Vast Holocaust database goes online
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Vast Holocaust database goes online

Nearly 20 million records are made available in act of ‘collective responsibility’, writes Stephen Oryszczuk

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Symcha Fiszel ITS Passenger List (Handout)
Symcha Fiszel ITS Passenger List (Handout)

A vast philanthropic initiative to digitise and make searchable almost 20 million records relating to the Holocaust and Nazi persecution was completed this week, with the resulting database made available to use for free.

The project, years in the making, is a collaboration between American film director Steven Spielberg’s USC (University of Southern California) Shoah Foundation, Unesco’s Arolsen Archives Collection and the family tree search company Ancestry.

Between them they have hundreds of millions of records, including many images, and the resulting database is fully searchable using either first name, last name, date of birth, country of origin, camp confinement, date of death and relatives. The records are now available globally and in perpetuity.

The project came about after the Arolsen Archives, which holds the world’s most comprehensive Unesco-protected database, containing more than 30 million documents on Nazi victims, gave Ancestry “unprecedented access” to its vault. The firm, which helps people to trace relatives, was then able to use its advanced technology to digitise millions of names and other information.

The collection now has an additional nine million digital records from the French, British and Soviet zones of occupation. Archive director Floriane Azoulay said the partnership was “bringing visibility” to its reams of data.

“The ongoing digitisation provides families of survivors and the general public access to discover invaluable documents and records to better understand their relatives’ fate,” said Azoulay, as partners reflected on the project’s timeliness.

Ancestry’s president Margo Georgiadis said: “The Holocaust was a shaping event for several generations, but its impact is in danger of being lost. Recent research shows that 66 percent of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was. We have a collective responsibility to those who came before us to preserve this history so future generations can learn from the powerful moments of our past.”

In addition, Ancestry and the Foundation said they would be publishing an index to nearly 50,000 Jewish Holocaust survivor testimonies that contain information on more than 600,000 additional relatives and others found in survivor questionnaires.

The testimonies come from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive (VHA), the largest digital collection of its kind in the world, which encompasses 115,000 hours of video testimony. Spielberg founded it to record and preserve interviews with survivors and other witnesses.

Described as “an invaluable resource for humanity”, where testimonies contain complete personal histories of life before, during, and after the interviewee’s first-hand experience with genocide, the VHA is digitised, searchable and hyperlinked. “This allows students, professors, researchers and others around the world to retrieve entire testimonies or search for specific sections within testimonies through a set of 65,600 keywords and key phrases, 1.95 million names, and 719,000 images,” said a Foundation spokeswoman.

Initially a repository of Holocaust testimony, the VHA has expanded to include testimonies from the Armenian genocide during the First World War, the 1937 Nanjing massacre in China, the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79, the Guatemalan genocide of 1978-83, and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

It also includes testimonies from survivors of more recent conflicts, including the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by the country’s military, as well as contemporary accounts of violence against Jews.

USC Shoah Foundation director Dr Stephen Smith said: “Partnering with Ancestry ultimately enables more individuals to explore the life histories of nearly 50,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust collected by thousands of interviewers, videographers, and other volunteers and supporters since our founding in 1994.

“We are grateful that Ancestry is providing access to this initial set of metadata and enhancing the discoverability of our archive and this critically important history.”

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “Survivors of the Holocaust were often the only survivors of their villages, towns and in some cases, entire communities… The launch of this invaluable resource will allow survivors and their families to find out what happened to their loved ones.”

Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said: “We’re delighted that these records are being made freely available. Open access to historical archives will aid the fight against Holocaust denial, challenging revisionism with solid, accurate records.”

υ Both collections can be searched for free at ancestry.com/alwaysremember

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