Giving Survivors Their Due

Imagine if the relatives of Gitla Rosner had called off the search for her after Yad Vashem stated that she was murdered in the Holocaust.

Gitla Rosner was murdered in the Holocaust. At least, that's what it says in Yad Vashem's central database of Holocaust victims' names. But the historical facts are otherwise: Gitla Rosner survived, and she immigrated to Israel, where she died in 1977.

Gitla Rosner was one of over 200,000 prisoners confined to the Lodz ghetto. The list of the ghetto's inhabitants is now part of the Yad Vashem database - and we are pleased about that. But the Holocaust museum and research center arbitrarily decided on a description to be appended to all the names in the database, and it includes the words "he/she was murdered in the Holocaust."

It is estimated that over 7,000 of the prisoners in the Lodz ghetto survived. Yad Vashem ignores that fact, however, and appends the phrase "was murdered in the Holocaust" to the name of anyone who appears on the list, regardless of whether they died or survived.

In recent years Yad Vashem has expanded the contents of its Holocaust victims database and added important historical lists - including many that, by their nature, are not lists of people who died. Yet the sweeping description "he/she was murdered in the Holocaust" is appended to all the names appearing on those lists. This is the policy of the institution.

In the past Yad Vashem denied a request that it remove this arbitrary description. It proposed instead that we inform them of every survivor who appears in the database - and his/her name would be removed entirely. In its response, Yad Vashem claimed that it had two options: the first was "not to publish the list in order not to injure the feelings of the survivors - and then the names of tens and hundreds of thousands of victims on these lists will not appear in the database." A second option was "to publish the list without the names of those survivors of whom we are presently aware, in the knowledge that among the names of the victims there are still a few names of survivors whom we don't know about, with the intention of finding out gradually [whether they survived]."

But there is a third option; namely, to publish the names, but to refrain from an arbitrary description regarding an individual's fate, so long as it is not specifically known.

Needless to say, "statistically speaking," it's correct that most of those people who appear on Yad Vashem's lists did die, but is it proper to make statistical generalizations when presenting concrete information about people? Clearly not, we believe.

Some of the survivors and their families do not enjoy being labeled as murder victims. Nor is the proposed solution - to remove them entirely from the database - acceptable to them, since they were also there, even if they were fortunate enough to survive. As professionals, we feel that presenting the lists in their entirety is of historical value.

But the policy of Yad Vashem arouses additional problems. Since its establishment, the organization has acquired a lofty status and a reputation as an authority in the field of information about Holocaust victims. Many use its database to find information about lost branches of the family, and this sometimes leads to emotional family reunifications. Imagine if the relatives of Gitla Rosner had called off the search for her after Yad Vashem stated that she was murdered in the Holocaust.

As professional genealogists, we know how to distinguish between the facts that are found in the original and the arbitrary (and sometimes erroneous ) interpretations added by Yad Vashem. But others are more likely to be misled. For example, those claiming inheritances are liable to exploit the Yad Vashem information and claim that additional potential heirs have died - after all, that is what is officially written on the Yad Vashem website - even if those heirs are alive and well. A court would probably be inclined to rule that the Yad Vashem findings are reliable.

The sweeping policy of Yad Vashem is liable to be used as a weapon by Holocaust deniers. Gitla Rosner, who was presented as a victim, did not really die, and the same is true of many thousands of others who are presented in the database as having been murdered in the Holocaust. In this way, there is liable to be someone who will use that in order to forment doubt regarding the fate of the other millions.

The change demanded of Yad Vashem is easy to implement, but even if it were complicated, we would ask for it to be undertaken. The credibility of Yad Vashem as a professional historical authority is of utmost importance to us, and as such, it must not state what it doesn't know, which in many cases is an erroneous historical fact.

Orit Lavi, Arnon Hershkovitz and Rony Golan are professional genealogists who write the Mishpachtoblogia blog at http://mishpachtoblogia.co.il