Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Database Part of Plan to Chronicle the 6 Million

Sitting in her living room in Israel, Anita Noam inches her chair closer to the computer screen and peers at a grainy black and white image of her aunt that she has never seen before. On the wall hang oil paintings of Venice’s canals and back alleys that her aunt painted so many years ago.

Noam’s aunt, Lisetta Luzzatto, was killed in 1944 at the age of 51 at a concentration camp in Trieste, Italy. She died along with her husband, Cesare, a retired Italian army general who thought the Nazis would never dare come for him.

Their names, and the details of their lives and deaths, are now among 3 million entries collected in the world’s largest database of Holocaust victims, created by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial. The database was made available on the Internet last week and had already received some 1.85 million visitors by early this week.

For the first time, people from around the world harness the database can look up relatives and loved ones and locate family members they may never before have known existed in what the compendium’s creators call a “symbolic burial place.”

Yad Vashem officials are using the launch of the database as part of an 11th-hour campaign to collect additional names, photographs and details of Jewish Holocaust victims. As the generation of survivors ages and dies out, they warn, time to collect information is running short.

Her eyes locked on the picture of her aunt, Noam, 78, finally sinks back in her chair and turns away. “It’s hard to see,” she said.

Her aunt was one of her favorite people growing up, Noam said. Luzzatto would host her and her sisters, who grew up in Trieste, during their visits to Venice. Sitting by canals, Luzzatto would set up a pair of easels and teach Noam how to sketch and paint.

Searching the database for information about her aunt, Noam discovered a relative previously unknown to her. A woman from Washington had submitted the photograph of Luzzatto and provided details of the couple’s deportation and the years of their deaths. According to the form, this woman is a cousin of Luzzatto’s and likely a distant cousin to Noam.

“It’s like a riddle. Where did she get all the information from? Where did she get the photograph from?” asked Noam, noting the woman’s name and address, curious to make contact.

Yad Vashem officials said they expected relatives and friends might discover each other as a result of the database going online.

Such occurrences are a fortunate byproduct, they said, of the central mission of the database, which is to pay homage to the lives of those who met their deaths in the Holocaust by giving information about who they were before the Nazis came to power — to remember that behind each victim is a name and a story.

“It’s to see the faces, to look into the people,” said Avner Shalev, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate. “To see them as human beings — he was an artist, he was a shoemaker.”

“Everyone again comes to a life in a certain way,” Shalev said. Referring to its broad reach across the Internet, he said of the database, “Now it can be everywhere.

“It’s a different dimension of remembrance.”

Yad Vashem began collecting “pages of testimony” commemorating the names and details of victims’ lives in 1954. The process of computerizing the database began in 1994 and the project’s cost was $22 million. It will cost another $4 million to complete the project as additional names and information come in now that the database is online, said Shalev.

Funding to date has come from private donors, in addition to the Yad Vashem budget, the Volcker Commission on Swiss bank accounts and the Claims Conference.

The cost of uploading the database was funded by businessman and high-tech entrepreneur Yossie Hollander, the son of a Holocaust survivor, and the Victim List Project of the Swiss banks settlement.

The undertaking was more enormous than anyone could have imagined, Shalev said. The biggest problem in assembling the database was the variety of name spellings — not only first and last names but place names that shifted as borders and ruling powers changed.

For the last 20 years, a team of linguists and geographers at Yad Vashem has been assembling a comprehensive lexicon of spelling variations.

The team found, for example, that there are 1,520 different ways to spell the name Isaac in the many languages and alphabets where the name appears, including Hebrew, Cyrillic and Latin.

The database was constructed with the broadest parameters possible. Dozens of variations of each name are included, taking into account various spellings, languages and nicknames.

Overseeing the task of compiling the names was Alexander Avraham, a linguist by training, who is the director of the Hall of Names.

“I was fascinated by the challenge,” said Avraham, his desk covered in a sea of paperwork. “It brings together history, language, geography, names.”

“It’s a puzzle,” he said.

Yad Vashem has collected 40,000 different Jewish last names with 370,000 different variants.

Another challenge for those compiling the names was deciphering the handwriting of those who filled out pages of testimony. Styles of writing varied from region to region. In some areas a “P” would be written to appear like a “T.” An additional hurdle was linking the Yiddish names for places often used by Jews to their official names. Often the names were entirely different.

Avraham said it was important for as many people as possible to visit the database and use it as an “interactive platform” — adding to existing information by submitting photographs or personal memories of victims.

The more information the better, Avraham said. He cited the example of a Polish painter named Joachim Weingarten, who had been living in Paris before being deported.

Initially, his page included only minimal biographical details taken from a deportation list. But now, with the addition of further information, the page about him includes examples of his paintings, including a self-portrait. “We want Jewish collective memory to remember them as they were,” Avraham said. “This is our common legacy about that world that disappeared.”

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