NEW YORK — Two years and some change ago, Allan Brauner’s search for documents about his mother’s time at Auschwitz led him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
With a museum researcher’s help, Brauner found a factory workers’ list bearing her name and the names of some of the Polish women with whom she worked sewing German army uniforms.
Enthralled by the list, Brauner became eager to turn up more documents. For him, seeing the names of his mother and the people with whom she’d worked was a revelation.
"Each of these people had a name,” he said. “If I’m able to give life to a name, it’s, from my perspective, a huge thing.”
Shortly before Brauner’s trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the collection had launched the World Memory Project in collaboration with Ancestry.com. The goal is to index as many records from the museum’s archive as possible, in the hopes of helping identify individuals and reconnecting loved ones.
Brauner loved the idea of the World Memory Project and approached his children’s high school principal with the idea of assigning all 600 students in the school 10 records to index. The students concentrated principally on a set of ID cards for Polish citizens, which include the person’s name, other pertinent details, and a portrait.
What better way to teach students about Holocaust history than through engaging with primary sources, he thought? And adding 600 students to Ancestry’s volunteer database for this project would help the project too.
The still-ongoing World Memory Project launched a few months before Brauner’s search had taken him from New Jersey to DC. With the help of Ancestry.com, its platform, and its army of more than 3,200 volunteer transcribers, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is beginning to digitize documents from their archives and publish the information online.
Though Ancestry.com is a paid service, the transcripts of Holocaust Memorial Museum’s documents are available to everyone for free. Because the museum has deals with some collections restricting the publication of materials, images of the documents are not archived and searchable at Ancestry.com. The documents are available upon request.
Anyone can volunteer to index scanned documents, and both the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Ancestry.com are eager for all the help they can get. It’s as simple as downloading a piece of software and receiving a set of images to transcribe.
Ancestry.com and the World Memory Project are attracting volunteers from all over the world, more than 160 countries. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have the most volunteers. Israel is sixth on the list.
In the three years since the World Memory Project began, 2.65 million documents have been indexed, according to Ancestry.com. With a total of just over 3200 volunteers, the average number of documents transcribed per volunteer is over 800.
But that’s only scratching the surface. The Holocaust Memorial Museum’s archive is so vast officials don’t have an accurate count of their documents, said director of the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center Neal Guthrie. Ancestry.com anticipates and is prepared for this project to continue indefinitely.
Over the course of last school year, beginning September 2013, 600 students indexed 6,000 documents, according to Brauner. Though his children have since graduated, Brauner hopes the program will continue into the future.
“The [ID] cards were sitting in a basement moldering, now these people are giving them some life,” Brauner said. “It’s something to read a book. It’s another thing to look in someone’s eyes and say, this was a person.”