Seventy-five years after World War II ended, connections to the Holocaust keep fading as more and more survivors die. And the relatively few remaining find themselves at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Salt Lake City businesswoman and writer Faye Lincoln has been searching unsuccessfully for some of her relatives, even reaching out to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the millions of victims, and getting no response.
“As the child of Holocaust survivors from Auschwitz, most historical memories of those killed have been lost,” said Lincoln, who is on the board of Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami synagogue. “It is challenging to access records during the occupation in order to trace relatives.”
She was pleased Friday to learn that Utah-based Ancestry has now digitized millions of records of Holocaust and Nazi persecution-related victims in partnership with the Arolsen Archives Collection, the largest repository of such documents.
Ancestry now has made 19.2 million of these records and 1.2 million images available and searchable for free.
Ancestry, self-described as the “global leader in family history and consumer genomics” and which the Blackstone Group recently agreed to purchase for $4.7 billion, also announced a future collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation to “publish an index to nearly 50,000 Jewish Holocaust survivor testimonies,” according to a news release, “that contain information on more than 600,000 additional relatives and other individuals found in survivor questionnaires.”
Having these records in “one digital location makes an initial search much easier. It also allows us to trace lineage and movement of those who lived, and those who died,” Lincoln said. “This could be a valuable platform to continue my search.”
Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah also applauds the effort. For one thing, he said, “these records keep history alive, so people can’t deny the Holocaust.”
The documents also help people find information about their family “that they wouldn’t otherwise know,” Zippel wrote in an email. “This is an amazing resource. It is high time, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, that we all make it a priority to realize the infinite, inherent value of a human life, regardless of religion, political affiliation, skin color ... or anything else.”
Like other Jews, Rabbi Sam Spector of Congregation Kol Ami worries about “a complete eradication of collective memory.”
Spector’s family came from small villages in Eastern Europe, he said, where not many records were kept, and most of those that were have been lost.
By digitizing the records, he said, it will help “people connect with their ancestors in a way that wasn’t previously possible and keeps those people alive in their words and their memories.”
Spector does have one concern, however, especially in the Beehive State: the practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints known as “baptism for the dead,” which involves living people being baptized on behalf of their deceased relatives.
Latter-day Saints believe it is their moral obligation to do the temple rituals for their ancestors. These proxy baptisms don’t mean that person automatically becomes a Latter-day Saint in heaven. Mormon doctrine holds that those who have passed on can choose to accept or reject the ordinance.
After long-standing tensions with Jewish organizations when Latter-day Saints did the ritual for Holocaust victims, the Salt Lake City-based church took steps to stop it in 2012.
“Without exception, church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims,” then-church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors wrote in a letter to all bishops. “If members do so, they may forfeit their new FamilySearch privileges [access to the church’s genealogical holdings]. Other corrective action may also be taken.”
The church noted Friday that “four full-time personnel in FamilySearch watch for names of restricted individuals on a daily basis.”
Spector trusts Latter-day Saint officials to keep their promises about not doing posthumous baptisms for Holocaust victims, he said, but worries about “fringe members” who might not “abide by that decision.”
Overall, though, the rabbi sees Ancestry’s digitizing as an “exciting and welcome” move to help Jews “fill in the missing gaps” in their family lines.