Faced with a deadline of March 31, an army of some 1,200 data entry clerks, software technicians, Holocaust scholars and other specialists are working feverishly to computerize the names of 3 million Holocaust victims from a collection of documents at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Recognizing that a need might eventually arise for a thorough inventory of Holocaust victims, Yad Vashem officials began to conceptualize such a project years ago.
But the museum went into high gear earlier this year, when it received $8 million in funding from the Swiss Bankers Association and the World Jewish Congress to provide such a list to the Volcker Commission, a panel of experts seeking to track Holocaust victims’ unclaimed assets in Swiss banks.
“It’s a fascinating convergence of interests,” said Dr. Ya’acov Lozowick, director of the Yad Vashem archives.
“We’ve been dreaming of this for a long time and would have done it at our own sedentary rate until the Volcker Commission came along and wanted it done right away,” he said. “Yad Vashem could have lived with doing this over two years. But if it has to be done in three months, then so be it.”
With the Volcker Commission demanding the list by the end of March so it can wrap up its efforts, Yad Vashem officials have mobilized huge numbers of personnel, taken over a whole floor in an office building in the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Shaul and rented more temporary space in Beersheba for the duration of the project.
Beginning in January, Israel’s famous Holocaust institution spent weeks in detailed logistical planning and hired a software company, Softel, to design a specialized software tool to handle the more than 3 million “Pages of Testimony” that Yad Vashem has collected from relatives of Holocaust victims since the early 1950s.
Since early February, workers at Yad Vashem have been feeding some 50,000 of the Pages of Testimony through two high-speed scanners every day, while 14 teams of data entry clerks in Jerusalem and Beersheba, working from early morning to late at night, are keyboarding in details from the handwritten pages after their high-resolution scanned images appear on the computer screens.
Students and recently discharged soldiers are among those entering the names at various computer centers operated by Yad Vashem.
Recognizing the inevitability of transcription errors and difficulties in reading the Hebrew, English, Polish and other languages in which the Pages of Testimony were originally scrawled, Yad Vashem officials have devised a thorough system of checks.
Whenever a surname or place name is entered for the first time, for instance, that particular record is electronically sent to one of a hierarchy of specialists, who check it against thorough master lists that the institution has compiled over many years.
The specialists also have at their fingertips lists of vocations, family relations, family status and titles in as many as 12 languages. Entering the English word “shoemaker,” for example, produces a chart showing translations of that vocation into a dozen languages, including four variants in the Serbian tongue alone.
Specialists may also engage in “data mining,” allowing them to establish correlations, for example, between names and places.
In Hungary, for instance, Jews with the first name “Abraham” apparently often used the name “Adolf” in official documents, such as when opening bank accounts.
Standing at the front of a large room in which some 70 data entry clerks are sitting at computer terminals arranged in a large U-formation, Lozowick seems as busy as an army general, one moment engaged in brisk dialogue by cell phone, the next inspecting a minor software glitch on his laptop computer.
Have he and his team encountered any unexpected problems?
“Yes — about 25 a minute,” he said. “Actually, today is the first full day where everything seems to be working well. The software didn’t screw up and the data entry people seem to know what they’re doing.”
Yad Vashem recently turned over to the Volcker Commission a list of the first 1 million names, which were then matched with existing lists of owners of dormant bank accounts.
Using only the simplest methods of matching, some 3,000 dormant bank accounts were identified as having belonged to Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
According to Lozowick, more accounts will be identified now that Yad Vashem is employing its computerized lists of variants of names and locations.
As part of its overall effort to compile a comprehensive computerized inventory of Holocaust victims, Yad Vashem has gone far beyond the Pages of Testimony located in the facility’s Hall of Names.
It has also drawn up a master list of some 8,163 other lists of Holocaust victims, containing a total of more than 12 million occurrences of names.
Nearly 2,000 more lists compiled by the Red Cross’ International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany, contain an additional 6 million names, bringing the total on Yad Vashem’s “List of Lists” to roughly 18 million occurrences of names on some 10,000 lists.
The lists include many duplicates. For instance, a Czech Jew who possessed a life insurance policy, had a business confiscated and was eventually deported to Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz and Dachau, might show up five times – – but Lozowick asserts that the various lists make it possible, for the first time, to name at least 5 million of the estimated 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
“Until we did the List of Lists, we didn’t know we had this data,” he said. “We found out to our surprise that we had far more data than anyone, including ourselves, had realized.”
Yad Vashem is making every effort not to duplicate the smaller-scale computerization efforts of other institutions such as Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said Lozowick.
“Any of these institutions that give us the results of what they’ve done, we give them what we’ve done. It’s a win-win situation.”
So far, according to Lozowick, Yad Vashem has entered into co-operative arrangements with about eight other institutions, including the Bergen-Belsen Museum, which has provided a list of 23,000 Jewish inmates, and the Swiss Federal Archives, which has supplied a list of 24,000 names of Jews who entered Switzerland during the Nazi era.
As they prepare to turn over an additional 2 million computerized names to the Volcker Commission, Yad Vashem officials are engaged in discussions with other sponsors to allow the project to continue beyond that date.
“We’re making a huge effort not to have this massive effort grind to a halt in April,” Lozowick said.
Before the end of the year, Yad Vashem plans to make its computerized list of Holocaust victims available on the Internet to help researchers and relatives searching for family members killed in the Shoah, Lozowick said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.