Digital technology will allow Holocaust survivors, researchers and others access to one of the largest troves of Nazi-era documents — but at a pen-and-paper pace.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum told survivors’ groups last week that searches of the digital version of the Bad Arolsen archives it had obtained would take six to eight weeks to fulfill.
“People understood the challenges,” said Jeanette Friedman, who represented the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants at a closed-door meeting Jan. 17 at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.
The inquiry process, launched that day, will integrate the 46 million documents the Holocaust museum already possesses with more than 18 million documents made available by the International Tracing Service, the agency based in Bad Arolsen, Germany.
The availability of the archives ends a decade-long political and legal battle to open the Bad Arolsen archives, which houses information on the fates of about 17.5 million Jews and non-Jews. Most of the documents now available through the museum relate to incarceration, persecution and concentration camps.
Archivists ran a slide presentation showing how an index card in the files could help David Bayer, a survivor who volunteers at the museum, track his Auschwitz identification card and a census of the Jewish ghetto in his birthplace, Kozience, Poland. The census was the only extant record of his entire immediate family, some of whom perished.
More documents relating to slave labor and to postwar witness testimony are slated to be delivered by 2010.
The digital archives were released simultaneously last year to the 11 nations that control the tracing service. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, was the first to establish a request-processing service last week, although it will not have an online capability until next month.
Much of the material, delivered to the museums on hard drives packed into suitcases, is not yet digitally searchable; images of the documents and 50 million index cards that arrived between August and November of last year are in jpeg form.
Converting those images to searchable files will take much time and millions of dollars, officials of the U.S. Holocaust museum said at a news conference before the meeting with survivor groups.
“To make it machine-readable would take millions and millions,” said Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “We don’t have the time.”
Instead, said Michael Haley Goldman, the director of the museum registry, the priority would be to answer survivor questions with trained staffers searching through the material. Top priority will be given to survivors with outstanding restitution claims, on the assumption that some information obtained through the search could facilitate the claims.
Of about 800 inquiries received even before the launch of the service, most had to do with survivors seeking information on the fate of families, Goldman said.
Officials said that in some cases, the archive material would provide death and burial information, which would help in insurance restitution cases where survivors need specific documentation. But officials also warned that in the vast majority of cases, such information was not recorded or preserved at the time.
Another imperative of the archives, Bloomfield said, was to add evidence at a time of a resurgence in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
“Keeping the International Tracing Service closed at a time when the president of a country says the Holocaust didn’t happen is morally indefensible,” she said, referring to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
About 30 representatives of survivor groups attended the closed briefing; Friedman said questions were mostly technical and calm. That made for a quiet denouement to a process that at times has been roiling.
Some survivors, particularly those still seeking restitution in various forms, had campaigned for instant, Internet-searchable access, and they wondered at the snail’s pace of the effort to open the archives.
The nations controlling the International Tracing Service — Belgium, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Britain and the United States — had signed an accord in 1955 after assuming control of the archives from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Privacy concerns, particularly among the European nations and the Red Cross, kept it inaccessible, officials said. Pressure from survivor groups seeking evidence to bolster restitution claims led the tracing service to announce in 1998 that it would open the archives, but finding a formula acceptable to all was difficult.
Paul Shapiro, the director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, said some nations wanted to create a “worst common denominator” standard, applying each nation’s most restrictive standards across the board. He added that the U.S. Holocaust museum successfully argued instead that each nation should apply its own standards upon receipt of the archives.
There were no restrictions on who could ask for information, museum officials said. So citizens of a nation that applies restrictive standards to sharing the information are free to submit inquiries to Yad Vashem or to the U.S. Holocaust museum, which do not.
Shapiro said that one restriction kept in place at the behest of some of the European nations — he did not name them — was that each nation maintain a single repository.
Museum officials suggested that the provision allowing each nation to distribute the materials according to its own laws and practices meant the museum was not bound by the restriction. However, the museum will not share the materials with other U.S. Holocaust centers for now, to avoid frustrating individuals searching for information, said spokesman Andy Hollinger.
Museum staffers are specially trained to search the Bad Arolsen documents and to integrate those searches with other archives in order to provide the most comprehensive possible responses, Hollinger said.
Another consideration, according to sources, is that commission members of the tracing service who still have privacy qualms would be angered if documents were available on the Internet. Disagreements now could hobble delivery of databases still held by the tracing service.
