An Ambitious Project ID'd 80% of Hungarian Jews Murdered in the Holocaust

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Jews who were deported to Auschwitz by the Hungarian Gendarmerie, Koszeg, Hungary, 1944.
Jews who were deported to Auschwitz by the Hungarian Gendarmerie, Koszeg, Hungary, 1944.Credit: Yad Vashem's archives
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Only a few years ago no one knew anything about Samuel (Shmuel) Lederer. Even his name was undocumented. The farmer and public figure, one of the 13 Jews who lived in the remote Hungarian village of Magyarmecske, disappeared without a trace.

Statistically, he was only a number, just one person out of the million anonymous Holocaust victims, whose names remained unknown some 70 years after the end of World War II.

Recently, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem completed a unique documentary project, giving Lederer his name back – along with his life story. Yad Vashem now knows not only that Lederer existed but also his birthdate (July 31, 1864), where he grew up (in the small village in southwestern Hungary’s Baranya district), his parents’ names (David Lederer and Fanni nee Honig), his younger brother’s name (Rudolph “Reszo” Lederer), his wife’s name (Gizella Fleischer) and how many children he had (two daughters).

The people responsible for turning Lederer from a number into a name with a story and life are the team behind the Names Recovery Project, which has collected the names of Hungarian Jews murdered in the Shoah for Yad Vashem for the past decade. Dr. Haim Gertner, the director of Yad Vashem’s archives division, told Haaretz last week that the team’s work is revolutionary.

The figures speak for themselves. When the project began in 2007, Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names held the names of 260,000, or around 43 percent, of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews murdered by the Nazis. The completed project added 225,000 names, such that over 80 percent of the Hungarian victims now have names.

“So far, we had the schedules of the transports and we knew when every train left Hungary for Auschwitz, from exactly where and with how many people,” said Dr. Alexander Avram, the director of Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names. “But we did not know who were the people on the trains.”

The Berger family in Miskolc, Hungary, 1929Credit: Yad Vashem's archives

The documentation they have found has made it possible to retell the stories of entire families, from which no one remained alive, added Gertner.

How was Yad Vashem able to complete the project? First, they needed to make major changes to their basic assumption that a single, unified and orderly list of all the Jews deported from Hungary exists. “For years we thought there was such a list. The moment we understood there was not, we stopped looking for it,” said Gertner.

So instead of searching for the list, they began a no less difficult mission of compiling their own list by using a combination of meticulous archive searches and the most innovative technology available to process the information they discovered.

Some 20 local researchers were recruited in Hungary, Rumania and Serbia – because parts of the other two countries belonged to Hungary during World War II. “They searched about 20 archives for a decade, and turned page after page looking for documents that detailed the fate of Hungary’s Jews in the Holocaust,” said Avram.

Dr. Alexander Avram, left, the director of Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names, and Dr. Haim Gertner, the director of Yad Vashem’s archives division.Credit: Emil Salman

Before starting their work, it was necessary to change Hungarian law to allow Yad Vashem unlimited access to the documents, some of which were personal. “In 2005, at the request of Yad Vashem, Hungary changed the law and allowed us to operate freely,” said Gertner.

The work was divided into number of stages. The first stage was mapping and surveying all the potential sources across Hungary, from central government archives to those of small towns and Jewish communities. “The greatest challenge in this critical stage was to locate the relevant material because there is no special marking of materials related to the Holocaust or Jews in some of the archives,” said Avram.

In the next stages, all the documents including the names of Jews preserved in all these archives were collected and copied. The names were hidden in correspondence and various records, for example the catalogue of Jews who were drafted into the work companies, the census conducted in Hungary, records of property confiscated from its Jewish owners and records of Jewish land owners.

Some of the documents were official papers from the Hungarian interior, defense and agriculture ministries. Other documents were found in the archives of local, sometimes extinct, Jewish communities. “In certain cases, no one was left from the community but its archive survived in the house of one of the members’ neighbors,” said Avram.

