09 May 2008

Eyewitness: Bad Arolsen, Jewish genealogists

The best-made plans of mice and men - the mice won this round!

I had big plans this month. I had planned to blog from the just-concluded Who Do You Think You Are? Live genealogy fair (May 2-4) in London, and also to participate in a a first-ever Jewish genealogists' trip (May 4-9) to Bad Arolsen, Germany, to work directly with records at the recently-opened ITC Holocaust archives.

Unfortunately, because of family illness, I had to cancel both trips with sincere regrets.

The AP story on the first-ever professional genealogists' trip to Bad Arolsen is here

The story quotes Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Sack, who arranged the trip, as well as some of the other researchers from the US, the UK Israel, Australia.

BAD AROLSEN, Germany - A mother and child separated. A father's war wound. An uncle's name on a list.

The unrelated and disparate items are among the discoveries made by 40 Jewish genealogists who spent the past week plumbing a trove of Nazi documents made public after 60 years.

For genealogists of Jewish families, the Holocaust is both a tragedy and a black hole, because so many of the 6 million Jewish victims disappeared without a trace. For years, researchers hoping to fill the gaps have longed to dive into the more than 50 million documents held in this German spa town and entrusted to the International Tracing Service, or ITS.

"The Nazis took away our names and gave us numbers. Our role is to take away the numbers and give back the names," Gary Mokotoff, a genealogist who helped organize the group from Israel, the U.S., Britain and Australia, said Thursday. "There is a wealth of information here."

For decades after World War II, the files were used only to help find missing persons or document atrocities to support compensation claims. But in November, the last of the 11 countries that govern the archive under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross cleared the way for public access.

The archive's deputy director Erich Oetiker says the staff of 400 processes some 1,000 tracing requests each day, and there are now almost daily visits from historians or individuals who want to trace someone's fate or view an original document.

American genealogist Sallyann Sack suspected for years that the collection held answers to questions about her family.

In the 1980s, she put in a request trying to trace the birth parents of her adopted cousin, who had survived Buchenwald as a 9-year-old boy, then been brought by her aunt and uncle to the United States. A form letter came back saying the search had turned up nothing.

But digging deeper during her time here, Sack was able to cross-reference the birth mother's second given name and access records of search requests made to the ITS since it opened in 1955 — often detailed letters by individuals who reveal nuggets of family history while seeking a missing loved one.

"I found here that his mother, who was separated from him when he was less than five years old, also had survived," she said. "She came to the U.S. in the same year that he did, in 1949." The mother, if alive, would be 93 and Sack presumes she is dead. The cousin is in his 70s and still alive, but Sack asked not to identify him.

"They never found each other," Sack said of her cousin and his mother, her voice breaking. "If these records had been opened earlier, they might have found each other. I could have found those documents 20 years ago, when she was still alive."

The USHMM in Washington, DC has compiled a list of more than 150 German terms with English translation to help researchers understand the documents. There is a link below to that list.

Tom Weiss of Newton, Mass., found his uncle's name on a yellowing Gestapo list of Jews arrested in France.

"When you see his name on these original lists it has an emotional impact," he said. "It sent chills down my back."

Esther Mandelayl, an American who immigrated to Israel two years ago, wanted to see what she could find. Her parents survived but her late father never talked about his experiences or the scar on his neck.

But her unusual family name came up on an index card from a displaced persons camp in Italy. It contained detailed information about her father. "It listed every place he had been," she said — from Russia, to Tashkent, to surviving a shot to his neck by the Nazis by falling into a cellar and being left for dead.

She said she could barely believe it: "I have every answer to all my questions about my father's story — the scar, everything."

Read the complete story here.

The AP story was written by Melissa Eddy and Associated Press investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to the report.

There are also links to additional internet resources:

International Tracing Service

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Yad Vashem

Institute of National Remembrance

Glossary of terms to interpret documents

Click here for more information on the trip on the ITS website.

And for three pictures of participants (Gary Mokotoff, Sallyann Sack and Valery Bazarov), click here, here and here.

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