A line drawing gave me the first tangible evidence of a past my late mother had kept secret. Nearly 20 years after her death in 1993, I learned she had been a Holocaust survivor, something she never spoke of during her lifetime. Uncovering her story led me to a survivor in Melbourne, Australia, and eventually, to a remote region in the Czech Republic with a printout of the sketch she gave me, depicting Gabersdorf, a women’s forced labor camp where they had been incarcerated. It now lay in ruins.
I felt compelled to salvage this history before there were no traces left, which propelled me on a global search for Gabersdorf survivors, which I'm documenting in my film, My Underground Mother, and to curate a monument honoring this overlooked women's Holocaust history, which I unveiled with survivors and the mayor of the town. I had planned to return this year to mark the 75th anniversary of liberation, but that trip became just one of the many commemorations cut short or cancelled by the global pandemic.
With large gatherings currently out of the picture, most live Holocaust and World War II heritage trips, gatherings, and exhibits were cancelled or moved online for this momentous anniversary year, which is perhaps the last chance survivors would had to reunite in person. Fortunately, Holocaust and World War II educators, curators, and historical institutions have been at the vanguard of using technologies like searchable archives, virtual and augmented reality, and 3D printing to preserve and transmit history in ways that engage a new generation.
I learned of Gabersdorf, the dates of my mother’s incarceration, the name of the displaced persons camp where she resided after the war, and other personal documents that helped me unearth her past through the Arolsen Archives in Germany, formerly known as the International Tracing Service, the largest international collection of prisoner and camp records of the German National Socialists (the Nazi party). The collection, which has records about 17.5 million people, many of them stored on index cards like the one I found pertaining to my mother, was made available to the public in 2008 through researchers at institutions like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which have since helped Arolsen digitize 26 million documents. Last year, Arolsen released 13 million of those documents on their site, making it easier to trace a family member’s wartime whereabouts.
The archives recently launched “Every Name Counts,” an interactive way to honor the millions lost to Nazi persecution through crowdsourcing. When commemorations for concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen were canceled in April, Arolsen decided to post records from them with Zooniverse, an online platform that enables citizen and student volunteers to participate research projects. The goal is to engage a new generation already well-familiar with digital sleuthing by inviting them to help build the largest digital archive of Holocaust victims.
“My kids and students tend to think of ceremonies as passive,” says Floriane Azoulay, director of Arolsen Archives. “‘Every Name Counts’” allows students from all over the world to help us index the names and make them more accessible to the families searching for the fate of their loved ones.” She calls this “active remembrance,” and a silver lining to the cancellations. “Some 5,000 registered to participate, which enabled us to index one million names in the first eight weeks of the COVID lockdown,” says Azoulay. As of July, 27% of the archive had been transcribed.