November 25, 2004
Becoming a Nephew
Today, I am a nephew. Last weekend, the names of more than 3 million persons murdered in the Holocaust were posted on the Internet as part of a searchable database created by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Yad Vashem was established in 1950 by an act of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, as the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance authority. From its very inception, it has taken on the task of being a repository for the names and memory of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
In the 1950s, researchers at Yad Vashem created a simple form called the "Page of Testimony" to list the names, birthplace, birthdate, place and date of death (if known) of the murdered. In the 1950s, researchers went door-to-door in Israel to gather data. At the same time, visitors to Yad Vashem were encouraged to add their own information.
But even filling out such forms could be difficult. I remember attempting to help my father fill out such a form. As he never talked about his murdered brothers and sisters, he found it difficult to even write their names.
His parents he could name, but not knowing the exact place of their death stymied him. To this day, I'm not exactly sure what information he submitted. But now I should be able to check.
By the mid-1990s, Yad Vashem had gathered 2 million names. As computerization made the possibility of organizing a giant database ever more of a reality, a new push was undertaken to gather names.
My cousin, Mike Sherwood, called me to say he had filled out forms about his family in Tarnopol and encouraged me to submit information I had uncovered during a trip to Ukraine in 1995. I did so (and forgot about it until today).
In 1999, the Swiss bank scandal gave an unexpected boost to the project. The Volker Commission, established to track victims' assets in Swiss Banks, ended up unleashing a chain reaction of people submitting forms to Yad Vashem. One Yad Vashem official estimated that they received an additional 400,000 names as a result.
According to a story this week in The Times of London, over the last five years, more than 1,000 persons worked, sometimes around the clock, to transfer the now more than 3 million handwritten forms to the computer database.
It is, of course, a race against time, as the survivors die out. However, it is expected that their families and relatives will now have a chance to check the databases and this will provide one more wave of submissions.
Nessa Rapoport, who first told me about the database going online, e-mailed to tell me that she was up all night, finding details about relatives that were thought lost to history -- these are profound and powerful moments, and I can't wait to read what Nessa writes about her experience. Yad Vashem's Web site (www.yadvashem.org) will launch a thousand (if not millions) of journeys of discovery.
I went online this morning, and although I spent an hour, I have barely scratched the surface. There were six pages on "Teichholz" (the original spelling). There was a whole branch in The Netherlands that I never knew about who were deported and died in transit or camps such as Bergen-Belsen. There were Teichholzes from Kielce, from Tarnopol, Lvov and several other cities I've never heard of.
I have already made discoveries in the database. When I visited Lvov in 1995, I had found a record of a Wolf Teichholz. As he was not part of my father's direct family, I had no idea who he was. I learned this morning that he was related to relatives of my cousin Mike in Tarnopol; that he had a wife, Rachel, and a son, Meier, born in 1930 who all died in 1941.
In the database, I found the listings for my father's parents, Izak and Henia, and his brothers and sisters (Josef, Aron and Sara). When I clicked on Izak, I found his birthdate, his marital status and other information. This was tremendously satisfying.
Still, I can't properly convey the shock I felt when I clicked on the link that explained who submitted the information. What the computer listed was simple. It said: "GRANDSON."
Though I knew my maternal grandmother and was very close to her, I had never been able to imagine myself as a grandson to my father's father. I could barely think of him as a grandfather. He was a person divorced from my consciousness, separated by a lost world, a person lost in the Holocaust, lost to me -- hardly my murdered grandfather. Until now, when this simple listing made the loss fresh.
Similarly, I had grown up with no uncles and aunts, no cousins and nieces -- only a set of people we called "Uncle" and "Aunt" who were distant relatives. Even my cousin, Mike is, in fact, my father's second cousin. It was similarly shocking to see myself listed on a form about my father's brother, Aron, as his nephew.
A nephew was, I had always believed, something allowed only to people with parents born in America. I was strangely and deeply moved by the fact that I had been a nephew all these years and never really known it.
Today I became a grandson. Today I became a nephew. Across time and history, www.yadvashem.org reminds us what a powerful medium the Internet is, and how an attempt at mass murder and genocide can be undone by the collaborative power of memory.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.