Joseph Finkelstein had never seen a photograph of his grandfather. The family had no idea when he died or where he was buried. Finkelstein's father last saw him on April 28, 1945, when they were separated at Mathaussen Concentration Camp in Austria.
For decades Finkelstein's father, who's now 85, had carried an enormous load of guilt because they got split up. It took years of poring over microfilm and original documents for them to begin to find answers, but a Washington museum is hoping to use the Internet to make the process go faster for other families.
Persistent research at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — and even a trip to Poland and Austria — helped the family learn in the last two years that Jakob Finkelstein had survived to see the camp's liberation but died four days later, simply too sick and weak. And he had a real burial spot in a municipal cemetery in Austria.
It's resources like those that the museum hopes to make available to people around the world with the ease of a few keystrokes.
"I'm stunned. I thought everything was lost, that there was no way to find anything more," said Joseph Finkelstein, 59, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Ancestry.com announced Tuesday that they are recruiting the public to help build the world's largest online database of information on victims of the Holocaust. The World Memory Project aims to make the museum's 170 million documents easily searchable for free online. Curators say the records contain information on at least 17 million people targeted by the Nazis.
About 50,000 of those records are currently searchable by name on the website, but much more work needs to be done, said Lisa Yavnai, director of the museum's Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center.
"You might have a collection of 700 microfilm reels from Poland, but if you're looking for one person, it's really hard to find," she said.
Predating its project with the museum, Provo, Utah-based Ancestry has built a network of 60,000 volunteers who index records that include genealogies and municipal records to make them searchable. Anyone can join the effort now to help index Holocaust records that include German occupation records, community records from across Europe and displaced persons records from the Allied forces after the war.
The project's organizers plan to enlist survivors, teachers, students and museum visitors to help.
"If anyone who's been through the museum or read a book or had an experience around the Holocaust where you felt like 'I wish I could do something' or 'I want to do something,' to me this is the opportunity to do it," said Ancestry content director Quinton Atkinson.
The more people who participate, the faster the records can be indexed. The museum expects the project to span several years.
"We do feel like there is time pressure because we want to get the information to survivors and their families before it's too late," Yavnai said. "So we really want to get it done."
The youngest Holocaust survivors are in their 70s and 80s now.
Ancestry has donated its proprietary software and will manage and host the online database. A volunteer will be able to access a digital copy of a document from any computer, and read whatever was hand-written or typed on it. They then fill out a form online with names and other identifying information that links the document to the digital database. The process only takes a few minutes.
The process is repeated by another volunteer for each document to ensure accuracy, and an arbitrator serves as a final check.
Those who search can obtain copies of the original records from the museum's research center.
An internship at the museum allowed 26-year-old Ewa Pekalska to find records of her grandmother's time at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"It's a great opportunity for my generation and for my parents as well," said Pekalska, a U.S. college student from Warsaw, Poland. "Especially right now, for Europe and the European Union, we are looking for our identity more than ever because everything is globalized."
She plans to help with the indexing project when she returns home this month to Poland.
Digitization efforts also are under way with archives kept by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Joseph Finkelstein said the research allowed him to put a gravestone on his grandfather's unmarked grave and see a picture of Jakob Finkelstein for the first time. For his 85-year-old father in Vineland, N.J., it meant easing his guilt over his father's death. Sol Finkelstein had long felt that if he had stayed with his father in the Jewish section of the camp, rather than hiding among Spanish prisoners, the man might have survived.
"What I found is there's truth to be discovered that has been unknown for almost seven decades," he said. "What I discovered is my grandfather — that he existed in that world. It's part of my past and I've recovered part of it."