Destroyed identities – the digital reconstruction of Auschwitz-Birkenau victims' data
More than 1,200,000 entries from the post-camp documentation have been created by the Digital Repository of the Memorial Site. So far, more than 60 per cent of the 400,000 prisoners registered in the German Nazi concentration camp have been identified.
One of the most important goals of the Repository is to collect dispersed documentation of transport lists to Auschwitz-Birkenau. ‘We must remember that about 900,000 Jews deported in mass transports from German-occupied Europe - women, children, and men - were murdered in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival at the camp without registration. There are no post-camp records of them. Transport lists may help us to establish their names," said the Director of the Museum, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński.
At the moment, the existing database, which contains information on persons registered in Auschwitz, is being merged with the data from the transport lists. Consequently, as early as in May 2020, the search results at www.auschwitz.org will be enriched with over 420,000 names from the transport lists of Jews deported to the camp.
It was meant to be total extermination - apart from physical annihilation in gas chambers and crematorium ovens, the plan also included the extermination of the identity and memory of the victims. Before the liberation of the camp in January 1945, the SS authorities ordered the destruction of all documentation created during the operation of Auschwitz. According to estimates, over 90% of the source materials were destroyed.
‘For more than 20 years, we have been carrying out tedious digitisation work aimed at the one hand at preserving the source data - archives, and on the other hand at restoring the names of the victims. The work of the Digital Repository does not focus on documents, but on people, names, numbers, dates of birth and any other often very fragile traces of people. Those who were torn out of their daily lives by violence, who were led to suffering and death. The Digital Repository's records of the names of Auschwitz prisoners do not only serve as a source of research and education activities but above all to commemorate all those imprisoned and murdered,’ Krzysztof Antończyk, head of the Digital Repository, emphasised.
During the work, each set of archival material is carefully processed, and its content is entered into the databases. All the information contained therein is taken into account. Digital reproductions of documents are created in the form of high-resolution scans, and the identities of the imprisoned and murdered are published in the form of short biographical entries along with a list of archival sources and their description on the Museum website.
‘Currently, the Digital Repository has over 100 thousand names of the birth or residential places of deportees in its databases. Listed in the databases are citizens of several dozen countries, and thousands of professions that they performed are mentioned. They include data from the oldest people born in 1882 to children born in the camp in the last days before the liberation. Scientific research that would have been impossible two decades ago is now conducted by researchers who visit the Memorial. The created databases and scanned documents allow for comprehensive historical, sociological, genealogical or even medical analysis,’ says Antończyk.
A dozen or so people work on the analysis of data for the digital repository databases. The repository and the archive cooperate with specialists in interpretation. Information is supplemented regularly by the relatives of prisoners. Private individuals continue to donate documents, photographs or their scans. ‘Thanks to long-standing contacts and sharing of experiences with other memorials and institutions commemorating the victims of the Second World War, new data on prisoners and deportees are still being obtained, their identities are being reconstructed and documentation is being completed. Through this exchange of information, research works have become more comprehensive and complementary,’ noted Krzysztof Antończyk.
At present, the Digital Repository is conducting research projects in collaboration with Arolsen Archives, the Bavarian memorials Flossenbuerg and Dachau, Yad Vashem and the Shoah Foundation. Under this cooperation, we have obtained a total of 410,000 scans of documents and more than 250,000 entries of deportees. The reconstruction does not only apply to the identity of individual persons, but also entire prisoner transports.
‘The best example is the analysis of information contained in documents obtained from the Arolsen Archives. They offer a wide range of possibilities for the reconstruction of documentation created in the camp. The same is true of the partially reconstructed transport list of prisoners transferred from Auschwitz to Neuengamme on 25 August 1944. So far, only 270 names were recognised. At the moment, of the 750 men transferred to KL Neuengamme on that day, 550 people have already been identified," said Ewa Bazan, head of the research project implemented with the Arolsen Archives.
As part of this cooperation, data on the largest group of deportees to Auschwitz, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews, is also being reproduced. In 2019, research work was underway as part of the project to reconstruct the identities of more than 30,000 people, prisoners and Poles deported from KL Auschwitz to the KL Flossenbürg and KL Dachau concentration camps.
‘In their accounts, former prisoners often speak of the conviction they had in the camp, that the truth will never pass beyond the wires, their names will be forgotten, and yet, each person has a name. Our mission is simple - to restore to our collective memory as many names as possible’ Piotr Cywiński emphasised.