Tag Archives: holocaust

Bring It Home

Today was Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in Israel. While there are many ways to commemorate the Holocaust, and those family members we lost, I wanted to bring to people’s attention a very interesting attempt at remembering those who were lost.

Menorah rescued from Budapest flea market, now being used in Israel.

We know the Nazis stole an incredible amount of artwork from Jewish families during the Holocaust, from valuable paintings, to even Judaica. While the Nazis were known to steal expensive Judaica such as gold menorahs or silver candlesticks, what happened to the everyday ritual items that most Jewish families used? Certainly the Nazis didn’t bother to collect cheap Judaica and send it by train somewhere – so where did it go?

Kiddush cup rescued from flea market.

Some of the Judaica might have been taken with Jews when being sent by trains to death camps, some may have been sold cheaply in an attempt to raise some money before fleeing, but most of it was likely left behind in their homes. What happened to the Judaica left behind? Either it was looted following the mass deportations, or the people who moved into the homes left behind by the Jews just took it when they moved in. Maybe they sold it, maybe they stuck it in a box and stuck it in the attic, maybe they just threw it in the garbage. No one knows exactly what happened to all of that Judaica, but we do know that there are likely millions of such ritual objects from candlesticks to menorahs to spice boxes to seder plates that once existed and many of them may still exist.

Which brings me to Bill Frankel. On a trip to to Budapest, he stopped by the very large Esceri flea market in that city. While wandering around looking at the various wares for sale, he started noticing things like kiddush cups, menorahs, Torah yads, spice boxes, etc. Hundreds of them. When he would show interest in a Jewish piece, the dealers would inevitably pull ut a box from under their table with more Jewish objects. The supply was endless.

A strange mixture of items for sale in the Esceri flea market.

On the trip Bill Frankel bought several objects, but determined that more of these Jewish ritual objects needed to ‘come home’. Moreover, he didn’t want these objects to end up in museums or on display somewhere in some exhibit – he wanted them to be used again by Jewish families. With this idea he founded Bring It Home, a charity with exactly that goal.

Bring It Home was founded to facilitate finding these items, purchasing or otherwise acquiring Jewish ritual objects in Europe, distributing them to new Jewish homes, and creating an educational experience for those who get involved in the process.

Bring It Home is brand new, and are still putting together their marketing materials, organizing their first buying trip, etc., and need funds to get off the ground. To that end, the charity has started a fundraising campaign through crowdfunding site indiegogo. They’re looking to raise $10,000, and they have two weeks left in the campaign. To see the current status, go to the campaign website, or check the widget below (and then go to the web site).

There are many ways to memorialize those killed in the Holocaust, but I think this is one of the more interesting and personal ways that one can commemorate those killed – by facilitating the return of these lost ritual objects, and putting them back into use by Jewish families worldwide.

Database of Polish Victims of the Nazis

There’s an interesting database listing Polish victims of the Nazis, organized by a group of Polish government and non-government organizations, and sponsored mainly by Polish media organizations.

The site is connected to three Polish organizations: the Institute of National Remembrance, the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation, and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. It is also sponsored by a number of Polish media organizations, including the Polish Press Agency and several Polish TV stations.
The site, Straty.pl, is unfortunately only available in Polish. Luckily, it’s not too hard to use without knowledge of Polish, especially if you use Google Chrome and the built-in Translate feature. Even without Translate, you can get around the site. This is what the search page looks like:
Straty.pl Search Page
A quick translation of the fields:
Nazwisko (Surname)
Imię (Given name)
Imię ojca (Father’s name)
Imię matki (Mother’s name)
Miejsce urodzenia (Place of birth)
Data urodzenia (Day of birth)
Data śmierci (Day of death)
dzień (day)
miesiąc (month)
rok (year)
SZUKAJ is Search, and CZYSC is Clear.
You can search for a surname alone, but apparently not a town alone. If a surname has too many hits, it will force you to fill in additional search fields to help pare down the umber of results.
Victims listed in the database include Polish soldiers who were killed, prisoners of war, resistance fighters, concentration camp prisoners, those persecuted for reasons of race (aka Jews and Gypsies), those executed by the Nazis, those sentenced to death by German courts, slave laborers, displaced persons, children, civilian casualties (such as from bombing raids), etc.
This list is not exclusively, nor even predominately, Jewish. The site was not set up as a memorial to Jewish victims of the Nazis, but rather as a database of Polish victims of the Nazis, some of which happened to be Jewish. In fact, one looking at the site might wonder if Jewish names in the database are more of an afterthought than a primary section of the database.
There are many sources of data in the database, and each listing will tell you which source they came from, which can help you track down further information. Data sources I’ve noticed include:
International Tracing Service (Bad Arolsen) (http://www.its-arolsen.org/)
Jewish Historical Institute (http://www.jhi.pl/)
Polish Red Cross (http://www.pck.pl/)
State Archive in Krakow (http://www.ank.gov.pl/)
Obviously this database is not complete, and it’s not going to be 100% accurate (and certainly not complete when it comes to Jewish names). It is still useful to supplement the other existing databases out there, and to give you some direction on possible research routes. For example, if you see records from the International Tracing Service, you can contact them to get more information on the person you find.
You can also contribute data to the database, although I have not tried to do this. They have a questionnaire that you can fill out on individuals, listing their name, parents’ names, birth date and location, nationality, religion, place of residence before the war, education, occupation, political organization membership, social activities, etc. This is, unfortunately like the rest of the site, only available in Polish. I’m not sure what would happen if you filled out the form in English.
Of course, when searching for information on Jewish victims of the Nazis, the most important database is the Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. One important distinction between these databases, beside Straty.pl’s focus on Poles and Yad Vashem’s focus on Jews (with obvious overlap), is that Straty.pl’s database contains victims who are not necessarily people who were killed. Prisoners of camps, etc. even if they were not murdered, are contained in their database.

