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.
Photographs of Holocaust victims are displayed in the Hall of Names, part of Yad Vashem's new Holocaust History Museum scheduled to open in Jerusalem in March. The hall is the repository of millions of pages of testimony about Holocaust victims submitted over the past 50 years. Names and information can now be submitted online as well.
(Sasson Tiram -- Yad Vashem)
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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.orginto 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.