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A Memorial And A Name That Technology-Wise Shall Not Be Cut Off

20 במאי, 2007 מאת ארנון · 10 תגובות

It has been two and a half years since the launching of the online version of the "Hall of Names" of Yad Vashem, which consists of millions of Pages of Testimony. For many genealogists with some direct or indirect connections to persons who perished during the Holocaust, it was a sign for a possible breakthrough in their research. Moving only their computer-mouse, they surfed for hours, viewing dozens and hundreds of Pages of Testimony, and found most valuable information about their relatives. Furthermore, built-in search engines made it possible to find unknown relatives. Stories of success in finding relatives and even of exciting after-many-years meetings started to be popular.

Following the first response of great excitement, a new insight popped up: not only Holocaust victims are documented within this huge database, but also Holocaust survivors and other living relatives. Since every Page of Testimony was filled-up by someone – that someone was alive after the war, and potentially was related to the victim. Using the new database as a fertile ground for finding lost or unknown relatives was of great importance for all of us.

But, as always, great expectations end-up in great disappointment. Many of those who filled-up Pages of Testimony signed only with their names and without any other detail which might be helpful in locating them. Others, who explicitly signed with their full addresses, did it in the early 1950s, and those details are useless now. Locating those who submitted Pages of Testimony often turned out to be a very difficult task. "Ellis Island" Website was mentioned as a model to enabling user annotations to be associated in a huge database. Many wondered if it was possible to add such a mechanism to the "Hall of Names" Website, hence to enable communication between surfers who are interested on the same Page of Testimony.

Coming with suggestions in that spirit to Yad Vashem seniors, all they had to say is that by law, the objective of their institute is to immortalize the victims and not to help the livings with genealogical tasks. Following this, nothing was about to change in the Website. The genealogy community thought of ways to help each other in locating the Pages of Testimony's submitters, and an initiative by IGS took place a short time afterwards. However, it was clear from the very beginning that this solution may only be helpful in small scale, and that the proper solution was not yet found. Well, it is found now!

ShoahConnect.org, launching today, is based on a simple yet most powerful idea: enabling the association of e-mail addresses with Pages of Testimony. The application of this idea is quite easy to understand: while viewing a Page of Testimony on Yad Vashem's website, you will simply click a button to associate your email address with that Page. From that point and on, you will get a notification about any future user who will be interested in your marked Pages. This way, communication is enabled between people who are interested on the same Page of Testimony.

logan.jpgThe initiator and developer of this new exciting Website is Logan J. Kleinwaks of (on the photo), a hobbyist genealogist who stands behind some other fascinating online genealogy services (the most famous of which is the Search Engine for Online Historical Directories). Kleinwaks is the coordinator of the Danzig/Gdansk SIG, and his general interests genealogy-wise include the photographic documentation of Jewish cemeteries and improving Internet access to genealogical information.

In an e-mail interview with Kleinwaks, a 27y/o of VA, he publicly talks for the first time about the new site, and clarifies some very important technical and privacy issues. The interview is also translated to Hebrew.

We've also got a formal response from Yad Vashem regarding the new ShoahConnect.org Website:

"It is a private initiative which seems to be blessed. We are not related to it, but glad that our Website can help others."

* * *

Q. May you kindly tell us a little about yourself – a short (both regular and genealogy-oriented) bio? Do you have an interesting story related to the "Pages of Testimony" from your own research?

A. My non-genealogical background is in math and physics research. Genealogically, I have the most experience with Galician research, documenting more than 3,500 members of one Galician family (Kalter) over the past three years. I am the Coordinator of the JewishGen Danzig/Gdansk Special Interest Group, and my other general genealogical interests include the improvement of Internet access to genealogical data, genealogical data privacy, and the photographic documentation of Jewish cemeteries.

I do have an interesting story related to Pages of Testimony, which I hope will inspire others to keep searching for lost relatives. A relative of mine recently discovered that an aunt of his had submitted a Page of Testimony a few years ago — very important, because the aunt was thought by her siblings to have died in the Shoah. It turned out that the aunt had thought her siblings had died, despite significant efforts searching for them, so neither group new about the other, after 60 years. There was a wonderful reunion, bringing together the aunt from Moscow and her nephew and nieces from Belgium, and this was made possible as a result of genealogical research and the kindness of fellow genealogists.

Q. May you please describe the new ShoahConnect Website, from your point of view?

A. ShoahConnect is a tool to be used in conjunction with Yad Vashem's website, enabling email addresses to be associated with Pages of Testimony and facilitating semi-private contact between people associated with the same Pages. It will, I hope, make it easier for researchers to contact the submitters (or their close relatives) of Pages of Testimony, if those submitters wish to be contacted, and for relatives to find each other via a Page of Testimony for a common relative.

