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Genealogy project reunites lost relatives

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WARSAW, Dec. 8 (JTA) — “It’s a new day in the old country for Jewish genealogists,” says Yale Reisner. “With the opening of borders, the opening of archives and the advent of computers and the Internet, tremendous volumes of information unavailable for the last 50 to 80 years have suddenly become accessible.

“What we need now,” he says, “is to pull together the funding, personnel and technology we’ll need to protect and process these treasures and to make them accessible to researchers.”

That’s what Reisner is trying to do.

The American archivist is director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation’s Jewish Genealogy Project, whose mission is to organize, preserve, catalog and make available a huge trove of documentation on Polish Jewry.

Since the project was created in 1994, Reisner has overseen the twin processes of putting order into a vast hodgepodge of ledgers, photographs, yellowing certificates and brittle pages, and helping people use the fragile documents to trace their heritage — and sometimes find long-lost family.

In the project’s office in Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, Reisner and his staff this past year met with more than 700 visitors from 21 countries and handled more than 1,000 inquiries.

“The most moving tales involve the reunion of relatives and friends separated decades ago,” Reisner says. “Despite the passage of time, the project continues to have dramatic successes.”

In the past year alone, he says, a member of Poland’s Children of the Holocaust Association who had believed she was her extended family’s sole survivor found living cousins in Australia and the United States — and traveled to Australia for an emotional reunion.

Another Polish survivor, who learned in her 50s that she was a Jew, was able to meet face to face with her mother’s sister in Tel Aviv — who gave her the only photos she has ever seen of her parents.

And people making inquiries to the genealogy project from Japan and Belgium were found to be related.

Reisner says she wants to ensure that the tens of thousands of fragile documents in the archives are preserved properly after decades of neglect.

Funded in large part by private donors, the project works in collaboration with the Jewish Historical Institute.

“Collections long stored away have begun to resurface, becoming accessible once again on new shelves in renewed storage rooms,” Reisner says. “Hundreds of acid-free boxes and folders and dozens of fireproof cabinets have begun to fill up with historic documents.

“Materials physically repaired and chemically treated in the institute’s preservation lab with funding from friends of the project are now being restored to their proper places,” he says. “Climate controls have been introduced, so that documents are better protected and winter coats no longer need be worn indoors.”

Reisner says that part of his job is to disprove popular myths — “that there are no Jews in Poland, that no records survived, that towns were wiped off the map, that unsuccessful searches decades ago mean that all hope is lost of ever finding a relative. These assumptions are mistaken, yet they block many from even attempting to look,” he says.

“While the genealogy project doesn’t wish to generate false hopes, it does wish to encourage realistic hopes,” he says. “Access now exists to information unavailable for the last 60 years or more. People must be told that it is a new era today and that dormant searches are now ripe for renewal.”

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