Ultimately, said Friedman, the goal is to integrate existing archives in the United States, Israel and Europe into a single searchable database, but that could take a decade.
For more information, call (866) 912-4385 or visit
Survivors blast Holocaust Museum over archive access restrictions
Holocaust survivors are venting their anger at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington over its decision not to allow immediate electronic access to the long-secret records of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany.
Many survivors and members of the second generation have complained in the past about the museum’s fundraising and other issues, but a dispute over prohibiting immediate remote access to the Bad Arolsen documentation — the way other government documents are accessed — brought many in the Holocaust community to express their anger publicly as never before.
The documents are expected to be transferred to the Holocaust museum under an international treaty. The archives include millions of images relating to concentration-camp prisoner documents.
“Where does the museum get the chutzpah?” asked David Schaecter, president of the Miami-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation. He singled out Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and the point man for the Bad Arolsen transfer.
“I don’t know how in the name of God Shapiro can look at himself in the mirror,” especially after his March 28 testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, Schaecter said. Schaecter sat next to Shapiro as they testified to the House about the need to bring the Bad Arolsen documents to America.
Shapiro did not respond to calls seeking comment. Arthur Berger, a senior adviser to the museum on external affairs, defended him.
“Paul Shapiro has probably done more than any individual in the world to get this archive opened,” Berger said. “He has literally worked day and night to fulfill our moral responsibility to help survivors get information and not allow them to pass away without finding out more information about themselves and their families.”
Berger said the museum was waiting for the material to be released before it could provide specifics of how it would make the material available. But he said the museum was committed to making the archive widely accessible.
“The museum has been leading the effort for years to open the archives at Bad Arolsen, and we’ve really been working aggressively to help survivors nationwide gain access to the archives,” he said. “We have done whatever is possible and we will continue to have the highest commitment to ensure that when we have the material, we will do everything in our power to get access to that information to survivors. Whatever it takes.”
But that hasn’t mollified survivors and their advocates.
“After recent dealings with the museum, it is more and more evident that they are not committed to the survivors in whose name this museum was built,” said Klara Firestone, founding president of Second Generation Los Angeles and a member of the coordinating council of the Generations of the Shoah International.
In the era of instant access to documents offered by Google, Yahoo, Proquest and Lexis-Nexis, Holocaust survivors and advocates say they don’t understand why the documents can’t be made available to local libraries or home computers the way government documents ordinarily are accessed.
On May 9, a representative of several survivor groups sent a note to congressional staffers who work on committees that are considering the museum’s quest for sole control of the archive. Several congressional committees are involved with oversight of treaties and museum funding.
“The consensus — from survivors as well as community leaders — is that something is definitely amiss here,” said Samuel Dubbin, attorney for the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, a national coalition of elected survivor leaders. “The museum seems to be constructing an access protocol based on a continuing sensitivity to European privacy concerns and probably in a way that masks individual company involvement in slave labor system. By no means … will this be made Internet-accessible.”
Firestone agreed, saying, “After 60 years of concealing and hiding, when they open this archive, if it does not give immediate — I mean immediate — and instant remote access to everyone, it will be just another blow” to the Holocaust community.
The existing search mechanism in the Bad Arolsen archives works as fast as Google, but museum sources said they wanted to create a proprietary search engine that will be accessible only from on-site computers.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who served on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council under three presidents, added, “I would hope that the Bad Arolsen archives could be as easily accessible as modern science makes possible. Those archives are for the survivors’ needs and use first, and scholars later.”
Some survivors assert that the archive transfer is just a pretext for the museum to engage in aggressive fundraising. Schaecter bristled as he recalled a recent experience.
“I come back from Washington after I testified before the House about these archives,” he recalled, “I’m not home for six hours, I get a call from the Boca office of the museum from their fundraiser, and he says, ‘I heard about your testimony and I heard about you caring’ — and all this nonsense! ‘Since you are deeply involved,’ he says, ‘maybe you should make a meaningful donation.'”
Berger, however, said the museum was the natural choice to house the archive.
“As America’s national memorial for victims of the Holocaust and one of the two largest repositories of Holocaust-related documentation in the world” — the other is the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, which also will receive the Bad Arolsen documents — “the museum is the appropriate site in the United States for this collection,” he said.
