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Digitizing Holocaust Stories Makes Worldwide Connections

Submitted on Friday, December 11, 2015

img_7711Documenting and collecting stories, memories, and testimonials of what happened during the Holocaust is one of the most significant intergenerational and international initiatives of our time, says Dr. Haim Gertner, Director, Archives Division and Fred Hillman Chair of Holocaust Documentation, Yad Vashem, Israel.
As the IP Sharp guest lecturer for the Faculty of Information on December 2nd, Dr. Gertner described how the largest collection of research, education, and commemoration of Holocaust documents in the world—in Israel’s Yad Vashem—is still expanding.

“We have to gather huge pieces of the puzzle,” Dr. Gertner says, as “fragmented pieces of knowledge are a huge challenge for any historian.”

Dr. Gertner is leading an extensive project to collect all historical and personal Holocaust-related documentation, and make it openly accessible to the public through an innovative amalgamation of content and technology.

He said that although fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain each year, five teams from Yad Vashem still take video testimonies every day, and produce about 1,200 videos annually.

This is important work, Dr. Gertner says.

Archivists are digitizing and translating these spoken testimonies from 41 languages into English, as well as documents written in 60 different languages.

One of the lecture attendees, Faculty of Information alumna Helen Katz (MLS ’75), is grateful for the translations because her parents’ family history is there, but written mainly in Yiddish and Hebrew. “Yad Vashem is a special place in Jewish hearts,” she says.

Currently, Yad Vashem is making agreements with thousands of organizations to survey and find more Holocaust narratives and documents, is gathering copies of collections around the world, as well as mapping where all information centres are located.

These efforts have resulted in Yad’s online collection of 180 million pages, a half million photos, 125,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies, and other saved treasures, such as a Jewish man’s diary detailing life for 450 orphaned Jewish children in an Israel housing facility.

“We have the ability to see what we have, and make meaningful connections somehow. It’s our moral duty to provide access to all knowledge and data and it be free,” Dr. Gertner said.

Ms Katz agrees, and hopes one day Yad Vashem will be the one place to house all memories. “The speaker was engaging and gave real life examples, showing us how bits and pieces of information could make lost family stories more complete. I am positive it has reunited families,” Helen says. “This is what family and connections mean to Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors. Yad Vashem means that the leaves on the family tree may be gone, but not forgotten.”

Dr. Gertner showed audience members how the fortitude of survivors like Rosemarie Gold, who kept cellophane-wrapped family photos hidden in a sandwich, enable later familial connections to be made.

Ms Katz has experienced this personally. Her parents, Harry and Molly Lewkowicz, were in their twenties when they were sent to work camps. Liberated in 1945, Harry went back to Poland to find his six siblings, only to learn that none survived. Molly located only one of her four sisters.

They moved to Germany, got married, eventually immigrated in 1949 to Canada, where they raised two children. The Lewkowicz’s lived full lives, with Harry reaching 90, and Molly 92.

In Poland, there was nothing to commemorate the existence or memory of their families. To correct that, Helen’s father ensured the names of both his and his wife’s family were on their tombstones (in Canada).

Faculty of Information Dean, Seamus Ross — who has recently been re-appointed to the Advisory Board of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure project — shared with the audience his sense that: “Archives are powerful. If you didn’t realize that, I’m sure you get it now. In the hands of creative archivists and knowledge managers, we can reconstruct stories and bring materials together that transform lives.”

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