Database Project Eventually Will Document Most of the 6 Million Jews Killed in the Holocaust
The lives of thousands of Holocaust victims are coming to light in a new database that allows anyone with an Internet connection to research the fate of family members and friends sent to Nazi death camps.
More than 3 million names are included in the digital archive, which was launched last month by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust center in Jerusalem. The ultimate goal is to have most or all of the estimated 6 million Jews who were executed, Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem’s directorate, said in a telephone interview from Israel.
Until now, family members and friends who contributed the names of victims did so by submitting forms called testimonies and mailing or delivered them to Yad Vashem, which has collected biographies, journals, photographs, letters and other documents since the 1950s.
With the introduction of the $22 million database, contributors can sit down at a computer, type the address www.yadvashem.org into a Web browser, enter the database and click on “submit new pages of testimony.” Up comes a form for the victim’s name or names, place of birth, profession, wartime “travails” (deportation, ghetto, camp, death march, hiding, escape, resistance), approximate age at death and other details.
Those looking for people already on the list use the sophisticated search engine to comb through millions of pages of information by entering the person’s first or last name, including hundreds of variants: birth date, country of residence, names of other family members and the submitter’s name.
Each of the testimonies “stands in lieu of a tombstone that doesn’t exist,” said Sallyann Sack, a Bethesda psychologist who founded the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington 24 years ago and is editor of Avotaynu, an international journal of Jewish genealogy.
Sack said it is the equivalent of giving an identity to thousands of men, women and children who died nameless, often placed in mass graves, or no graves at all, and whose destinies could only be guessed at by relatives who eluded the death trains by hiding or escaping to other countries.
Two-thirds of the names were obtained from testimonies submitted to Yad Vashem since the 1950s, most of them scanned into computers and digitally categorized over a six months in 1999, Shalev said. About 1,000 people, most of them college students in Jerusalem, worked in two shifts to record the documents.
The remaining 1 million names were gleaned from other computerized lists, including deportation, camp and ghetto records.
When possible, biographical information is cross-checked with other documents, including ship registries and postwar accounts written by survivors, Shalev said. Fact-checkers also examine testimonies for historical probability, such as location of execution sites based on a person’s country of birth, and look for possible duplications.
Although submitters occasionally provide incorrect details because of the complexity of events and circumstances surrounding the Holocaust, Shalev said, he knows of no cases of deliberate misrepresentation.
The database, which can be accessed in English or Hebrew and is free of charge, is unprecedented in scope and availability of information, said Barbara Vines Little, president of the Arlington-based National Genealogical Society.
“This is a unique collection [of a kind] that does not exist on any other level,” she said. “Individuals will be able to use this information to connect to living family members that they did not know existed and to rebuild families about which they knew little or nothing.”
One of the early users was Jerry Zeisler, a 50-year-old business consultant from Leesburg who logged on within hours of the launch Nov. 22 to search for members of his mother’s family. He and his sister, Bonnie Frederics of Tucson, worked simultaneously while e-mailing each other.
Among the testimonies they found were those of Zlata Adelson, a great-grandmother of theirs who was born in Butrimantz (Butrimonys), Lithuania, in 1879, and Benzion Adelson, her son born in 1911. Zeisler and Frederics knew that Zlata and Benzion had died in 1941 because they were listed in a postwar account of the Jews of Butrimantz — one of many such books, called yizkor, written by survivors who wanted to chronicle the lives of those who had died.
They also hit upon a surprise: The person who submitted the victims’ names, in 1955, was Reuven Adelson, another son whom surviving family members assumed had died in the Shoah with his mother and brother. Reuven was pictured with Benzion in the yizkor book but was not among those listed as killed in 1941.
According to the database, Reuven had left Lithuania in 1939, apparently for Palestine. So Zeisler and Frederics got in touch with Elizabeth Levy, a genealogist they met on another Web site who lives in Israel. Levy called the Edelsons listed in the telephone white pages, and one turned out to be Reuven’s widow, who told her she has three grown children and a grandchild in Israel.
Reuven died in 1975 in an automobile accident, never having again seen his sister — Zeisler’s grandmother — and other family members who immigrated to the United States, despite having made efforts to do so.
“This puts closure on one chapter and opens up another with cousins in Israel we knew nothing about,” Zeisler said. “It’s been very, very exciting.”
Shalev, 65, said that most of his family died in Polish death camps and that he has made every effort to ensure that all are included in the database. But there are some holes, including the name of one of his father’s nieces who was killed. Those who could have provided her name are dead.
That’s the biggest challenge the project faces, uncovering more details from Holocaust survivors who have avoided talking about the horror all their lives, he said. Soon the last of the survivors will be gone, and so too the memories of others who were killed.
“We know for sure there are still thousands of Jewish families, and some non-Jewish families, who know something about somebody who died in the Shoah,” he said. “We must convince them to come forward.”
Photo of Reuven Adelson reprinted from “If I Forget Thee . . . The destruction of the shtetl Butrimantz” (Remembrance Books, Washington, D.C).
Database Facts and Figures
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust center in Jerusalem, launched the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names on Nov. 22.
Since then, more than 2.5 million visitors have logged on to Yad Vashem’s Web site — 25 times as many as in comparable periods before the kickoff. They have come from 162 countries: 39 percent from Israel, 33 percent from North America, 24 percent from Europe and 4 percent from other parts of the world.
Here are other facts about the database at www.yadvashem.org, which is available in English and Hebrew and includes more than 3 million brief biographies of Holocaust victims:
• 2 million names come from testimonies in more than a dozen languages collected by Yad Vashem since 1955. About 100,000 testimonies (5 percent) include photographs provided by family members, friends and local historians.
• 1 million names were derived from other archival sources, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and names-collecting projects in different countries.
• The database includes 1,260,256 Jews from Poland; 225,284 from Germany; 198,189 from the former Soviet Union (1938 borders); 163,628 from Romania; 124,591 from Czechoslovakia; and 100,000 from the Netherlands. Many victims’ origins are unknown.
• 51 percent are male and 49 percent are female.
• About 460,000 are 17 or younger. Many listings have no age or date of birth.
• The most common last names, including variants, are Cohen, with 55,069 occurrences; Levi, 26,405; Weiss, 22,357; Schwarz, 20,389; and Friedman, 18,737.
• The most common first names, including variants, are Yaakov, with 110,632 occurrences; Moshe, 88,550; Rachel, 88,260; Chana, 86,527; and Sarah, 85,083. Other frequently used names include Avraham, 71,634, and David, 49,159.
• The most common occupations are housewife, 275,764; merchant, 199,609; student, 95,067; tailor, 40,800; and dressmaker, 39,205. Others include doctor, 15,832; industrialist, 2,539; factory owner, 4,002; rabbi, 1,942; and grand Hasidic rabbi, 44.