Yad Vashem amassed some 168,000 files containing 2.5 million pages and listing 694,000 names of Jews. Then then needed to find out which Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, who survived, and who were already listed in Yad Vashem’s database.

The Jews of Koszeg being led to the city's ghetto in Hungary, 1944Credit: Yad Vashem's archives

The Yad Vashem team used innovative technology that allowed it to manage the large amounts of data gathered from different sources in different formats and of varying quality. The key term was “big data,” one of the hottest fields in high tech today. “Today, we know how to conduct smart and far-reaching searches with various partitioning and with an enormous amount of material, which in the past no one would have dreamed it was possible to do,” said Gertner.

The 694,000 names were then entered directly into the Yad Vashem database, where the team processed the data, cross checking it and looking for duplicates, to identify the 225,000 new names.

One of them was Shmuel Lederer. His information was hiding in two different documents, preserved in different archives. One was his “labor service” card in Hungary, issued by the Hungarian Defense Ministry. The other document was found in a collection of Agriculture Ministry files, which dealt with confiscating land from Jews.

Studying the documents revealed not just Lederer’s name but also the story of his life – and death. It turns out that along with his brother, he inherited 77 dunams (19.25 acres) of land. He also was an active participant in public life in his village and county. He served as the government-appointed village magistrate and as a member of the regional council.

In 1939, the second anti-Jewish law took effect in Hungary, which allowed the confiscation of the property of Jewish landowners. In 1941, the two Lederer brothers filed a complaint in the court in the nearby city of Pecs against the confiscation of their property. The complaint was of course rejected and the Agriculture Ministry issued the final decision on their property’s confiscation in October 1942.

The Rosenfeld family in Hungary before the warCredit: Yad Vashem's archives

Shmuel Lederer and his wife Gizella were murdered in Auschwitz on May 28, 1944. They were but two of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews murdered by the Nazis, one-tenth of all the Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Lederer’s name has now been added to the 4.7 million other names in Yad Vashem’s online database of Holocaust victims. The exact number of Jewish Holocaust victims is unknown. “There is a very large argument since the 1960s among scholars, demographers and historians,” said Avram. “The estimates vary from 5.1 million to 6.1 million. The majority opinion is close to 6 million.”

“We are trying to reach 5 million [names]. Beyond that it is almost impossible,” said Avram when asked about his goals. The reason a complete reckoning cannot be achieved is related to the lack of documentation of many of the acts of murder.

“Most of the names of those murdered in Central and Western Europe – like France, Italy, Germany, Holland and Belgium – are known because there was documentation for them; in other places the situation is different,” said Avram. “In the Soviet Union, Jews were murdered all over the place without any records. In most of the Polish ghettos, records were not preserved and the Jews were sent from there directly to extermination.”

The project to gather the names of all Shoah victims started in 1954. For the first few decades it was conducted using “Pages of Testimony” filled out by survivors and the victims’ families, which listed the victims’ names and other details. Now the entire searchable database is available online, while new names can be added using online “Pages of Testimony.”

The Mendel family in Mukachevo, Hungary (now a part of Ukraine), 1939Credit: Yad Vashem's archives

New names are still being discovered through these pages, but Yad Vashem directs most of the resources in a different direction.

“The Names Recovery Project is continuing and will remain with us until the last name, but our work methods have changed,” said Gertner. “Today we are aided by technology to use the existing databases in a smart way and to retrieve details that we could not in the past,” he adds. The case of Hungary demonstrates this. The “new” names discovered during the Hungarian project did not come from pages of testimony but were simply waiting for decades for someone to come and extract the names from the archives gathering dust in Hungary and neighboring countries.

The project was carried out with the support of the French Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. Yad Vashem is using the same model for other name gathering projects for Poland, where about 900,000 names of Jewish victims are still missing, the former Soviet Union and Balkan nations.

“This is the most successful project we are running in the field of Holocaust documentation. We hope to succeed similarly in [the other nations], too,” said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s chairman.

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