The first 10 million images of concentration-camp documents will soon transfer to the museum under embargo, pending full ratification of the treaty releasing the documents. The 11-nation commission that controls the International Tracing Service initialed a May 16, 2006 treaty authorizing release, but each of the 11 nations must ratify the treaty under its existing laws.
The last four countries — France, Greece, Italy and Luxemburg — are expected to ratify the release late this year or early next year. Once ratified, national delegates must sign the single, controlling copy of the treaty; only then will the treaty be approved and implemented.
Incumbency aids Olmert in surviving party ‘coup’
Shoah Foundation Makes USC Its Home
With a mixture of elation and nostalgia, filmmaker Steven Spielberg last week formally turned over his Shoah Foundation, with 52,000 videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses, to the University of Southern California.
“I feel like a proud and wistful parent whose child has graduated high school and is now enrolling at USC,” said Spielberg, who created the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation as a historical continuation of his Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List.”
Since 1994, Spielberg’s “child” has grown into the largest digital library in the world, representing testimonies from 56 countries in 32 languages and totaling 117,000 viewing hours.
As such, the archive was sought by numerous other universities and institutions. USC won out on the strength of its pioneering digital technology research, international outreach and scholarly resources, said Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.
It didn’t hurt that Spielberg holds an honorary doctorate from USC and serves on its board of trustees, although he noted that “The best thing USC did was not to accept me,” when the boy who became Hollywood’s most successful director applied to its film school.
During a brief ceremony, USC President Steven B. Sample said that “When I visited the memorial at Auschwitz, I could see that it was, appropriately, about those who died. But the Shoah Foundation is about the living and the indomitable human spirit.”
As a living archive, the foundation’s content has been adapted for feature films and documentaries, has reached nearly 2 million students in 30,000 schools, and makes up parts of 70 collections in 18 countries. It’s widely used in teacher workshops and can be accessed on the Internet in the form of interactive exhibits.
Sample and USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias pledged to preserve and expand the mission of the Shoah Foundation “in perpetuity.” Securing the legacy of this documentation was Spielberg’s primary motive for the transfer.
“When the shifting sands of time reach Los Angeles, USC will still be here,” he said.
He said there also will be another advantage to surrendering control.
“I have been the divining rod of the foundation since its inception,” he said. “There is a prejudice against figureheads in Hollywood. The Shoah Foundation, sad to say, will be taken much more seriously by the world now than [with] a filmmaker at its head.” He noted this admission as something “which I find a little hard to say.”
Out of the $150 million raised and spent by the Shoah Foundation since 1994, Spielberg has personally contributed $65 million, so, he said, “I have done my share.”
The ambitions of the Shoah Foundation’s founder and successor institution go well beyond the current accomplishments.
“In 10 years, I see the foundation as the hub of a wheel with many spokes,” Spielberg said.
The “spokes” will represent the visual histories of man’s inhumanity to man, from the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to the sufferings of Native Americans and black slaves in the United States.
The transfer foundation to USC will become official on Jan. 1, when its name changes to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education and part of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Foundation CEO Greenberg will continue as executive director of the institute, reporting to the college’s dean and the USC provost. He has also been appointed adjunct professor of history.
Plans call for extensive interdisciplinary collaboration with other USC departments, the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and a range of other universities and institutions in the United States and abroad.
Although he will no longer be “the kosher seal of approval” for the massive project he started, Spielberg said he would remain committed to his goal of “teaching tolerance around the world.”
And he made a pledge to newly established institute: “I will continue to be your ambassador.”
Sen. Clinton Talks Forgiveness in L.A.
Chabad Sues Russia to Recover Texts
In a continuing effort to recover an archive of century-old original manuscripts and texts left behind in the former Soviet Union in the early 20th century, Chabad is taking the Russian Federation to the International Court of Law.
A Santa Monica-based law firm has filed suit on behalf of the Chabad organization to retrieve the collection of rare and original books and manuscripts on philosophy, religious law and prayer produced by the founders of the movement. The lawsuit contends that the Russian Federation has violated international law by wrongfully retaining the collection. The Russian Federation has until the end of February to respond to the complaint, after refusing to reply to numerous requests made by both the Jewish organization and the United States.
“At stake here are not just some books,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public relations director for West Coast Chabad and the driving force behind the campaign. “These books represent the soul and fight of the Jewish people for so many years. It might mean nothing to the Russians right now, but it means everything to Chabad and the entire Jewish community.”