Each time an association is added, ShoahConnect checks whether any new matches result — for example, whether the association is as submitter for a Page for which there are already relatives associated. Depending on the options users select, ShoahConnect then automatically notifies by email anyone who can initiate contact with a new match. The initial contact is made through ShoahConnect, and is "semi-private" in that the email address of a receiver is not revealed to the sender, unless the receiver chooses to respond. If the receiver chooses to respond, any further correspondence occurs normally through email. Under this system, the typical usage for a submitter would be to use ShoahConnect once to associate himself with a Page of Testimony he submitted, then wait to receive contact from relatives who also associate themselves with the same Page, then decide whether to respond — by not responding, the submitter would not make his email address public to anyone, and, by responding, he would make his email address public only to the sender.

The usefulness of ShoahConnect will depend greatly on the number of people who use it. The more associations that are added, the greater the chance for matches. Based on useage statistics for Yad Vashem's Shoah Victims' Database, it seems likely that the number of associations will greatly exceed the number of users, so the numbers might quickly increase (e.g., I personally associated myself as a relative for more than 100 Pages). I expect ShoahConnect will eventually become an essential tool not only for Jewish genealogists, but for anyone trying to learn the fate of relatives or friends who disappeared in the Shoah.

Q. How did you come to build this new Website: What were your main motives? Who helped you?

A. I conceived of ShoahConnect while listening to a lecture last summer at the 26th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in New York. Rose Feldman of the Israel Genealogical Society was discussing her efforts to help locate submitters of Pages of Testimony on behalf of some 800 researchers, and I thought that an automated approach to this very time-consuming process could work on a larger scale. Discussions with several people at the Conference and with others since then have provided additional ideas for the site's design (and I certainly continue to welcome suggestions).

My main motive in creating ShoahConnect is to reunite families separated by the Shoah. Genealogy is obviously related to this goal, but I have in mind especially the very close connections that were severed — e.g., between siblings — which have the greatest poignancy to me.

Q. What was Yad Vashem attitude towards the initiative? Do they perceive it as an upgrade to their most valued Website, or as an interference with their own activities?

A. Zvi Bernhardt of Yad Vashem has provided helpful ideas, but Yad Vashem has not officially offered any cooperation. I would not expect Yad Vashem to form an opinion of the impact of ShoahConnect on its activities until ShoahConnect becomes heavily used, though. Most importantly, Yad Vashem has not created any barriers to the operation of ShoahConnect. If ShoahConnect helps close relatives separated by the Shoah to find each other, I would certainly view it as adding important functionality to Yad Vashem's website.

Q. From the technical point of view, could you describe the cooperation with Yad Vashem? (e.g., can anyone have an access to the data from Yad Vashem Website as your new Website has?)

A. I designed ShoahConnect to work without needing any technical cooperation from Yad Vashem, but also to be able to easily benefit from such cooperation, should it occur. Currently, the interaction between ShoahConnect and Yad Vashem is mediated by the Google Toolbar. Clicking the ShoahConnect button on the Toolbar sends ShoahConnect the browser's current URL, which contains sufficient information to enable ShoahConnect to operate. Additional functionality could be added in other ways, both with and without Yad Vashem's cooperation, but some technical details of Yad Vashem's website make it difficult (though not impossible) to access data not contained in a URL.

Q. After the refusal of Yad Vashem to a formal cooperation, do you have any intentions to offer this Website to be hosted under any other holocaust-related organization/Website?

A. If any Holocaust- or genealogy-related organizations or Websites believe ShoahConnect is useful to their members or users, and would like to promote it, I would like to mention this on ShoahConnect, as a means of inspiring confidence among my users. Such support from multiple organizations would be more helpful than "hosting" from a single organization, I think.

However, if there is an organization that believes a more formal cooperation could be beneficial to ShoahConnect's users, I would certainly entertain that possibility — but, only if it respected users' privacy in the ways I currently do, and only if it could be required to never weaken that respect.

I would also have to be confident of the non-commercial nature of its activities. I would want any cooperation to be transparent to ShoahConnect's users, so they could decide how it might impact them.

Q. Is the new ShoahConnect Website prepared to a big amount of users? What are its technical limits regarding user-traffic?

A. The amount of bandwidth used per user will probably be small for two reasons: 1) the typical user will likely not visit ShoahConnect often — after associating himself with Pages of Testimony, he will only visit again if matches are made; 2) the site has almost no graphics and not even much text, so the amount of data transferred per visit should be low.

Nevertheless, I am prepared to adjust the website's hosting to allow for greater bandwidth as needed, and I should be able to do that quickly. If one million people log on within minutes of this interview being published, there might be problems, but I think that, realistically, we should be okay.

Q. Technically, where will the database of the users be kept? How can you ensure its stability? Who will be in charge on the Website and the databases maintenance for the long-term? Is there a need for financial support in the Website, and if so – what are your plans about it?

