Janet Isenberg went to the recently opened Nazi archives at Bad Arolsen, Germany, to learn the fate of 163 relatives lost during the Holocaust.
After a week of intensive researching with 41 other genealogists, she returned to Glen Rock sobered but renewed.
"My father was a Holocaust survivor," Isenberg, a genealogy enthusiast, told The Jewish Standard last week. She formed a passion for genealogy when she was 17. "I have been studying the history of my family for over 35 years, so when I discovered this opportunity I had to seize it," she said.
Gary Mokotoff of Bergenfield, a world-renowned genealogist and founder of Avoteynu, an international genealogy research institution, organized the May trip of amateur and professional genealogists from Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It was the first large group of individuals to access the more than ‘6 miles of Nazi documents, totaling more than 60 million, since German authorities opened them to the public in November ‘007.
"What I hoped to find were people who survived that I didn’t know about," Isenberg said. "I entered inquiring about 163 relatives. [But] 158 died in the Holocaust, and only five survived. I was excited to find cousins of cousins, one in Germany and one in Israel."
The archives compiled by the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen to "serve the victims of Nazi persecution by preserving historical records, processing tracing requests and [being] available for historical research," according to its Website, www.its-arolsen.org "has a computerized index designed for in-house purposes only. It is organized in a unique manner that is difficult to navigate if you are untrained in how to use it," Mokotoff said. The documents were grouped into three general categories, each in a separate building: incarceration documents, including the original of Oskar Schindler’s famous list; forced labor documents; and post-war documents. To make the venture even more challenging, all of the documents were in German.
"What was fascinating about this was the glimpse it gave me into the minutiae of people’s lives during wartime," Isenberg said. "I could envision the prisoners lining up for each transport and the hours they must have stood there while these long lists were compiled Name, prisoner number, date of birth, place of birth, last residence, next. "
When she told friends and family of her findings, Isenberg said, "people were very moved. Some were in tears."
All the documents are linked within the Central Names Index, using a categorizing system that Mokotoff pioneered. As their visit came to a close, the group created a presentation that clarified the system for future inquirers.
"In effect," Isenberg explained, "we took something that was designed to be a bicycle and turned it into a motorcycle."
Despite the potential for public accessibility, the databases are restricted by location, Isenberg explained. In a recently signed agreement, the 11 countries that manage the International Tracing Service have limited sharing of the digital information: Only one research institution per country involved can house the database.
"Of the countries who are entitled to have a copy, only five of them have a significant Jewish population," Isenberg said. "The other countries with large Jewish populations will never have a copy of the archives on their soil. These people will need to journey many thousands of miles in order to conduct this important research. We all need to support the efforts of those who will try to enhance the accessibility to these archives."
The documents are scheduled to be completely digitized by ‘010. Meanwhile, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has some digital access to Bad Arolsen. For Isenberg, though, accessing the database in Washington cannot compare to her experience in Germany.
"By the time we left, and despite language barriers, strong friendships had been formed between managers, genealogists, and researchers," Isenberg said. "When we first got there the staff was thrilled. It meant so much to them to see what their work meant for us. They realized the impact that their work had."