'It's a race to recover this information'

You can help Nazi victims’ families learn their fates in online archive project

Thousands answer crowdsourcing call to assist Germany’s Arolsen Archives in making 26 million newly digitized historical documents searchable by anyone online

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • A student engages with 'Every Name Counts' at the Elisabeth-Knipping-Schule in Kassel, Germany. (Johanna Gross)
    A student engages with 'Every Name Counts' at the Elisabeth-Knipping-Schule in Kassel, Germany. (Johanna Gross)
  • Document from Dachau (Courtesy of the Arolsen Archives)
    Document from Dachau (Courtesy of the Arolsen Archives)
  • Students engage with 'Every Name Counts' at the Elisabeth-Knipping-Schule in Kassel, Germany. (Johanna Gross)
    Students engage with 'Every Name Counts' at the Elisabeth-Knipping-Schule in Kassel, Germany. (Johanna Gross)
  • Document from Muehldorf (Courtesy of the Arolsen Archives)
    Document from Muehldorf (Courtesy of the Arolsen Archives)
  • Arolsen Archives director Florian Azoulay (Johanna Gross)
    Arolsen Archives director Florian Azoulay (Johanna Gross)
  • Picture of Ljubica Napijalo and her first husband. (Courtesy of Tamara Matic)
    Picture of Ljubica Napijalo and her first husband. (Courtesy of Tamara Matic)

A huge crowdsourcing project to memorialize the victims of Nazi persecution is bringing together thousands of volunteers from across the globe who are locked down during the international coronavirus crisis. The “Every Name Counts” project, based out of Germany’s Arolsen Archives (formerly the International Tracing Service), aims to make 26 million recently digitized primary historical records searchable.

Cynthia Peterman is a Washington, DC, Jewish educator. Tamara Matic recently graduated from university and lives in a village in northwestern Serbia. Gaby Schuller works as a high school secretary in Coburg, Germany. Chana Broder is a retired English teacher living near Tel Aviv.

None of these women know one another. However, they have joined thousands of other volunteers to index the digital documents.

The project was originally launched to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day last January. Twenty schools near the archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, were involved in a limited pilot, and there were plans to expand the project in 2021.

Students engage with ‘Every Name Counts’ at the Elisabeth-Knipping-Schule in Kassel, Germany. (Johanna Gross)

“But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and people all over the world were stuck at home and looking for things to occupy their time. We realized we had an opportunity to scale up ‘Every Name Counts’ immediately,” Arolsen Archives director Floriane Azoulay told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

It was a perfect opportunity to harness the interest and energy of a global community of volunteers to assist in advancing the archive’s new mission to make its holdings available to researchers, and more importantly to family members wanting to find out exactly what happened to their loved ones during and immediately after the war.

While part of the archives became available online to the public in May 2019, crowdsourcing is a new approach for the Arolsen Archives. Before the pandemic, it had used only outside companies, artificial intelligence, and its own staff to do the indexing.

Document from Sachsenhausen (Courtesy of the Arolsen Archives)

The vast archives is a complex of six buildings filled from floor to ceiling with 30 million original documents relating to the fates of 17.5 million victims of Nazi persecution. The building complex was off limits to the public for decades and inquiries for information went unanswered for excessively long periods of time, if at all. Most critically, most of the documents were not digitized.

The staggering amount of material was collected by Allied forces as they liberated Europe and includes concentration camp documents, transport and deportation lists, Gestapo arrest and prison records, and forced and slave labor documentation. There are also millions of displaced persons’ I.D. cards and files, as well as post-war resettlement and emigration records.

Also included are cemetery records for deceased forced laborers and prisoners, and concentration camp survivor testimonies taken by liberating forces. Some 2.5 million files alone contain post-WWII correspondence from people inquiring about the fates and whereabouts of their loved ones.

Arolsen Archives director Florian Azoulay (Johanna Gross)

Since her appointment in January 2016, Azoulay, a human rights expert and French-born Jew of North African heritage, has focused the archive’s efforts not only on digitizing its holdings (the job is 80-90% complete), but also on opening up the once secretive institution to the world. So far, this has been done through a number of campaigns and exhibitions, such as “Stolen Memory,” a project aimed at returning personal effects confiscated by the Nazis to survivors or their descendants.

According to Azoulay, “Every Name Counts” is part of this effort to make the archives’ holdings accessible, and also to build community through and around them.

A viral call for volunteers

A large cadre of volunteers to help index the digitized documents sprung up easily and quickly as word spread quickly via social media. There are currently some 7,000 registered volunteers, but it is not necessary to register to participate.

