Some bitter and mournful, others folksy, the manuscripts lay abandoned. Who could find them, buried in attics and special libraries? Who could read their Yiddish? And so these Yizkor (or memory) books--written as requiems to entire Jewish communities extinguished by World War II--were nearly forgotten. After all, few of the Holocaust survivors who memorialized the dead were professional writers. The more than 1,200 texts they wrote chronicle the sad years of genocide and often the decades, even centuries, before. Their accounts, typically printed in limited press runs, adapted a Jewish tradition from the late 13th century of recording pogrom victims.
Today these books are becoming more widely read, thanks to a small army of Jewish-history buffs. In 1997 volunteers started to secure copyright permissions, translate the volumes and publish them online in a centralized place. The Yizkor Book Project website, www.jewishgen.org/yizkor is making these books available in English for the first time. Also Translated: descriptions of lost communities compiled by Israel's Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. The website boasts 584 entries describing some 450 disappeared communities, listed from A to Z, with 9,096 graphic images. A searchable database of necrologies retrieves different spellings of family names.
The re-creation on the Internet of the Jewish shtetls of Central and Eastern Europe has been orchestrated largely by volunteer dynamo Joyce Field of West Lafayette, Ind. After retiring in 1994, Field, a former human-resources manager for software firms, purchased a computer and helped a cousin research their family history. Separately, a newly discovered relative involved with the genealogy website JewishGen enlisted Field to arrange Yizkor-book translations for their family's use. Before she knew it, Field, at 65, had become full-time manager of the Yizkor Book Project for JewishGen. Says Field: "Whereas Hitler tried to obliterate the memory of Jewish contributions to European history, these books confront the lie."
Website visitors--who logged 1.9 million impressions in 2003--include Jewish family-history devotees as well as East Europeans of other ethnicities exploring their communities' past. "The Yizkor-book pages are linking people in the West, Holocaust survivors and children of survivors to non-Jewish people in those European towns," Field says. Sixty years after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Internet is serving as a tool of reconciliation. "The younger generation is realizing that they are missing a significant part of their history," she adds. "This type of material was suppressed by the communists," who severely restricted access to Jewish archival records.