New Life From Old Archives

An agreement with Ukraine gives Yad Vashem access to long-forgotten files that are expected to reveal information about hundreds of thousands of unidentified Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In a modest ceremony, with no media presence, a trailblazing agreement was signed last month between Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority and the archives of the Ukrainian KGB. The agreement is expected to upgrade historical research on the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews who were persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian security services will supply Yad Vashem with invaluable World War II documents, including lists of deported and murdered Jews, the minutes of meetings held by officials of the Ukrainian security forces following the liberation of the concentration and death camps, and information on the trials of those involved in killing Jews.

"This is a real breakthrough; it is a major event of outstanding importance," Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, told Haaretz.

A German soldier being received by Soviet Ukrainian women, 1941. Credit: German Federal Archive

In the next few months, the institution's researchers will visit the archives in Kiev to begin photocopying documents. Afterward, back in Jerusalem, they will catalog and process them, in an attempt to identify as many names as possible of Jewish Holocaust victims. These names will be added to Yad Vashem's database, which still lacks the names of some two million Jewish victims, most of them from Eastern Europe. Additionally, Yad Vashem is hopeful that the new documents will enable Holocaust researchers to retell the personal histories of other victims who up until now were identified only by a name.

"The new agreement," explained Shalev, "is part of our efforts to dramatically increase our knowledge of the annihilation of the Jews of the Soviet Union during the Holocaust."

The unique, sophisticated computer software to be used by researchers will enable them to categorize complex data at the level of first names, to cross-check that data with other information received from additional sources, and to thereby receive a comprehensive, general picture.The cost of the archival research is estimated at several hundred thousand dollars for each archive to be visited by Yad Vashem staffers, the bulk of that going to photocopying.

"We are not looking for the historical narrative or for depictions of battles," noted Dr. Haim Gertner, Yad Vashem's director of archives. "What we are looking for, first and foremost, is information about individuals, about the victims and about their respective fates."

In recent years, Yad Vashem's activities in the archives of the former Soviet Union have expanded, thanks to generous financial support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the European Jewish Fund. In addition to financing the archival research, this money will enable Yad Vashem to intensify research on the annihilation of the Jews of the Soviet Union during the Holocaust, and to expand activities in the field of teaching the Holocaust to new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The opening of the archives in the former Soviet Union and the use of advanced software are enabling Yad Vashem to reconstruct family trees and to tell the stories of families whose existence was unknown up until now.

One example of such genealogical restoration is the story of the Begun family, all of whose members perished in the Holocaust. The location of this family and reconstruction of their lives was made possible following the discovery of tax declarations and population registry forms that sat unseen for decades in archives in Eastern Europe. According to Gertner, the genealogical restoration of the Begun family is a fine example of the immense power of bureaucratic forms, "which can, at first glance, appear to be moldy and uninteresting."

His colleague Masha Yonin related how she felt goosebumps after the archival research on the Beguns had been completed: "We succeeded in bringing back an entire family from the grave, after it had been erased from history. Now the Kaddish [memorial prayer] can be said over its members."

Dr. Arie Begun, who was born in 1890, was a physician in the city of Brest-Litovsk (known in Yiddish as Brisk ), which is today called Brest, in Belarus. Up until the 17th century, Brest-Litovsk was the central metropolis of spiritual life and Torah study for Lithuania's Jews. Its onetime inhabitants included Menachem Begin and the father of Ariel Sharon. On the eve of World War II, 40 percent of Brest's population was Jewish.

Begun, his wife and their two daughters were murdered in 1942. None of their relations or friends survived the war. During the 70 years that passed from the time of their murder, it was as if the entire family had vanished. The only mention of the Beguns appeared in a Yad Vashem form filled out in 1967 by a Tel Aviv resident, who wrote that he and Arie Begun were from the same city.

In the municipal archives of Brest, Yad Vashem researchers discovered a little-known collection of some 12,000 application forms for identity cards that had been submitted by the city's Jewish residents to the authorities immediately after the start of the German occupation of the city. Among those documents was Arie Begun's application, which had submitted together with his photograph. He listed his profession as "physician."

