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Museum racing to ID each Holocaust victim

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

JERUSALEM | Motivated by the principle that "every victim has a name," Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum has identified nearly 4 million Jews who lost their lives to Nazi Germany's genocide and is trying to identify the rest while survivors are still alive.

"We are in a race against time," said American-born Cynthia Wroclawski, outreach manager of the Shoah Victims' Names Recovery Project. "Our mission is to reach people who have information."

Ms. Wroclawski said 3.6 million names - just over half the estimated Jewish death toll - have been registered to date.

The monumental task began in 1955, two years after Yad Vashem was established by Israel's parliament, and accelerated in the 1990s in part because of technical advancements such as the creation of a computerized database.

Once completed, the list could help put to rest arguments over whether the death toll has been inflated for political reasons, such as to justify the creation of the modern Jewish state.

Although the number of Jews who perished in Nazi death camps from gas, firing squads, medical experimentation, illness or malnutrition is commonly given as 6 million, analysts differ on the precise figure.

Jacob Lestchinsky, the demographer who calculated the death toll immediately after the end of World War II, concluded that there were 5.95 million Jewish victims. Raul Hilberg, a U.S.-based historian, put it at 5.1 million. Yisrael Gutman and Robert Rozett estimated that between 5.59 million and 5.86 million died, and Wolfgang Benz, a German scholar, says the range is between 5.29 million and 6 million.

Most of Yad Vashem's data have been drawn from the "pages of testimony" given by Holocaust survivors and others who have evidence that their relatives or friends were killed by the Nazis from the inception of Adolf Hitler's regime in January 1933 to the end of World War II in May 1945.

Ms. Wroclawski cited an example of the kind of evidence that has been compiled.

"In 1941, David Berger, an electrician who was 21 years old at the time, sent a letter from occupied Lithuania, to his girlfriend who had managed to reach Palestine saying, 'I would like someone to remember that there lived a person named David Berger,' " she said.

Major international archives, such as that of the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, have hardly been tapped. Its files contain the names of 50 million people, most of them non-Jews, who perished in Nazi death camps or worked as slave laborers.

Until two years ago, the archive was off-limits, except to Holocaust survivors. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was given custody of the records in 1955 - a decade after they were collected by U.S. and British troops by order of the Allied military command - did not let historians, other researchers or lawyers examine the material.

In 1958, the ICRC did allow a team from Yad Vashem and the Israeli Foreign Ministry to microfilm almost all of the documents that pertain to Jews. The excluded material - about 5 percent of the data - related to "kapos," inmates used by SS guards to control the prisoners - as well as purported informers, thieves and other supposed deviants.

Ms. Wroclawski estimates that it will take two more years for the digitization process to be completed. At that point, she said, it should be possible to find the names of most of the Holocaust's victims.

Moshe Zimmermann of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, a renowned scholar of German history and of the German-Jewish community in particular, said that estimate was far too optimistic.

"Yad Vashem is barely halfway through the name-gathering project," he said, but it will take at least 14 years for it to be completed.

Mr. Zimmermann noted that until the Nazi era, most of Germany's Jews lived in well-organized communities but substantial numbers did not consider themselves Jewish. Even though the Nazis forced many to trace their Jewish identities back to their grandparents, records remained incomplete. As a result, some of the German Jews who perished may remain anonymous.

Another complicating factor, said Shlomo Aronson, also of the Hebrew University, is that the Waffen-SS and other Nazi units that engaged in mass killings throughout Eastern Europe did not record the names of their victims. Nor were Soviet Jewish casualties registered as Jews. In contrast, there were detailed records of local Jewish communities in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and other Western European countries.

Name-gathering efforts have not been limited to Israel's Yad Vashem. A similar project was undertaken by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the U.S., which has a massive genealogical database used for posthumous baptisms.

Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, criticized the Mormon project.

He issued a statement in 2008 saying: "We ask you to respect our Judaism just as we respect your religion."

Mr. Michel, whose parents perished in Auschwitz, added: "We ask you to leave our 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust alone; they suffered enough."

Mike Otterson, a spokesman for the Mormon church, said he regretted Mr. Michel's stand and that "it belies the long and valued mutual respect that has been had in past years."

In 1995, the Mormons reportedly agreed not to perform baptisms by proxy or other rites for Holocaust victims except in rare instances in which the victims have living descendants who are Mormons.

Asked whether collecting and publishing the names of Holocaust victims would provide an effective rebuttal to those who deny that the Holocaust occurred or say that it affected relatively few Jews, Ms. Wroclawski said that was not the intention.

"Yad Vashem does not argue with Holocaust deniers," she said.