Lest We Forget – Shoah Research

By:  Carolyn L. Barkley

I recently completed a client project which included information about the author’s family members from the Kovno area of Lithuania who died during the Holocaust of 1933-1945. In several instances, the author was able to document the ultimate fate of his relatives using resources – new to me – termed “Shoah documents” by the author, but actually “Pages of Testimony” submitted to the Yad Vashem organization by a survivor or acquaintance of an individual. These records are essential in tracing one’s ancestors if it is possible that they may have been caught up in the enormity of the death or disappearance of entire families and communities that occurred during that twelve-year period. As these resources may be unknown to many researchers, this article shares several opportunities to access their contents.

Shoah is the Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe” and is used to refer to the Holocaust of the World War II era. The term is becoming more widely used outside of Israel, where the Knesset previously designated the 27th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan (the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising) as Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), an official day of commemoration. In 2010, Yom ha-Shoah falls on Sunday, 11 April. (When the actual date falls on a Sunday, it is observed on the following Monday.)

Three major repositories offer access to information about Shoah victims and, in some cases, survivors:

1.  Yad Vashem. Located in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, was established in 1953 as the “world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust.” It remains committed to what it terms the “four pillars of remembrance: commemoration, documentation, research, and education.” In partnership with other organizations, it has collected and recorded names and biographical information for approximately half of the six million Jews who perished.

This site provides access to “The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.” Entering the name Shmuel Girshowitz and his location (Kovno), I was able to retrieve a page of testimony submitted by his son Nekhemia in 1955. The page was translated into English from Hebrew, but the original image was accessible to the left of the translated information. From this page of testimony, I learned variant spellings of both the individual’s given name (Szmuel, Shmuel) and surname (Girszowitz, Girshovitz), his father’s given name (Ber), his mother’s first name (Badana/Bohdana), his date of birth (1862), his place of birth (Kelm, Raseiniai, Lithuania), his spouse’s given name (Roza) and surname (Epshtein), his permanent residence (Wilna, Poland), his profession (merchant), his place during the war (Kovno), his place of death (Kovno Ghetto), date of death (1943), and the name and relationship of the individual providing the information. What a wealth of information this record provides for someone searching for Shmuel Girshowitz! Similar information is provided for Naphtali Vaintraub (Waintraub), who was born in 1878 in Kovno where he died in 1943. He was a textile merchant and his wife’s given name was Friedel (Frida). This testimony was provided in 1957 by Zahava Saker, an acquaintance.

A good rule of thumb would be to analyze the relationship between the individual providing the information and the person(s) to whom it refers. Like death certificates, the closer the relationship, the more accurate the data may be. As seen in the Vaintraub entry, the “informant” is unable to provide Friedel’s maiden name.

Be sure to check out other sections of this easy-to-use site in order to search for possible photographs (my search for Kovno yielded over 1000 photographs), access user guides, search library collections (a keyword search for Kovno yielded 263 resources), and explore the various educational opportunities provided. If you are aware of a Holocaust victim who has not been included in the database, you may submit pages of testimony (forms are available in Hebrew, English, Russian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Hungarian, Dutch and Yiddish) and send related photographs. In addition, survivors’ registration forms are also available.

2. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).  This museum, dedicated in 1993, is located in Washington, D.C. Its web site is described as “the world’s leading online authority on the Holocaust.” The Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies promotes research into the ever-growing body of Holocaust resources.

I found the Museum’s web site more difficult to use and less rewarding than the Yad Vashem site. The USHMM offers access to a Name List Catalog. Please be aware that searching this catalog does not immediately provide specific information about an individual, nor is it a comprehensive listing. None of the specific names I entered (even just surnames) provided matches. In addition, the online version contains only a small portion of the names that are available in the version used at the museum.

My research was most productive when I searched first for a specific geographic location such as, Kovno. That geographic search yielded a list of 111 names, but I was unable to locate either of the Girshowitz or Vaintraub individuals whom I was using as examples. I did, however, locate an entry for a Sophie Hirschovitz (a variant spelling of Girshowitz), who was born in Kovno on 15 December 1884 and who died on 25 January 1944. The entry indicated that the information came from a list of Jews born in Russia who were deported from France to Nazi camps between 1942 and 1945 and provided additional source information as well. When I checked for Sophie at the Yad Vashem site, I found additional information from the same list of deportees (but no Page of Testimony) indicating that she was transported from Drancy (an internment camp outside of Paris) to Auschwitz on 20 January 1944, only five days before her death. In addition, the title page of the list was available in digitized format on the site. From my limited search on the USHMM site, it appeared to be a useful locator, but its partner site, Yad Vashem, would be my first choice in searching for Shoah information about an individual.

The USHMM also provides information about the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors that “honors as survivors any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945. In addition to former inmates of concentration camps, ghettos, and prisons, this definition includes, among others, people who were refugees or were in hiding.” Inclusion in this list is voluntary and focuses on those individuals who survived the Holocaust and who came to the United States after World War II. Registration forms are available online. One of the specific goals of the registry is to assist survivors and their families to trace missing relatives and the registry may be visited on the second floor of the Museum where the database can be accessed.

3.  The International Tracing Service. The International Tracing Service (ITS), located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is an “internationally governed archive which is tasked to document the fate of millions of civilian victims of Nazi Germany.” Its collection includes “original records from concentration camps, details of forced labour, and files on displaced persons.” Formed in 1943 to find missing persons, it operates under administrative oversight by the International Committee of the Red Cross and is funded by the German government. Its archives have been accessible to researchers since late 2007. In addition, the USHMM provides access to the International Tracing Service Archives and has been providing archival information to survivors and/or their families since 2008. Further information about how to access this information is available both at the USHMM site and the ITS site.

Genealogical research into families affected by Shoah events will be difficult, but careful research in such locations as those described above may locate much-needed information.

Other Shoah resources include CyndisList which provides a Holocaust section under the heading of Military-World War II. Of particular interest to researchers is Gary Mokotoff’s How to Document Victims and Locate Survivors of the Holocaust (Avotaynu, 1995). In addition, you will also want to refer to Dan Rottenberg’s Finding Our Fathers: a Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1977, reprinted 1998) and the three-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, edited by Shmuel Spector and Geoffrey Wigoder, and published in conjunction with Yad Vashem.

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