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(photo credit: Illustrative photo, Ariel Jerozolimski)
In recent months, researchers working with Yad Vashem's Shoah Victims' Names online database have uncovered some miraculous connection stories.
Whether it is Trisher Wilson's connecting living cousins who last saw each other six decades ago, or Dr. Adam Smith's discovery of an entire "lost" branch of his tree just in time for a family reunion in Israel or numerous other cases - the results were due to researchers finding one or more important Pages of Testimony, tracking down submitters and making contact.
The five-branched Jewish Family Research Association Israel (JFRA Israel), one of two Jewish genealogy societies in Israel, has been working on a volunteer project since members began reporting chance meetings with community seniors - even survivors - who had never completed Pages of Testimony.
JFRA's president, Ingrid Rockberger of Ra'anana, decided that the organization had to step in and assist seniors to complete the forms. In May, the group invited Yad Vashems' outreach manager Cynthia Wroclawski to speak on the Shoah Victim's Names Recovery Project to some 20 JFRA volunteers at Rockberger's home. Wroclawski demonstrated the database, its contents and how to complete the forms.
"We work with many volunteer organizations and groups in Israel and around the world," says Wroclawski. "My presentation in Ra'anana stands out. There was an intense energy in the room - the group was entirely focused and prepared to take on this project. I received wonderfully positive feedback, and continue to be inspired by the members of this group who are actively pursuing the project by assisting in efforts to collect as many Pages of Testimony as possible from community residents."
Wroclawski added that Yad Vashem has always had a special relationship with Jewish genealogical societies whose members are frequent users of the archives and databases. When the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names (www.yadvashem.org.il) was uploaded in November 2004, Yad Vashem was flooded with queries and comments - particularly from the international Jewish genealogical community.
"As outreach manager for this historical project, it was clear that the genealogical community, perhaps more than any other, would have a unique contribution to make to the national effort to memorialize each Jew that perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators," Wroclawski explains.
Rockberger and her committee developed lists of retirement communities and nursing homes, and planned for volunteers to meet one-on-one with residents and help them to complete the Pages.
In August, JFRA Rehovot volunteers Adeerah Meyers and Tirtsa Cohen visited the Neve Amit senior home. "The interesting part was how very pleased the residents were - almost grateful - that someone was taking all this down," says Meyers, a new JFRA Rehovot member who made aliya from Melbourne, Australia, some 50 years ago. "I'd certainly be interested in doing it again."
Meyers, a high-school teacher for most of her career, noted a similar testimony-collecting project in Melbourne.
UK-born and a JFRA Rehovot member since its inception three years ago, Cohen said: "I spent close to two hours with only one Polish lady. She had so many close relatives to commemorate that it was heartbreaking: grandfather, parents, sisters and brother, and then she was too tired to continue. I hadn't actually realized beforehand just how important this work is, and am ready to volunteer again if needed."
An interesting coincidence, said JFRA Rehovot chair Linda Geffon, was that although Cohen and Meyers are friends, neither knew the other had volunteered until she told them.
The Ra'anana branch's September visit to Herzliya's Beth Protea was very encouraging. Wroclawski spoke initially to a full house at the residence founded by the South African community. Residents who wished to complete Pages made appointments with the social worker and JFRA volunteers met individually with residents.
Rockberger, Ora Leshem, Trisher Wilson and Chava Sella worked with 10 residents in the computer room or in the rooms of those residents with internet connections. "We first checked that provided names were not already in the database," said Rockberger. "Our mission was not to duplicate names already there, but to document additional individuals."
In one case, she added, a resident gave many names - most were in the database - but the resident also knew the names of children of some who had perished; this was new information. Over two days, 10 residents met with JFRA volunteers, resulting in some 130 new Pages of Testimony and many photographs of victims to add to Pages.
"One woman and her daughter provided more than 30 additional names and many photographs of individuals which will be attached to the newly submitted Pages," said former Londoner Rockberger, a 26-year Ra'anana resident.
Kenya-raised Tel Aviv resident Leshem said the people she interviewed were exceptionally interesting in themselves, with roots in Scandinavia, Rhodes, Germany, Kenya and Lithuania. "Although many names provided were in the database, there were new names to be registered." She plans to involve a friend from Kenya, now living in London, to work with former Kenyans there to complete Pages of Testimony.
Wilson, a researcher who has reunited numerous Holocaust survivors with family using Yad Vashem's databases, is from London and a 14-year Ra'anana resident. She pointed out several important incidents resulting from the sessions. "In one case, I was presented with a 16-name list," said Wilson. "The volunteer's first job is to check the Yad Vashem database to ensure Pages have not already been entered and to avoid duplication. All the names, except one, were in the database, and that was not a Page but information from a concentration camp record."
In previous sessions, volunteers have asked relatives to fill out Pages for those listed in other Yad Vashem databases, such as camp records. In some cases, people have done so. At other times, no amount of persuasion could sway relatives who felt that having the name in the database - even in a camp record - was sufficient. Wilson stresses that volunteers cannot insist that someone submit a Page of Testimony; each case is individual.
Additionally, says Wilson, unintentional mistakes are evident, as she found when she searched the database for a woman who wanted to know if her elderly father had completed any Pages for his family. "I confirmed that her father had not submitted information, but his brother had - 36 pages in total. However, her father's name appeared on my screen - not a Page of Testimony but a card file of Mauthausen camp inmates. The English translation said, 'Perished in the Shoah.' Both Wilson, the daughter and her father were surprised, as he was alive and well.
Wilson immediately contacted Yad Vashem; amendments are expected to the webpage and internal records, and she suggested that more specific wording be used: "Possibly perished in the Shoah." She recommends that survivors check their own names in the database. "It is possible that someone has been or is searching for you and the wrong information might have been conveyed."
"As documentation is not always full or 100 percent accurate, there may be rare cases where names of survivors appear, inadvertently, in the Victims' Database," Wroclawski pointed out. "We apologize and when notified, the survivors' names are removed and transferred to our Survivors' Registry - a work still in progress. In the cases where the submitter of a Page of Testimony declared the individual to have perished - it is clear that due to the tragic circumstances of the war and its aftermath, families and others are not 100% sure whether their loved ones perished."
The first 800,000 one-page forms were collected in the 1950s, the rest since then. Currently, the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names contains more than three million names, including two million from scanned Pages of Testimony and another million retrieved from archives and other sources. Pages are in some 20 languages. Yad Vashem's worldwide campaign is aimed at making a final effort to commemorate the life of every victim of the Holocaust through a Page of Testimony for each person.
This project's essential purpose is summarized in a quote on the database's home page, said Rockberger: David Berger, in his last letter from Vilna in 1941, wrote, "â€¦ I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger."
Readers who would like to volunteer with this project may contact Rockberger via email firstname.lastname@example.org, or Wroclawski at email@example.com or call (02) 644-3470.
For more information, visit Yad Vashem's web site at www.yadvashem.co.il or see the Community Outreach Guide, www1.yadvashem.org/names/whyCollect.htm.
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