In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Europe was in chaos. Cities had been destroyed. Millions of people had been murdered by the Nazis and their cohorts and millions of soldiers and resistance fighters fell in battle.
Some survivors went back to their hometowns, only to discover that there was no trace of the families from whom they had been separated.
Those who knew of relatives in countries in the free world, and remembered or were able to obtain their addresses, usually headed for wherever they could find the closest family. And just as survivors sought relatives, so individuals and whole families, who lived in countries outside of Europe, began to frantically search for European kin who might have survived.
In an attempt to centralize these efforts, in 1945 the Jewish Agency set up the Search Bureau for Missing Relatives. Not only did the the bureau deal with thousands of letters of inquiry, but it also conducted a program on Israel Radio that was aired almost daily at 1:15 p.m.
Over the course of time, the bureau was reduced to a one-woman operation. For 30 years it was run by Lithuanian-born Batya Unterschatz, who came to Israel from her native Vilnius in 1971, and almost immediately began working in the search bureau.
Unterschatz became a legend in Jewish genealogy worldwide due to her ability to locate people living in Israel, often starting with only the smallest scrap of information. Her success was based to a large extent on her extraordinary knowledge of how surnames change and of the interchangeability of certain letters of the alphabet.
There were many cases in which people thought they were the sole survivors of their families, but thanks to the conscientious efforts of Unterschatz, they discovered relatives.
The radio program, which had had an extraordinarily high rating, was taken off the air in the 1970s, but was restored in 2000 by Yaron Enosh, and is broadcast from Sunday to Thursday at 4:45 p.m.
Enosh revived the program because his daughter was doing a "roots project" at school. His own parents were Polish, but never spoke of the past. He decided that since he had a radio microphone at his disposal, the best way to help his daughter would be to broadcast a request.
Within two days there were 10,000 replies, leaving no doubt in his mind that the search program had to be revived. Now, 10 years later, 30-150 letters still arrive daily. Requests include letters from international lawyers dealing with legacies, trying ascertain if certain people who would be entitled to inherit are still alive.
According to Ben-Gurion University masters student Tehilla Malka, who is researching the buraeu, it is impossible to estimate the huge impact of the program on the Israeli public. The radio alternatives that exist today did not exist then.
When Malka mentions the program to her colleagues, everyone remembers it. In her opinion it has become part of Israel's collective memory, because being connected to the program was not just a matter of tuning into the radio at a particular time and sitting silently around a table to catch familiar names, but it was also advertised on movie screens and mentioned in newspapers.
Encouraged by Holocaust scholar Prof. Hannah Yablonka of BGU's Department of History, Malka embarked on her research to discover how much the program has been part of day-to-day Israeli life over time, and to what extent it has actually helped survivors reunite with relatives in Israel and abroad.
"I'm very interested in people's personal stories," she told The Jerusalem Post. "Not enough is known about them by the Israeli public, and I want to fill that vacuum."
Like many Holocaust researchers, Malka has a strong personal connection to the subject. Her great-grandfather was one of the first people to be murdered in Auschwitz and her grandfather was a doctor in the French Army who helped liberate the camps.
Even though there are numerous search options available on the Internet, most importantly the Yad Vashem archives, Enosh attributes the popularity of the revived program to the fact that despite the advantages of technology, people are in need of human contact.
People want to hear a human voice, he said, and they want the relatives for whom they are searching to hear their voices.
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