Chana Broder (Courtesy)

“We did a social media campaign in Germany, and it spread globally.  Traditional media picked up the story, as well,” Azoulay said.

Broder read about the project in a New York Times article. The 81-year-old, who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a young child after escaping the Bialystok ghetto with her parents and other relatives, had 10 years experience volunteering at the archive at Massuah International Institute for Holocaust Studies at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak.

Broder told The Times of Israel she has no difficulty with the project’s online interface that requires her to go through original documents and then type basic information — name and birthdate — into a database. The names must be typed in correctly by at least two different people, and then checked again by the archives staff. Software that takes into account various spellings of names is employed.

“I don’t work with the lists, because the writing is too small. I work with the individual cards,” said Broder, who immigrated to Canada with her parents after the war, and then moved to Israel in 1972 with her husband and children.

Like all those interviewed for this article, Serbia-based Matic said that she likes that she can work on Every Name Counts at her convenience — when she wants, and spending as much or little time on it as she can.

Picture of Ljubica Napijalo and her first husband. (Courtesy of Tamara Matic)

Twenty-three-year old Matic qualified as a preschool teacher, but is unemployed due to the current economic downturn. She “bumped into” the project while looking online for volunteer opportunities.

Every Name Counts piqued her interest because of her family’s  persecution when Hungarian troops supporting the Axis powers crossed the border and occupied Yugoslavia in spring 1941. Matic’s great-grandmother Ljubica Napijalo was deported in a cattle car with her first husband and three young sons to Barcs, Hungary, where they suffered  from hunger and neglect.

As her 75-year old grandmother Mirjana looked on, Matic told The Times of Israel in a video interview from her home near Sombor, that Ljubica and her family were further transported to a concentration camp in Šarvar, Hungary. Her two older sons died there before priests convinced the Hungarian authorities to release the women and children back to Serbia.

Ljubica returned alone; her youngest died en route. When her husband got word of the crushing news, he stopped eating and died from tuberculosis in Šarvar. Prohibited from returning to her home town, Ljubica was taken to Subotica, Serbia and put to work in service for a wealthy family.

Tamara Matic (left) and her grandmother Mirjana. (Courtesy)

“My grandmother is really pleased that I am doing this project,” Matic said.

For Matic and many other volunteers, “Every Name Counts” is their introduction to the Arolsen Archives. In contrast, Schuller, as a volunteer with the Stolpersteine project, has long used the archives’s resources in her research into the fates of Holocaust victims from her Bavarian hometown.

In the past six years, Schuller, 59, has helped uncover the wartime fates of more than 120 local Jews so that “stumbling stone” memorial plaques could be placed in front of their final places of residence.

Gaby Schuller (Courtesy)

Schuller said she did not learn much about World War II in school, and her parents and grandparents refused to speak about their experiences. All she knew was that her grandmother lost two brothers and her first husband in the war, and that her grandmother’s second husband had lost his leg in combat.

Now that the older generations are gone, Schuller feels an obligation to dig into the past.

When Schuller saw the opportunity to volunteer for “Every Name Counts” on the Arolsen Archives website, she signed up immediately and works on it whenever she has a chance.

“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to help others, and to help build this memorial,” Schuller said.

Who knows how to read Old German?

According to Azoulay, many individuals with expertise of various kinds have been attracted to “Every Name Counts” by virtue of its being hosted on the Zooniverse platform, which allows anyone to help professionals with their research.

“We have really benefited from the specific knowledge of these volunteers. For instance, some have the ability to read old German handwriting, or a detailed familiarity with the history of Dachau. These people have posted a huge number of comments, and they have also added metadata that has allowed us to grow ‘lifelines’ beyond just names and birthdates,” Azoulay said.

Cynthia Peterman (Courtesy)

DC-based Peterman came to “Every Name Counts” with experience with crowdsourcing at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Archives. Her mother fled Vienna in 1938, but passed her German skills onto her Jewish educator daughter.

Peterman, 60, said she enjoys working with primary documents, and believes it is important for today’s students to be exposed to them, too.

“It contextualizes history for them. It concretizes that it’s about real people and places,” she said.

With few survivors left to share their testimonies with young people, it is imperative to make these primary documents available and easily searchable.

“It’s a race to recover this information,” Peterman said.

According to Azoulay, the Arolsen Archives is committed to making all the names in its vast holdings searchable online by 2025. The more volunteers who assist with “Ever Name Counts,” the sooner it will get there.


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