12/17/2013 12:28 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

'We Are What We Remember': The Open Society Archives

A satellite map pinpoints the site of a mass grave in Bosnia, Nazi soldiers goosestep through blaring propaganda films from the 1930s, a faded color snapshot shows an ordinary family celebrating a birthday in 1989, before communism fell in Hungary. Housed in the center of Budapest, these images along with hundreds of thousands of photographs, films and documents, bear witness to the last century in the less fortunate parts of the world.

A walk through the building of the Open Society Archives is haunting. Leathery corpses in a pit, a black and white snapshot may be all that remains of a victim of World War II, Soviet tanks train their guns on pedestrians in Budapest.

The archives keep our memories from fading. What is most striking about Istvan Rev, the director of the Archives, who stands as sentinel over this vast collection, is his mastery of memory. His role is safeguarding evidence from some of the most horrific events that have shaped the past decades. Trying to make sense of our collective recollections, he told me how "we are in part what we remember, and we are in part our past."

There is a tendency to forget the lessons of history. Or to reinvent it, shaping events to serve your own version of the truth. After the memory is gone, people can forget to check or ignore the facts and history becomes almost impossible to figure out.

With the rise of extremism, whether in Hungary, Greece or elsewhere, it is worth taking a moment to see where we have been and to find meaning in revisiting the traces of history.
As Istvan Rev said: the past "hovers above our heads, the fact that something happened already is not a guarantee against its' return."

When we don't see the footprints of time, and forget the battles that were waged, and the people whose lives were lost, then we have no understanding of ourselves. The Archives help us to make sense of the events of the past and perhaps will help influence our future.