Arts & Culture 

Bringing the past alive

History Martin-Springer Institute

It all started with a cardboard box and an email.

The email was from Bjorn Krondorfer, Director of the Martin-Springer Institute, which is focused on using the lessons of the Holocaust to help promote peace and tolerance. Krondorfer was looking for a graduate student to take on a project archiving an old box full of World War II photos. Abbey Buckham, who is working on a master’s in History, was intrigued.

She took on the project that evolved to include the application of investigative skills and a trip to Washington, DC.

But first, there was a box.

“The photographer, James Philip Kuykendall, worked for the Motor Ambulance Company 581st during World War II,” Abbey explained. “And his photos we think were taken between 1942 and ’46, because that’s what’s written on the side of the box.”

After his death in 1986, Kuykendall’s photos went to his son, who eventually decided to throw them away. But a chance conversation between the son’s wife and her physical therapist changed that. The physical therapist was horrified that the photos were headed to the trash so she got the box. Because her son went to NAU, she knew about the Martin-Springer Institute and thought it would be a good place to donate the box. So she did.

“I think it was 2016 when Bjorn got a hold of them,” Abbey said. “And then they just kind of sat in his office for a while.”

The photos—around 300 in all—were curled with age and don’t include much in the way of description or identification. Some had been taken during the liberation of concentration camps.

Putting history in context

Hoping to identify the camps, Abbey went to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, for two weeks in August to compare Kuykendall’s photos with those in their archives.

“I would just spend all my time in the library or the archive. I got to meet with photo archives staff, staff who work on the encyclopedias of camps and ghettos, a woman from collections management, another woman from preservation.”

Abbey had scanned many of the photos, focusing on those that had some type of caption, including the names of some of the officers. She pored over each photo with a magnifying glass, looking for clues. Museum staff then helped her identify arm patches so she could put a division with a photo subject. That research allowed her to name the divisions Kuykendall had aimed his camera at: the 10th Armored Division and the 14th Armored Division, the Tigers and the Liberators.

What’s the story that we tell here, besides these cool old photographs some guy took?

Tracing Kuykendall’s military journey proved more challenging. The box included a pamphlet about the Motor Ambulance Company and a copy of his discharge paper from 1953; he was a captain at that point. But beyond that, Abbey could find very little information.

“I’ve done a ton of genealogy research, and I contacted the military personnel records archive in St. Louis. But apparently there was a fire in 1971 or ’73 and his file was burned—which explains why I couldn’t find anything. I have his enlistment and I have his discharge letter, but I have nothing in between.”

The photos themselves are a mishmash of images.

“It’s a really odd assortment,” Abbey said. “There’s a bunch of pictures of James and his soldier friends. Sometimes they’re playing baseball, they’re swimming, they’re sitting in some wild flowers, or they’re reading or drinking in a library. But then some of them are concentration camp liberations, which are quite graphic.”

To uncurl and preserve the photos, she placed them between tissues of acid-free paper layered between boards that she weighed down with books. Then she sorted them into categories and put them in polypropylene sleeves and into a scrapbook.

Bringing the past alive

For all she has learned about the photos, Abbey is still frustrated with what she still doesn’t know.

“There’s so many mysteries we’re trying to figure out, especially since we don’t have his military records. We’ve been trying to map out exactly where he went—mostly southwestern Germany and Austria, based on what we’ve figured out from the photograph captions, and what divisions or people that appear in the photographs.”

A young woman holds a film strip up to the light.

At first, she couldn’t even identify Kuykendall.

“A lot of them were just pictures of other people, and we were like, OK, this one guy keeps showing up. That was great. When we got to that point, we were like OK, this is him.”

With the assistance of two other researchers, Abbey is working on one of the final pieces of the project: an organizational tool to help future researchers locate specific photos. Abbey also wants to map Kuykendall’s route across Europe, digitize all of the images, and organize some type of public exhibit of the photographs.

“We want to see what we can do with it, especially in terms of something to bring to the public. What’s the story that we tell here, besides these cool old photographs some guy took?”

Thanks to the satisfaction she found in her work archiving Kuykendall’s photos, she plans to seek a museum job in exhibit design, collections management, or as a curator after graduating.

“It’s fun, and it just feels so good to have them not be in a sad box anymore.”