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How to Document Victims and Locate Survivors of the Holocaust

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Illustration in book:
Auschwitz Prisoner Registration Record. Documentation of prisoner interned at Auschwitz concentration camp. Thousands of these records have been discovered and are on microfilm at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Institute in Washington, DC.

The Basics
The Holocaust has been described as the most documented event in history. Tens of thousands of books depict the circumstances of this great tragedy. Many books provide general histories of the events that transpired during this period; others include the detail of personal accounts of survivors. A wealth of original documents has also survived World War II. They exist in archives throughout the world, and copies of these documents are now being shared among these archives. Recently, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and communism in Eastern Europe, additional war-era German documents captured by the Soviet government became available to the public.

Most of these books and documents are of little or no interest to persons researching individuals; few of the works identify specific persons. But the small minority of books and documents that do include lists of individuals nevertheless represent a large collection of information about the millions of people affected by the Holocaust.

Documentation during the Holocaust
Germans have had a centuries-old reputation for being meticulous documenters. The period of the Holocaust is no exception. The recording of events falls into three categories: (1) events for which information about individuals was documented, (2) events that were documented without recording specific names of individuals, and (3) events for which there was no documentation.

Events where information about individuals was documented. Documentation exists for persons who were deported to camps. It should be recognized, however, that there were two types of camps: extermination camps and concentration/labor camps. Persons deported to extermination camps, with rare exceptions, were killed immediately. There was no attempt to document these individuals upon their arrival. Examples of extermination camps are Treblinka and Belzec. There are no records of persons who were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka or from Lwow to Belzec. Similarly, persons deported to a concentration/labor camp who were killed immediately upon their arrival were not recorded at the camp.

Records were kept, however, of persons who were inmates of concentration camps or labor camps. As one son of a Holocaust survivor caustically put it, "They were inventory, and all good businessmen keep track of their inventory." Some of these records survive to this day. They include the individual's name, place of birth, birth date and identification number. Quite often they also include the names of parents and spouse as well as other information, such as occupation and street address before deportation. When death from disease, starvation and/or abuse did not occur on a massive basis in these camps, even these deaths were recorded.

Many documents were destroyed in the late days of the war by the Germans to hide their atrocities. Some of the surviving documents were captured by United States and British liberation forces, however, and have been available to the public for many years--in the United States through the National Archives. Examples include registers from Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau concentration camps. Other surviving documents that were captured by the Soviets have been made available only recently.

Events that were documented without recording specific names of individuals. This category includes the records of the Einsatzgruppen which provide the death dates of more than one million Jews. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1942 (today's Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine), these mobile killing squads of the German SS had the responsibility of killing every Jew, gypsy and political dissident in the towns captured by the regular German army. Consequently, their reports provide the death dates for almost all the Jews of the town. There are no German records of these events that list individuals.

Events for which there was no documentation. No documentation was made for the following groups:
  • Jews sent to extermination camps (as opposed to concentration camps).
  • Jews who did not survive the selection at concentration camps because they were considered unsuitable for slave labor--generally, children under 14, adults over age 50 and mothers with children under age 14. These individuals were immediately gassed.
  • Jews who hid and were discovered. Invariably they were shot immediately and no records were made of their deaths.
Deportation lists. Independent of which of the above categories apply, there is the possibility of available documentation about individuals through deportation lists. When Jews were sent from one facility to another, the Germans prepared detailed lists of individuals who were transferred. The best known lists are those of Jews deported from France, primarily to Auschwitz. They are published by the Klarsfeld Foundation under the title Memorial to the Jews Deported from France. More than 70,000 individuals are listed with names, places of birth and birth dates. Because the book is organized by the dates the trains left France, it is possible to determine the arrival dates at Auschwitz and, consequently, the death dates of individuals who were gassed immediately. Similar memorial books exist for Belgium and Netherlands.

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