How to trace Holocaust ancestors
By Jenny Thomas
Anybody who has Jewish blood in their veins could well have an ancestor, however distant, who was affected by, perished in – or survived – the Holocaust.
Although historians have produced a wealth of all-encompassing narrative, analysis and statistics regarding this black episode in our history, it is also often possible to trace what happened to particular individuals, specifically members of our own families.
It may take some perseverance to do so, but the records are there. And for many who set out upon this trail of discovery, it can be a tremendous comfort at least to be able to find the names of their ancestors, to establish a picture of what happened to them, and thus to pay reverence in the ways that they can. Such research can throw light upon a past that we can never forget, and can unite families and communities who research and make significant discoveries together.
Here are some suggestions for those who wish to set out upon that route.
Step one: Find out what you know
As with any research project, the first step is to write down everything that you already know about the ancestor or ancestors that you want to trace. There may be tales or rumours passed through the family, or letters or photographs, or simply long-standing questions that you now want to explore.
Talk to other members of your family, and family friends, to establish what is known collectively about your ancestors. You need to write down as much specific information as you can: full names, dates or years of birth, parents’ names, siblings, specific locations such as towns or villages of origin, and any other information which can be gathered from your immediate sources.
This information will be invaluable when the time comes to match records that you find with members of your family.
Step two: Start your search by visiting the Yad Vashem database
The database www.yadvashem.org is the first port of call for those trying to trace victims of the Holocaust. Officially titled the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, it contains the names of about three million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis and their accomplices.
Much of the information has been submitted by surviving family members, and contains details such as full names, parents’ names, date or year of birth, place of birth, marital status, permanent residence, residence during the Second World War, and the name and relationship of the person who submitted the information to the database.
With such a wealth of detail, it should be possible to establish whether or not the entry refers to the person you are trying to trace. You may find that information regarding an individual has been entered by more than one person, thus giving you two or three records and the names of those who have submitted them. If you click on the image on the top left-hand side of the screen, you will be able to see the original form filled in by the person submitting it (often in Hebrew), and perhaps even a photograph.
When using the database search engine, it is often best to enter as little information as possible, narrowing it down gradually if the options are too numerous. You must beware of alternative spellings for names and places.
Even if you do not find the information that you want, remember that additions are constantly being made to the database, so it is well worthwhile returning to the site every so often to run your search again.
Step three: Try other databases and relevant resources
If you do not find all of the people that you are looking for at the Yad Vashem site, there are a number of other resources that you can try.
The Jewish Genealogy Society website holds various useful databases – have a look at www.jewishgen.org/databases/Holocaust for both Holocaust victims and survivors. This website incorporates more than 100 datasets and more than 1.8m entries.
You might also consider using a tracing service. The Bad Arolsen tracing service, based in Germany, holds more than 30 million records, including those of people who were persecuted or perished under the Nazis. Applications for information are considered on an individual basis. Have a look at its website at www.its-arolsen.org/english.
Step four: Put your discoveries into context
When you have found records relevant to your family, you might wish to investigate more fully the circumstances in which they found themselves, and to fit personal stories into their wider historical context.
A vast amount of excellent information is available at the Yad Vashem site. Have a look at the resource centre on the website and search by keyword to find information relevant to you.
Another useful resource is the Yizkor Books series, a collection of more than 100 books of articles, memories and photographs compiled by survivors, each one specific to a particular town or geographical area. Have a look at www.jewishgen.org/databases/yizkor to find out more. The website enables you to find the most relevant of the books to any given name.
Step five: Share your finds with databases and societies
A lot of the information that you have unearthed about your ancestors has been painstakingly compiled by someone else. You, too, can contribute to the growing bank of information by submitting any new information that you find to databases and indexes.
You might like to join a family history society or the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain to meet people with research interests similar to your own. Whatever you do, pass the information on to your family and friends: become a part of the certainty that this of all topics will never be forgotten.
Useful online resources
- www.yadvashem.org The first port of call for tracing victims
- www.jewishgen.org/databases/Holocaust For finding information about both Holocaust victims and survivors
- www.its-arolsen.org/english The Bad Arolsen tracing service which allows you to file an inquiry
- www.jewishgen.org/databases/yizkor Books of articles, memories and photographs compiled by survivors, sorted into geographical area
- www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/holo.html An encyclopedia with extensive links to various aspects of the Holocaust
- www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/ The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website has an encyclopedia
- www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/timeline.html A timeline of events during the Holocaust