Esther Perlmutter never knew the wartime fate of her aunt.
But a few minutes on the Internet helped Perlmutter, who lives in suburban Philadelphia, learn what befell Mindl Lederman, a resident of Brest-Litovsk, a town on the Polish-Russian border.
Like many before her, Perlmutter used an archive of the nearly 20,000 Jews of Brest-Litovsk before they were annihilated by the Nazis in 1943. The archive is now on the Web.
“I do not know of any similar archive for other ghettos,” said Christopher Browning, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina.
The archive is available thanks to a man in Arizona who didn’t give up trying to find out what date to say Kaddish for his parents, a professor who devoted himself to uncovering the truth about the “Final Solution” in areas of the former USSR and the accidental discovery of an archive forgotten for half a century in the basement of a provincial town in Belarus.
Shortly after they conquered Brest-Litovsk in 1941, the Nazis instituted a registration system requiring all Jews older than 14 to present themselves in the town hall, be photographed by Nazi photographers, record their personal data and receive an identity card.
Out of the 26,000 Jews living in Brest in 1941 — 40 percent of the town’s inhabitants — fewer than 15 remained alive upon liberation by the Soviets in 1944.
As far as Holocaust researchers are aware, Brest-Litovsk was the only place the Nazis conducted this type of comprehensive registration program. And the 560-page ledger — which bears 12,465 names, signatures, fingerprints, addresses, professions and dependents — survived intact in the archives of the municipal town hall.
Soviet authorities concealed the existence of the archive for nearly 50 years, not wanting to spread evidence of massacres of Jews.
Scholars attribute this to two factors: First, Stalinist policy stressed that victims were Soviet citizens, not Jews; second, the authorities were anxious to hide the extent of local populations’ collaboration in exterminating Jews.
The archive was unearthed after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem received notice of its existence from Zakhar Zimak, a pioneering Brest researcher in the USSR.
In July 1994, Yad Vashem researcher Masha Yonin was dispatched to Brest, told only that “it is a place worth looking into.” Sifting through documents, she was stunned to find the archive.
Situated on the Bug River in what is today Belarus, Brest-Litovsk has a long Jewish history.
The 1902 Jewish Encyclopedia cites it as “the largest and most important of the first five Jewish settlements in Lithuania, dating from the second half of the 14th century.”
Subjected for the next 600 years to successive waves of protection, subjugation, persecution and expulsion, the Jews of Brest maintained their community.
After World War I, all strains of Jewish life — synagogues, Zionist organizations, Jewish schools, a hospital, newspaper, sports organizations and professional societies — were represented in Brest.
After the Nazi conquest of Poland in September 1939, the town was transferred from Polish to Soviet jurisdiction.
Brest-Litovsk was the first target when Hitler launched his surprise attack on Russia on June 21, 1941. The town fell to the Nazis a day later.
Nazi soldiers were accompanied by special SS killing commandos and German police.
Less than three weeks later, Brest Jews suffered one of the first anti-Jewish killing operations on Soviet territory.
On July 10, 1941, 6,000 Jews were rounded up in trucks, then shot or bayoneted into open pits.
“On the first night of the mass killings the shooters were rewarded with an unusual treat of strawberries and cream,” Browning reports in his book, “Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers.”
From December 1941 the remaining Jews were enclosed in a ghetto. There they worked under starvation conditions until the morning of Oct. 15, 1942, when the ghetto was emptied.
Hospital patients and small children were shot outright. The rest were transported in cattle cars to a forest at Bronnaya Gora, some 50 miles away. There they were shot into mass graves and their bodies were covered with hot lime.
Only one person escaped alive.
On Oct. 15, the town’s Accounting and Control Book of Population Movement listed 16,934 Jews in Brest; on Oct. 16, the number was crossed out.
Yad Vashem made arrangements to have the voluminous material photocopied, and it arrived in Jerusalem in 1995. Yad Vashem then shared an additional copy with the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.
In both institutions, the copies are open to any individual who comes in person.
The archive’s ledger of names is now accessible on the Internet as well. That giant contribution came from the collaboration between Louis Pozez, a Brest native who moved to the United States before the war, and John Garrard, a professor at the University of Arizona.
The two first met while involved in Holocaust memorial projects in Tucson, Ariz. Then, on a 1994 visit to Brest, where he hoped to learn his family’s fate, Pozez learned of the archive and arranged to have a copy made.
Together with institutional donors, Pozez financed the project, which Garrard headed.
“I immediately recognized that the materials should be digitized so that a searchable database could be put on the World Wide Web,” Garrard said. “I felt very strongly that relatives should be able to search the database for free, from any country.”
The next step in the chain was cooperation from JewishGen, a nonprofit genealogical organization that agreed to post the archive on the Internet in 1998.
Since then, the Brest Ghetto Passport Archive has been accessed more than 54,000 times.
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.