As a child, Beth Rosen heard stories of her father’s first cousin Mary, who jumped off a transport train and survived the Holocaust by pretending she was Catholic. Rosen had written a young adult novel based on Mary’s experiences, and she hoped to visit Mary’s gravestone in Toronto, but she knew that she wouldn’t be able to find the gravestone without further information about Mary.
She emailed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in May with just Mary’s maiden name and year and place of birth. In two days, she received 28 documents from Mary’s past. Among these documents, Rosen found the birth certificate of Mary’s older son, Richard Czerwinski, which stated that he had been born in a DP camp in 1946. Rosen had heard from a relative that Mary had two sons, but she hadn’t known any more than that until seeing the documentation.
After some online searching, Rosen was able to find a phone number for Richard, and she immediately gave him a call. “I told him who I thought I was, and I got lucky. We found each other,” she said. This summer, they met for the first time in Toronto, and they visited Mary’s grave together.
Iris Tzafrir made a similar discovery after she sent a request to the museum in October of 2013, looking for information about her father’s family members. A few weeks later, the museum provided her with documentation that showed that her father’s sister, Schiendel Lea Erlich, had survived the Holocaust. Tzafrir’s father had always said that his sister disappeared one day while the family was living in the Krakow ghetto, and the family had assumed that she hadn’t survived.
This discovery was bittersweet; Erlich had been living just a two-hour drive away from where Tzafrir’s father lives in Israel, but she died in 1974 and the two had never met. Tzafrir and her family, though, were able to connect with Erlich’s two children. They met for the first time in November 2013, and Tzafrir says that the cousins she never knew she had have now become a part of the family. “We talk on the phone, we talk on Skype… every family event, we’re together,” she said.
Facilitating connections like these is the job of the museum’s International Tracing Service (ITS) researchers. Holocaust survivors and their family members contact the museum on a nearly daily basis with queries about relatives, and sometimes using nothing more than a first or last name, the ITS researchers try to find documents that will shed light on the experiences of these Holocaust victims.
It is perhaps not surprising that ITS researcher Sara-Joelle Clark and some of her colleagues grew up reading detective novels. “We have that kind of personality where we’re just not going to stop until we find something,” she said.
Much of the museum’s information comes from the ITS archive, established by the Allies after World War II to help reunite families and trace missing people. The archive, located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, includes millions of pages of documentation from Word War II. It was kept closed until 2007, when, with help from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it was opened to the international community. Now, 11 nations have access to copies of the archive, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum holds the U.S. copy.
The museum has received requests, both online and in person, from across the U.S. and nearly 75 countries around the world. Free of charge, the museum’s researchers scour their own collections as well as the ITS archive in search of relevant documents. Each case is different, and the number of documents retrieved for a given case has ranged from one to more than 250.
While a reunion with living relatives is the best possible outcome of the research, acquiring previously unknown information about the experiences of Holocaust victims is often equally important to requesters, and the museum takes this obligation seriously. “This is much more than genealogy… this is reconstructing the path of persecution of a person,” said Diane Afoumado, chief of ITS research at the museum. “My staff and I talk about those documents in terms of human lives and individuals, because we don’t see archival material; we see people’s lives behind this.”
There is still more work to be done, and a new initiative offers those interested the chance to help make the entire archive accessible—and searchable—online. The World Memory Project, a crowd-sourcing effort launched by the museum in partnership with Ancestry.com, allows any internet user to view digital copies of the museum’s records and input the information into a database that will ultimately be available, for free, on Ancestry.com. Hopefully, this will mean more stories like those of Beth Rosen and Iris Tzafrir.
Isabel Fattal, a former intern at Tablet Magazine, attends Wesleyan University.