The researchers then located Begun's tax declaration form, signed on October 20, 1941, before the city's Jewish inhabitants were moved into the ghetto. From this form, the researchers learned that Dr. Begun was a dermatologist and that he had a clinic on Pilsudskiego Street. Although Begun declared a monthly income of 810 rubles, the tax assessor added the comment that Begun's earnings were much higher, reaching 6,840 rubles a month. This was because Begun neglected to declare that he received 30 patients daily in his home.

Two months later, on December 21, 1941, Begun submitted his annual tax declaration. His address was different now: 73 Kostuszko Street. The researchers learned from this change in address that Begun had been transferred to the ghetto. "He works in a Jew-clinic in the ghetto and earns approximately 200 rubles a month," wrote the income tax assessor.

Eight months later, on August 31, 1942, Begun filled out another tax declaration. He was now earning only about 100 rubles monthly from his work in the Judenrat clinic. In contrast with the previous form, it was now explicitly written that Begun was working "only inside the ghetto." This is apparently the last document signed by Begun before his death. A month and a half later, in mid-October 1941, all those remaining in the ghetto were murdered.

Another archive, in Moscow, was found to hold a list of the names of the murdered Jews of Brest-Litovsk. It had been drawn up by one of the Soviet committees investigating Nazi crimes that had been set up under Joseph Stalin's orders, which accompanied the Red Army as it reentered regions that had been liberated from the Nazis. According to this list, Arie Begun was 52 at the time of his death. More important, the list revealed that he had a family, all of whose members were murdered with him. The Yad Vashem researchers thus discovered the three other members of Begun's family: his wife Sofia, aged 48, and his two daughters, Sisilia, 22, and Shulamit, 16. The fact that one of his daughters was named Shulamit (Sulamifia in Russian ) and that he signed the above official papers "Arie," instead of using the accepted Russian alternative, "Lev," demonstrated to the researchers that the Beguns had been a Zionist family.

"Thus," summed up Yonin, "from bureaucratic forms, we recreated an entire family. Had it not been for the archival documentation, we would have never known about the family's existence." Yonin described it as "a very moving event."

Last summer, Yad Vashem completed the mapping of yet another such "unknown" family. In an archive in Riga, capital of Latvia, Yad Vashem researchers located books containing the administrative records of the city's tenants' committees. In one of those records, dating from 1941, the name of Minka Chakars nee Edelman appears; she is listed as having been born in 1910 and as living at 132 Marijas Street in Riga together with her only daughter Austra, who was born in 1940.

A close study of later records also found in this archive showed that on October 22, 1941, Minka moved to 2 Katolu Street, which was inside the ghetto. However, by the end of that year, she had moved back to her original address, which was outside. The researchers, who knew very well why she had entered the ghetto, could not understand how she had emerged alive and how she had returned to her home within only a few short months.

The answer was provided by three additional documents. The first was an order published by the Germans on October 7, 1941; it declared that any Jewess married to a Latvian could continue to live with him if he consented and on condition that she underwent sterilization.

The second document is a list of 47 Jewish and gypsy women who underwent sterilization surgery in 1942 and 1943. Minka's name appears on that list. In the hospital-discharge form that the physician filled out, he wrote down in Latin that Minka's operation had taken place on April 28, 1942. The third document found was a certificate indicating that she had converted to Christianity in 1941. It was issued on October 24, 1941, two days after Minka's internment in the ghetto.

The testimony of a relative who was still living helped Yad Vashem's researchers complete the narrative of Minka's story. According to it, Minka was a Latvian Jewess who had married a Christian named Vilhelms Chakars. In order to save her life and that of her daughter, she converted after the Nazis took over Riga. After she was evacuated to the ghetto, her husband asked his priest for an authorization that she had been baptized. The husband then bribed police officials with gold jewelry and they agreed to release her from the ghetto; apparently, he promised them that she would undergo sterilization, in accordance with the Nazi directive.

Minka and her daughter survived the war. Minka passed away on March 8, 1992, and her daughter died 15 years later. Minka's granddaughter today lives in Riga. Thanks to the recently discovered documents, she now knows that her grandmother was Jewish. The granddaughter agreed to the publicizing of her family's story here, for the sake of her grandmother's memory, but refused to have her own identity disclosed.



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