Besides her parents, Ruth Neuwald Falcon knew of no other blood relatives who had survived the Holocaust.
“As a child I had no cousins, no aunts, no uncles,” she recalled.Following the death of her parents, her desire to connect with any remaining family led her to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, where she searched the memorial organization’s computerized database.Her mother’s family, she soon learned, had perished at Auschwitz. Her mother had never known their fate.But searching under her father’s name, Neuwald Falcon, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Seattle, uncovered information that led her to a cousin her father had kept in touch with briefly after the war.
Before long, she had reunited with Miriam Roth, an Israeli children’s book author living on a northern Galilee kibbutz. “She remembered having met me as a child,” said Neuwald Falcon. “It was an emotional visit and a chance to hear her talk about past. She is 95 years old, but her mind is remarkably clear. She had adored my father, who taught her how to dance.”
That led to further reunions with Roth’s children and grandchildren in the United States. “I went from having no family to discovering relatives in Portland, Oregon,” she said.
Some 60 years after the Holocaust, 21st century technology is increasingly aiding people like Neuwald Falcon in finding the remnants of their families. Now that the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, formerly accessible only at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, has been linked to the organization’s Web site, at www.yadvashem.org, hundreds of thousands more people will have the opportunity to track down relatives without leaving their homes. Yad Vashem hopes to ultimately list every victim in the database, and thus far has entered some 2.5 million testimonies about individual victims, as well as another 500,000 from historical records, although some are likely to be duplicates.Lists of names are still being entered, and the database is expected to be updated within the next few months.
Only deceased victims are listed in testimonies. Survivors may be located through records of the testimonial submitters posted on the site. But some detective work may be required if contact information is no longer current.Yad Vashem knows of at least 20 cases of relatives reunited via the database.
Since the data were uploaded in November, the Yad Vashem site has had nearly 3 million visits, up from about 140,000 hits a month previously. “In the first two weeks, there were 2.2 million visitors,” most of them from Israel and North America, says Eli Zbrorowski, chairman of the American Society for Yad Vashem. “What we are trying to achieve for posterity is to have people fill out more pages of testimony, either on the [Web site] or by filling out forms from the Yad Vashem office.”
Zbrorowski noted that while aiding searchers is one purpose of the database, the other is to provide an identity to millions of anonymous victims for the historical record.
He noted that a man in Israel, Avraham Lazar, submitted testimony on a woman he knew only by her first name, Bat Sheva, whom he knew in his native Kavala, Greece. She was the owner of an ice cream kiosk near the school he attended, and a 45-year-old widow who took care of her three daughters before she was killed at the Treblinka death camp. “This keeps alive the identity the Nazis tried to take away from her,” said Zbrorowski.
Visitors to the names database are greeted with a quotation from the last letter 19-year-old David Berger wrote to his girlfriend: “I would like someone to remember that a man by the name of David Berger once lived.” Shortly after the database came online, Robert Korren of Westchester heard from a cousin in California that he had located testimony listed under Gruferman, the name of his maternal grandfather who escaped the Holocaust, while many relatives stayed behind in Poland.
Korren obtained the phone number of the person who submitted the testimony, and the path eventually led to his mother’s cousin, Alexander Leiter, who lived in Argentina after the war and is now in Israel with his family, including 16 grandchildren.
It turned out that Leiter and his family had tried unsuccessfully to locate his cousins during a New York visit several years ago. In addition to locating the cousin, Korren, 47, a lawyer in Bedford, N.Y., has also found more details about the fate of other family members. Although he has not yet met his cousins in person, they have regular phone and e-mail contact, and Korren hopes to visit Israel in the near future.
“We really didn’t know anyone else was still alive,” said Korren. “It’s nice after all these years when you think whoever is lost is lost, to find someone with common heritage going back 60, 70 years to Poland.”
Miriam Weiner, a genealogist and founder of Routes To Roots, a travel and research service in Poland and the former Soviet Union, called the Yad Vashem site “the most important database for the Jewish people ever to be made available.”
She noted its sophistication, allowing users to search either by name or location even if they are unsure of the spelling used in the entry. Various options make it possible to search for “exact” or “fuzzy” matches or names that sound the same or have the same meaning as the one they have entered.
“It is a monumental resource tool for people who are looking for relatives in general, especially Holocaust survivors and victims,” said Weiner. “The special thing that I like about this database is that you can click on a box and see all the pages submitted by one particular person.”