The collection consists of 12,000 books and 30,000 manuscripts that date back to the origins of the Chabad movement that began 250 years ago and swept through Russia. Soon afterward, its philosophy of accepting Judaism through wisdom, comprehension and knowledge spread to surrounding countries, and today Chabad is the largest organization within the Jewish faith.
The archive was left behind in 1915, when Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth of the Chabad rabbis, escaped just prior to Germany’s World War I invasion. Schneerson left the collection in Moscow for safekeeping, but the Bolshevik Revolution prevented his return to recover the texts. In 1924, the former Soviet Union placed the archive in the state library.
The complaint was followed by a Jan. 19 statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She announced that the State Department will press the Russian Federation to return the texts to Chabad.
“We will very much push on those issues and issues of the Schneerson documents,” Rice said.
Her statement came after members of both houses of Congress urged Russian President Vladmir V. Putin to return the texts to Chabad. Cunin worked closely with Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) in taking the organization’s grievances to Capitol Hill.
Cunin’s father, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad, was one of five rabbis assigned by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and latest of the Chabad rabbis, to obtain and return the library to New York. Since then, Cunin and his two sons have championed the cause to retrieve the texts.
According to the complaint filed by Chabad’s attorneys, Marshall Grossman, Seth Gerber and Jonathan Stern of Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan, the political efforts to retrieve the library have been going on for many years. In 1992, President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and then-Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) pressured the Russian Federation to return the contents of the library. At that time, all 100 members of the Senate wrote to then-President Boris Yeltsin, urging the Russian leader to fulfill his promise to return the texts.
In Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the documents be returned to Chabad, but the orders were ignored by the Russian library. At the end of that year, the United States certified that the Russian library was in violation of the Freedom Support Act by withholding documents from individuals in the United States. The act justified withholding funding from the Russian library until the texts were returned to Chabad.
Following the funding cut, both Yeltsin and Putin promised Chabad that the texts would be returned. Since then, there has been no significant action.
The case resurfaced when the Chabad organization recently learned about a second part of the collection captured from the Nazis by the Soviet army and stored at the Russian State Military Archive after World War II, Gerber said. Upon this discovery, Chabad renewed its efforts to obtain the texts at both the Russian library — the texts that were originally sought — and the newly discovered collection at the military archive.
Though Chabad’s headquarters are in Brooklyn, the organization filed suit in California, making the legal procedure more convenient for Cunin, a Southern California resident, and the Russian Federation, which has a significant number of legal contacts in the area, according to Stern. If and when the texts are returned, however, they will be housed at the Chabad Library in New York.
“These are crucial and critical pieces authored by the founders of the movement who have since died,” Stern said. “It is the equivalent to having the original documents written by the founders of America stored in another country without having access to them.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said it is not dealing with the issue, but made reference to its San Francisco consulate, which did not return calls on the case.
“This issue can be looked at as a litmus test to Russia,” Cunin said. “The Jewish community has sustained so many atrocities under communist regime, and now we are really putting the pressure on them to prove whether or not they believe in religious and cultural freedom.”
Teach Your Children Well
After videotaping the testimonies of more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors during the past seven years, a foundation created by filmmaker Steven Spielberg will now shift its focus to an even more daunting task, a worldwide educational campaign against prejudice, intolerance and bigotry.
Spielberg, who launched the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation following the global impact of his film "Schindler’s List," termed the completion of an archive holding 51,661 eyewitness testimonies "a dream that became a remarkable reality."
Each of the interviewed survivors has become "a teacher, putting a real face, a real voice, a real experience in front of this and future generations," Spielberg said. "The archive is their perpetual link to our expanded long-range objectives of remembrance and education."
Using state-of-the-art media technology, the educational effort will be aimed particularly at a new generation of students, said Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.
"We will pursue this effort with the same urgency as our original mission of interviewing aging survivors," Greenberg said in a phone interview. "We hope to change not only how people think, but how they behave."
To oversee the outreach program, the Shoah Foundation is establishing an Education Department, with an annual budget of $2 million. An international search for a director to head the department is now under way.
Parallel to the new program, 69 cataloguers and researchers are tackling the mammoth task of reviewing and indexing the 117,000 hours of testimonies by men and women — from 57 countries and speaking in 32 languages — who either survived concentration camps, were in hiding during the Holocaust, lived under Nazi rule or rescued Jews.
It would take a single person, scanning the videos 24 hours a day, more than 13 years to finish the job.