For example, the database includes two people with the surname Trauring, the couple Ferdynand and Stefania Trauring, who I know to appear on Shindler’s lists. They show up in the Straty.pl database as prisoners of the Gross-Rosen sub-camp in Brunnlitz, which happens to be where prisoners working in Oskar Schindler’s factory were interned. Whether this couple survived the war or not, they are listed in the Straty.pl database as having been prisoners. That’s an important distinction.

A look at progress on the USHMM records indexing

Back in May I wrote about how the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Ancestry.com had teamed up to index some of the USHMM’s millions of records online. The indexes would be created via volunteers using special software provided by Ancestry.com, and the indexes would be be freely available on Ancestry.com (although not the images which would only be viewable on site at the USHMM itself). This project was dubbed the World Memory Project (similar to their existing volunteer indexing project the World Archives Project) and the first results were introduced some months later.

The World Memory Project currently has over 2400 volunteers and has indexed over a million records. The databases that are currently available include:

All of the databases can be searched at once through the main search page.

The Fate of the Sabbatarians

I don’t often link to other articles online, but I read an article today that struck me as fascinating, well-researched, well-written, and which has many implications for those interested in Jewish genealogy.

The article, by Shay Fogelman in Haaretz, is titled Discovering Europe’s non-Jews who kept the faith and it discusses the fascinating history of the Sabbatarian community of Transylvania (Szekler Sabbatarians). The Sabbatarians were a community founded in the late 1500s by a Christian nobleman who, fascinated by the Bible and other Jewish writings, adopted many customs of Jews such as keeping the Sabbath (thus the name Sabbatarians) and keeping kosher, etc. He spread his beliefs to his court, which slowly adopted his beliefs, but it was his adopted son and successor who really spread this new belief-system by translating Jewish prayerbooks into Hungarian for the use of his followers. They were not Jews, they were not Christians, and that created no shortage of problems for them.

Bozodujfalu, center of the Sabbatarian community

In many ways they were persecuted even more than the Jewish community in the same region, because the Christian churches which dominated the region viewed Sabbatarians not as Jews, but as Christian heretics. By 1635 when they were forced to convert to one of the four major Christian sects in the region by the government, they counted their members at 20,000 people. Driven underground the religion persisted in hiding for hundreds of years, pretending to be Christian but intermarrying either amongst themselves or occasionally with the local Jewish community. In the mid-1800s with the emancipation of the Jews, the Sabbatarian community came out of hiding (although they were still persecuted as heretics) and half of the community converted en-masse to Judaism. The community, now half Jewish, continued to pray together in the same Synagogue as before.

When WWII started and the Nuremberg laws came into force, the Hungarians who controlled the region, and the Germans who eventually took over, were not sure what to do with the Sabbatarians. At first they considered them Jews, but after protests (including by local Christian clergy) some were exempted from the racial laws that sent the Jews into ghettos and eventually to the death camps. Some who were given the opportunity to leave the ghetto remained there as they decided they would rather share the fate of the Jews (if that was what God willed). Very little of the community seems to have survived the war, although some descendants of the community still live in the area, and even in Israel.

The story is interesting from a genealogical point of view because of the history of the community. While the mass-conversion of half the community occurred within a time-period that is well documented, the previous two centuries of the community is not well-documented, and the interaction between the Sabbatarians and the Jewish community is not well known. If members of the community intermarried into the Jewish community (presumably converting to Judaism beforehand), then that is in many ways reverse intermarriage compared to the much-more-common-at-the-time marrying out of the community. It would be extremely rare at that time to find large numbers of a non-Jewish community marrying into the Jewish community.

