How Crowdsourcing Aided a Push to Preserve the Histories of Nazi Victims

How Crowdsourcing Aided a Push to Preserve the Histories of Nazi Victims

While the coronavirus pandemic has painfully upended lives and businesses around the world, the lockdowns it caused are providing a unique boost for one group’s effort to help heal a generations-old wound: Nazi atrocities.

As the virus prompted lockdowns across Europe, the director of the Arolsen Archives — the world’s largest devoted to the victims of Nazi persecution — joined millions of others working remotely from home and spending lots more time in front of her computer.

“We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity,’” said the director, Floriane Azoulay.

Two months later, the archive’s “Every Name Counts” project has attracted thousands of online volunteers to work as amateur archivists, indexing names from the archive’s enormous collection of papers. To date, they have added over 120,000 names, birth dates and prisoner numbers in the database.

“There’s been much more interest than we expected,” Ms. Azoulay said. “The fact that people were locked at home and so many cultural offerings have moved online has played a big role.”

It’s a big job: The Arolsen Archives are the largest collection of their kind in the world, with more than 30 million original documents. They contain information on the wartime experiences of as many as 40 million people, including Jews executed in extermination camps and forced laborers conscripted from across Nazi-occupied Europe.

The documents, which take up 16 miles of shelving, include things like train manifests, delousing records, work detail assignments and execution records.

Credit…Arolsen Archives

Gathered up by the Allied forces after World War II and stored in a small town north of Frankfurt, the material was used by the International Committee of the Red Cross after the war to help reunite thousands of families and help many more reach some sort of closure.

The archive began scanning and digitizing its collection in the late 1980s. In the last year, 26 million scanned documents have been posted online. For descendants, relatives, historians and curious members of the public, the online collection is a singular resource.

“No one can overstate the importance of that archive,” said Deborah Dwork, a Holocaust historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “It’s quintessential.”

Yet searching the records for specific people remains difficult. Most of the archive’s collection — particularly handwritten prisoner lists from concentration camps and other hard-to-read material — is not indexed by name.

“We’ve had 20 or 30 staffers indexing documents day in and day out for 20 years, but we have 30 million documents,” Ms. Azoulay said. “It’s just not feasible to do it all ourselves.”

Over the past five years, the archive has turned to private companies, including, in an effort to accelerate the process of extracting names, birth dates and other identifying details.

Faced with scans of mid-20th-century German cursive, smudged stamps and decayed paper, computers could take the effort only so far. “The documents aren’t homogeneous, and it’s difficult for a machine to read the names properly,” Ms. Azoulay said.

She estimates that half of the approximately 40 million names in the archive are still missing from its database.

And finishing the job is a priority. “Otherwise the names are lost,” said Paul Shapiro, the director of international relations at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

That’s where crowdsourcing comes in.


Credit…Swen Pförtner/picture-alliance, via Associated Press

In 2019, Ms. Azoulay sought help from Zooniverse, a crowdsourcing platform that allows volunteers to contribute to academic research projects by analyzing large data sets a little bit at a time.

It seemed a strange fit at first. Many Zooniverse projects are science-related, relying on volunteers to log video of migrating herring, for example, or to spot asteroids in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

But after a successful test run in January with student volunteers from 26 German high schools, Ms. Azoulay decided to move forward slowly, and planned to open the project to more schools in August as part of the archive’s educational mission.

Then the pandemic broke out.

“That’s when we decided to scale up quite quickly,” she said. On April 24, the archive posted tens of thousands of documents from the Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps to Zooniverse. Soon, volunteers from around the world were poring over the records, picking out names to add to the database.

The process is straightforward. Volunteers call up an index card or handwritten prisoner list and type names, birthdays, prisoner numbers and other details into a form. To ensure that data is accurate, the information must be entered the same way by three different users.

Conflicting entries are referred back to the archive’s staff of professional archivists and historians, who monitor discussion boards to answer questions about cryptic abbreviations, professions and confusing names.

Some of the documents are straightforward. Dachau’s records are mostly individual index cards, with names and birth dates printed neatly in block letters.


Credit…Arolsen Archives

Others are more of a challenge. At Sachsenhausen, a camp outside Berlin where thousands of political and other prisoners were sent from 1936 to 1945, bureaucrats produced binders full of lists. Some are written in cramped, nearly illegible cursive.

Participants say they relish the challenge and the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. Andreas Weber, a medical physicist in Berlin, estimates that he has entered 1,200 names in the past few weeks, mostly in five- or 10-minute intervals while at home with his children.

“You see the name for a moment and think, ‘It could have been my neighbor, or my son,’” Mr. Weber said. “It’s really spooky.”

Helping the effort is the fact that the vast majority of the records — which mostly involve names and dates — are accessible to non-German speakers.

When the pandemic resulted in the closing of borders across Europe, Fernando Gouveia’s vacation rental business in Portugal collapsed. Since the authorities there issued a shelter-in-place order, he has spent hours each day entering the names of Dachau concentration camp inmates while under a lockdown at his home in Vila Real, Portugal.

“I’m really interested in World War II,” he said, “so this was the right project at the right time.”

The lists and cards are sparse but evocative. A few minutes indexing the Dachau records is enough to get a sense of how sprawling the Nazi’s terror apparatus was, in both geography and time.

A prisoner card for Karl Fröhlich shows that the Viennese musician was 16 when he was sent to Dachau in 1939. Jan Cieslak was sent there from Poland less than a year later. Genö Fischer, a Hungarian Jew, arrived in 1944, around the same time as Ibrahim Dzinalic, a Muslim from Sarajevo.


Credit…Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Mr. Gouveia’s most memorable find: Prince Xavier de Bourbon-Parma, Dachau prisoner 101057 — and claimant to the Spanish throne. “The thing I took away the most is how diverse the people were,” he said. “There were special targets, but it was pretty much everybody that could be caught in their net.”

Indexing the names has a practical purpose for historians and the relatives of victims. But Mr. Shapiro of the Holocaust Museum says the project’s greatest value may be as a tool to help people trace their relatives’ fates and to keep the past alive.

“These collections are an insurance policy against forgetting,” he said. “A real document is concrete proof. By inviting people to enter names in the database, it brings them in direct contact with evidence that screams authenticity.”

Ms. Azoulay hopes those sorts of encounters establish the Arolsen Archive as a sort of “digital monument,” particularly at a time when traveling to concentration camps and museums is out of reach.

“Strangers are indexing the names of people who were persecuted. That’s very intimate and moving,” she said. “In terms of awareness, a crowdsourcing project is a wonderful thing.”

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