was a part, that was in Germany oversaw both the repatriation process for Czech nationals and the process of reintegrating the Volksdeutch or expellees into Germany and other destinations where that has ended up. So that is a topic that has become a very hot topic: immigration history. There are massive, massive amounts of records."

But Schmidt says Central Europeans are catching on. More and more researchers from former communist countries like the Czech Republic are requesting information from the American government's archives.

And when those researchers visit the archives, some never want to leave.

"I recently had a Croatian - a young Croatian historian - that came to the National Archives, and he was writing about Yugoslav-American relations. ... And he practically cried when he left, and he said, 'I could stay here ten years and I could not exhaust the records of this incredible, international resource.'"