TRACING HOLOCAUST VICTIMS
Jeanette R Rosenberg reveals the key reference sources for anyone investigating the fate of their Jewish family members during the Second World War
The roots of the Holocaust or Shoah, as it is also known, are long and deep. Massacres and pogroms were familiar themes across the centuries but the Holocaust was an entirely different level of persecution. It was also different in the degree to which the perpetrators documented their own actions. The extent of the Holocaust can be seen clearly in the maps you can find at bit.ly/Holocaustmaps and bit.ly/Yivopedia.
The election of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists in 1933 was the first main step in the process that led to the Holocaust. Initially, many laws and acts were introduced that affected the livelihoods of German Jews, such as their removal from the German Civil Service as well as other areas of public life and cultural activities, including orchestras and film making. More details can be found on www.theholocaust explained.org. Professional directories can be used to identify people who might have been Jewish by looking for anyone that suddenly left their profession in the early Nazi period. In Germany and Austria the middle names Sara and Israel were legally added to birth records of all Jews in the late 1930s.
The Nazi’s initial approach was to encourage Jews to emigrate and, indeed, many left for other countries in Europe or elsewhere. Despite moving, some were later engulfed in the Holocaust. Many reached the UK, USA and Canada but others could not gain entry to these destinations due to immigration policies, so ended up in unexpected places such as the Caribbean, South America, Shanghai and the Dominican Republic. Ordinary passenger lists and documentation from refugee organisations can help with tracing these refugees.
It wasn’t only Jewish people that were victims of the Holocaust, many other groups were also targeted on both racial and political grounds. Other persecuted groups included black Germans, LGBTQ individuals, physically and mentally disabled people, Roma and Sinti people (gypsies), Poles and other Slavic peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of political opposition groups. Hitler didn’t permit interracial relationships and many husbands and wives of German Jews were forced to choose between divorce or concentration camps. Many of those imprisoned died, as you can see on the Jewish Virtual Library bit.ly/JVLHolocaust
It wasn’t only Jewish people that were the victims of the Holocaust, many other groups were also targeted
Tracing Holocaust victims has always been difficult because, historically, the Holocaust archives were only opened to researchers for the purposes of finding missing people or to document atrocities for compensation claims. In 2008 a landmark agreement was reached to open the International Tracing Service (ITS) archives at Bad Arolsen in Germany ( www.its-arolsen.org/en.)
The ITS archives were created to help trace Holocaust victims and survivors, and to reunite families fragmented during the war. Source materials were initially collected from within post-war West Germany and later provided from other countries, institutions, museums and collections.
The archives hold 100 million pages of Holocaust-era documentation relating to the fates of more than 17.5 million people during and after the Second World War. Among them you’ll find camp records, transportation lists, forced labour documents and records of deaths and post-war displaced persons. Initially managed by the Red Cross, the archives are still governed by an international commission of 11 nations, including the UK. Each member of the international commission holds a single digital copy of the archives, which is kept at one designated location.
The UK copy, comprising over 15 terabytes of electronic data, was made available for research with the support of the British Government and is held at The Wiener Library in London. The American copy is held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ( www.ushmm.org) in downtown Washington DC and the Israeli copy is at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel ( www.yadvashem.org).
Searching the ITS archives is made easier with the help of a specialist researcher because the records are in 25 languages and most are entirely handwritten. Also, the digitised database was created from scanned images and although finding aids are being made and searchable information is being added to the computerised images, it’s a slow but ongoing process. The full archive isn’t available online but some small collections have become available recently at bit.ly/digicollsITS.
If you’re not a direct descendant of a Holocaust survivor, it’s best to send your query to the ITS archives in Germany. The Wiener Library, the UK holder of the archives, prioritises personal research for Holocaust survivors, refugees and their descendants. It also strongly promotes the ITS collections for academic research and Holocaust education through workshops and seminars. If you’re going to submit a search request, gather as much information about each individual you’re searching for, but especially their first and surnames, dates of birth (even if approximate) and their possible whereabouts during and after the War.
Given the shifting borders between countries during the Second World War, it can be especially hard to confirm particular locations, especially as the language used to name them often changed along with the borders. One book that’s a huge help when it comes to finding places is Where Once We Walked: A Guide to the Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust by Gary Mokotoff, Sallyann Sack and Alexander Sharon (Avotaynu Inc, 2002). It’s a gazetteer of towns and cities with Jewish populations in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries that were mostly or completely destroyed during the Holocaust. Covering over 23,500 towns in Central and Eastern Europe, it provides 17,500 alternate names of places before the First World War and also gives their Yiddish names.
Rescued archives and information for towns and cities that no longer have Jewish communities have tended to end up at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, in Israel ( cahjp.nli.org.il). Central
Archives staff can’t process external research requests even for a fee, so they advise visiting in person or sending a local researcher on your behalf.
Yizkor books are another very useful reference source. They are memorial volumes written by surviving members of Jewish communities (shtetls) destroyed during the Holocaust that provide community histories, names of Jewish leaders, events, stories, photos and recollections of the places. Many Yizkor books include necrologies – lists of people that died in the Holocaust. Most are written in the local language, Yiddish or Hebrew. Large collections of Yizkor books are held by both the British Library and in the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain library
Jewish people are corralled at gunpoint by Nazi stormtroopers during the destruction of Warsaw in 1943
The entrance to Auschwitz