How is this influx of the local population into the Jewish population reflected the DNA of the Jewish population? If intermarriage really started in the 16th century, the number of descendants could in fact make up a large minority segment of the Jewish population from that area. What are the predominant haplogroups of Sabbatarians? Do those haplogroups exist in any large percentage in the Ashkenazi Jewish community? Some haplogroups such as Q1b1, which is a minority among Ashkenazi Jews (5%), but which is almost all Jewish, have been theorized by some to be a remnant of the Khazarian mass-conversion (the only other large-scale conversion since biblical times that I can think of), but perhaps the Q1b1 haplogroup derives from the Sabbatarian community? or another mass-conversion which we don’t know about?

It would also be interesting to document the connections between the two halves of the Sabbatarian community after the mass conversion in the 19th century – presumably there was intermingling between the two halves after the conversion (they still prayed together after all).

From the article in Haaretz it seems those Jewish descendants of the Sabbatarians identified by the author may not be interested in researching this history. We may therefore never know the full story of the Sabbatarians, and what their influence on the make-up of the Jewish people today is (perhaps significant, perhaps inconsequential).

In any case, I recommend reading Shay Fogelman’s excellent article and learning about this little-known non-Jewish sect which followed many Jewish laws (although not circumcision among others).

Out of curiosity, how many of you had heard of these Sabbatarians (Szekler Sabbatarians) before this post? If so, where did you hear about them?

World Memory Project: USHMM and Ancestry.com Team Up

The US Holocaust Memory Museum (USHMM) has teamed up with Ancestry.com to digitize and index the millions of documents from the USHHM’s archives. This partnership is leveraging the indexing software that Ancestry.com build for its existing community project, the World Archives Project. Basically, this software allows people to register on Ancestry.com (this is free) and select a document in the queue, view a document, and then transcribe it so it will become searchable. The software knows the structure of the document you are transcribing and helps you through the process. Usually the way this kind of system works is that more than one person ends up transcribing each document, and then if there are any differences between the multiple transcriptions, an expert reviewer will check the transcription and correct any mistakes. This redundant system allows non-expert transcribers to help in a massive indexing projects like this one.

I wrote awhile back about the concept of giving back to genealogy through indexing projects like this one. In that article I explained how the process works at FamilySearch.org, whose indexing program is very similar. If you have been researching family members that were killed in the Holocaust then this is a great way to give back to the community. The millions of records being indexed from the USHMM archive will increase our knowledge about millions of people whose lives are recorded in these documents. Many of these documents will hold the key to families discovering what happened to their relatives during the war.

At the beginning, the project has started out indexing the following ten document collections:

  • USHMM Ain, France, Selected Holocaust Records
  • USHMM Czech Republic, Jews Deported to Terezin and Poland
  • USHMM Czech Republic, Selected Jewish Holocaust Records, 1939-1941
  • USHMM Eure-et-Loir, France, Selected Holocaust Records
  • USHMM Munich, Germany, Displaced Jewish Orphans at the Ulm Children’s Home, 1945-1948
  • USHMM Palestine, Illegal Immigration from Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1938-1946
  • USHMM Poland, Jewish Holocaust Survivors Registered in Warsaw, 1945-1946
  • USHMM Poland, Jewish Prisoners of War in Lublin, 1939-1941
  • USHMM Poland, Jews Displaced from Biała Podlaska to Mie̜dzyrzecz Podlaski, 1942
  • USHMM Romania, Family Questionnaires for Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Victims, 1945

The languages vary per collection, but the system is designed to allow even those without knowledge of the specific language to help transcribe the documents. Of course, if you do know one of the languages from these collections, that can only help. As the Palestine collection was generated by the British Mandate government, that collection is largely in English.

The project expects the first documents to be made available by this summer or early fall. As more document collections are completed they will be added to the web site. Like other collections that are indexed by the public (through the World Archives Project), these collections will be free to search, even though it is being hosted by Ancestry.com.

To get an idea of how indexing a document works, you can view a video guide the project has posted for one of the Polish collections:

The video should give you a good idea of how the process works.

[Update: Ancestry seems to have removed the video from their site and made it private on Youtube. I don’t know why this is case, but you can go to their written explanation of the same data collection to see pictures of the records and what information is extracted from them.]

One important note, especially since I am a Mac user myself, is that the Ancestry.com software being used for this project does not support the Mac. You can only currently join this project if you are running Windows. Hopefully Ancestry.com will remedy this problem in the near future.

It seems this week has had two intertwined themes running through it, the Holocaust and the digitization of archives. This project certainly borrows from both themes and it is great that there is a way for everyone to help in bringing these very important archival materials online.