As it is, it will take the staff four more years to link the archived material through 25,000 key words. The time period would have been much longer but for an innovative technology developed in-house, which allows one person to catalogue a single testimony (usually two hours long, but running up to five hours) in half a day, instead of the previous one week.
The final result, Greenberg believes, will be the largest available video database in the world, usable by scholars, teachers, students, and eventually the general public.
Some of the testimonies are already viewable at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and other designated repositories will be at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Greenberg is now looking for additional "strategic partnerships" and a permanent office has opened in Berlin.
"Our focus is not only on the United States, but the whole world," he added. "We’re particularly interested in Europe, where the Holocaust took place and which still faces ethnic and religious conflicts."
The Shoah Foundation has also reversed its previous ban against making the testimonies available on the Internet, to avoid misuse by hate groups and others.
Now, said Greenberg, "We won’t put the entire archive on the Internet, but we’ll have some significant chunks of it. We’ll find a sensible and secure way to do this."
Some testimonies can be viewed on the Shoah Foundation’s Web site: www.vhf.org.
The Foundation already has a head start in its educational outreach, mainly through CD-ROMs and film documentaries.
One CD-ROM titled "Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust" is being used in American and German schools, while prize-winning documentaries include "The Last Days," (a 1998 Oscar recipient), "Survivors of the Holocaust" and "The Lost Children of Berlin."
Now completed or in the works are documentaries by five international directors, drawing on survivors’ testimonies in their own languages. "Some Who Lived" (Argentina), "Eyes of the Holocaust" (Hungary) and "I Remember" (Poland) have already debuted in their countries.
To be shown later this year are "Hell on Earth" (Czech Republic) and "Children of the Abyss" (Russia).
The entire series, titled "Broken Silence," will be broadcast on Cinemax next year. To underwrite its ambitious programs, the Foundation, whose current annual budget is $12.8 million (including salaries for 140 employees), is stepping up its fundraising efforts.
Greenberg would not specify a figure, saying, "We’ll raise as much as we can, as fast as we can."
Will the Shoah Foundation ever complete its mission and close up shop?
"When we first started in 1994, we thought that after collecting 50,000 survivor testimonies, our mission would be completed," he responded.
Bigotry still exists, however, acting as a seedbed for some future Holocaust. Thus, a "final victory" is not in sight.
Greenberg summarized: "We started as a project, and are now on our way to becoming an institution."
Searching Jewish L.A.
The Jewish Journal web site at www.jewishjournal.com now features a search engine that allows users to find articles that have appeared in past issues of the newspaper. The engine, pictured at right, can search by author, keyword, date or title.
To access the engine, click on the words “Search Our Site” as they appear on our homepage. Then, simply enter a search term, click enter, then click on the result. The full text of the article will appear, often along with the photo that accompanied the story in print.
The engine will search issues from 1998 to the present, as well as some from 1997. We are working to create an online library of every issue from the Journal’s inception, in 1985. Our goal is to make our search engine the most complete online database for Los Angeles Jewish community news and archival information.
Log on: it’s free, it’s fast, and it’s for you.
Addis in Wonderland
How to Search The Jewish Journal’s Archives
Tips for Searching
At its simplest, a query can be just a word or a phrase. Here are some tips to make your search more effective.
Look for words with the same prefix. For example, in your query form type key* to find key, keying, keyhole, keyboard, and so on. Search for all forms of a word. For example, in the form type sink** to find sink, sinking, sank, and sunk.
Search with the keyword NEAR, rather than AND, for words close to each other. For example, both of these queries, Jewish AND single and Jewish NEAR single, look for the words Jewish and single on the same page. But with NEAR, the returned pages are ranked in order of proximity: The closer together the words are, the higher the rank of that page.
Refine your queries with the AND NOT keywords to exclude certain text from your search. For example, if you want to find all instances of surfing but not surfing the Net, write the following query: surfing AND NOT the Net.
Add the OR keyword to find all instances of either one word or another, for example: Shabbat OR Shalom. This query finds all pages that mention Shabbat or Shalom or both.
Put quotation marks around keywords if you want Index Server to take them literally. For instance, if you type the following query: “Jewish and single” The search will literally look for the complete phrase Jewish and single.
The past year’s worth of webpages are now available. Photos for some stories may not be available. Not every story that appeared in the newspaper is available on the website.
To search the archives, click here.
‘Voyage of the Damned’