A. The database is kept in two places, one remote and one local to me (and offline). I do not yet know the long-term maintenance needs, as they depend on how heavily the site is used, but I am doing all maintenance now and have no plans to change that. I am currently paying the limited expenses of the site myself. If additional support were eventually needed, it would have to not alter the non-commercial nature of the site. In other words, I am not going to sell advertising or products on the site, sell user data, etc. I will trust that, if the need arises because of massive use of the site, some kind soul will assist.

Q. How will you protect the privacy of the users and the users' data?

A. The most important thing users should understand regarding their privacy is that the only personal information they need provide is an email address.

There are services that offer free email addresses, and anyone who is very concerned is welcome to use one of them to create a new email address especially for this purpose. No names, postal addresses, credit card data, etc. are even collected by ShoahConnect. We also do not store the contact messages sent by users through the site. Next most important is that the email addresses are not made public on the website. Your email address is only shared if 1) you send a contact message through ShoahConnect, on the basis of a match, in which case it is shared with the matching recipient(s), or 2) you receive such a contact message and choose to respond, in which case it is shared with the sender. You can read more about our privacy protections at http://www.shoahconnect.org/privacy.php. If anyone has additional concerns, I would like to hear them. If you are a submitter, you have probably already provided more personal information on a Page of Testimony you submitted.

Please note that ShoahConnect does not attempt to verify the identities of its users. So, if someone contacts you through the site claiming to be a relative, it is up to you to judge whether this is true and whether to respond.

Q. Are you planning on translating the new Website's interface to other languages?

A. I would like ShoahConnect's interface to be available in other languages, but I need help to do this. I would like to hear from anyone who can help with translation into another language (this requires fluency in English and the other language).

Q. We would like to take the opportunity and thank you for your other genealogical initiatives, which are highly valuable to us. We mainly refer to the search engines of the Business Directories of Poland, Galicia and Romania and to the FamilyTreeRegistry.org. Would you kindly remind us of other projects we are not aware of?

A. Thank you. I am also leading efforts to advance genealogical research on the Jews of Danzig (now, Gdansk, Poland), as Coordinator of the JewishGen Danzig/Gdansk Special Interest Group. I encourage anyone with relatives from Danzig to visit our Website, and contact me for more information. There are many opportunities to become involved in our projects to preserve the memory of this unusual Jewish Community, which amazingly managed to save much of its historical documentation. Actually, anyone with an interest in preserving Jewish history, even without a connection to Danzig, could potentially participate, if able to read German or Hebrew.

Q. Do you plan, or work on, new projects – and if so, can you share?…

A. I have several ideas, but I am not actively working on anything else. One of the ideas is to make Yizkor Books searchable, using optical character recognition software, as I did for business directories. This would be useful, because the Yizkor Books are very large, and many do not contain complete (or any) name indices. It could also help you discover relatives in Yizkor Books for towns where you did not know any relatives lived. Another idea concerns the systematic photographic documentation of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe on a large scale. Without going into the details, I would like to say that it could provide excellent publicity for a corporate sponsor in the areas of education, youth, history, culture, and technology, and could yield greater corporate visibility in Eastern Europe.

Readers in positions of corporate or philanthropic responsibility are welcome to contact me for more information.

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10 תגובות↓

  • 1 Ellen Moshenberg // 22 מאי, 2007 בשעה 14:31

    Thanks so much to Logan for all his efforts and to Mishpachatologia
    for giving us the fascinating interview in English translation.
    Hag samaech, Ellen, Arad

  • 2 Lynn Davis // 29 יול, 2008 בשעה 21:16

    Mr. Kleiwaks, good day

    I am writing to introduce the DNA Shoah Project, a non-profit humanitarian effort at the University of Arizona that aims to reunite families disrupted by the Holocaust. We are building a database of genetic material from Shoah survivors and their immediate descendants in an attempt to match displaced relatives, provide wartime orphans and lost children with information about their biological families and eventually, when the database has reached sufficient size, assist in the identification of Holocaust-era victims whose remains continue to surface. The project contains an educational component as well, employing current science and technology to teach the Holocaust in our schools. There is no cost to participants.

    The project’s cofounders include Syd Mandelbaum, a scientist with a background in genetics and the son of two Holocaust survivors, and Dr. Michael Hammer, a renowned research scientist at the University of Arizona who specializes in human population genetics.

    The success of our work depends on the creation of as large a database as possible. We are actively seeking DNA samples from survivors and second- and third-generation family members and we are traveling extensively to promote the project. We hope to use this window of opportunity to gather as many DNA samples as we can from survivors and their family members around the globe, thereby creating a genetic testimony and legacy for victims of the Holocaust. The contribution that an audience of genealogists can make to this effort is immeasurable.

    I invite you to visit our web site (www.dnashoah.org) for additional information. I would like to discuss with you the possibility of linking your site to ours and viv-versa. We will again have a booth and a presentation at the IAJGS conference in Chicago this August; I hope to see you there.

    Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions, or to request additional materials.

    All the best,
    Lynn Davis

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