Ann Robins knows 156 different ways to spell the name “Schwartz.”
As a volunteer for the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center, Robins has gone through every permutation of that name, as well as hundreds of other names in many languages, as she searches through documents looking for information about those who survived the Holocaust and those who did not. She has combed through concentration-camp death records, transportation lists, roll calls, medical papers, forced labor records and eyewitness accounts — only a fraction of the millions of documents that exist — to provide family members with some idea of what happened to their relatives during World War II.
Sixty-five years after Kristallnacht, the anniversary of which is this weekend, the Tracing Center is still reuniting families who have been separated by the Holocaust and reconstructing the stories of those who perished for the victims’ surviving relatives. The Tracing Center — a branch of the Red Cross — investigates and tracks down Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, Polish Catholics, Greeks, Russians and anyone else whose life was affected by the Holocaust.
While one might expect a certain laxness or fatigue on the part of the tracers so many years after the fact, there has instead been a growing sense of urgency. According to the Tracing Center, five to 10 survivors die every day, and with each survivor’s death, another chapter closes.
“We have to let people know what’s going on,” said Linda Cauthen Klein, the director of the Tracing Center. “We’re dealing with a dying generation, and time is of the essence.”
Although the Red Cross had done this kind of tracing since the end of World War II, the effort was jump-started in 1989 when the former Soviet Union opened up its World War II archives for the first time; 47 million documents were suddenly made available. In 1990, the Red Cross opened the Tracing Center in its Baltimore office, in an effort to deal with the new documents. Today, hundreds of volunteers in 177 different Red Cross and Red Crescent offices around the world are still piecing together information from these and other records, with help from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany Conference.
When a survivor or a survivor’s relative contacts the Red Cross, a file is opened, and the inquirer is pumped for as much detail about his or her missing relatives as possible. Klein describes the process thus: “We ask them: How many relatives [were lost]? What were the circumstances under which they lost contact?” The inquirer then fills out the forms, providing as much detailed information as possible about the lives of the missing relatives—their full names, the approximate years of their birth, where they lived and their parents’ names.
“There was one case of a woman who never knew the full name of the woman who hid her” during the war, said Robins. “She only knew her as ‘Mama.’ That was a sad case.” Without a first name, last name, or address, there was no way to help her.
For many people seeking help, however, the endings are far happier. Robins and Klein estimate that among the 9,000 people about whom they have gotten information, they have reunited at least 1,000 with relatives.
One of the happiest stories to have emerged from the Tracing Center involved one of its volunteers.
Warren Zorek came from a large, sprawling family in the German-Polish city of Breslau. When Breslau was consumed by World War II, Zorek was sent to England alone at age 11. He never saw any of his relatives again — until last year.
Now a septuagenarian, Zorek had been volunteering for the Red Cross for 30 years, helping others find their lost relatives, but never investigated his own family, fearing, perhaps, what he would — or wouldn’t — find. It was only after he retired that he decided to look for his own relatives.
He found a cousin living in Philadelphia who had survived the Holocaust. When the two spoke on the phone, Zorek’s cousin told him about another cousin who had moved to Israel.
Through his two newly discovered cousins, Zorek eventually found more than 100 new relatives: his cousins’ children, grandchildren and in-laws. When Zorek met with a reporter from the Forward, he proudly laid out his new family tree with an unbreakable grin on his face. The next week he was scheduled to go to one of his newfound relative’s weddings.
“I wish I had only done it sooner,” Zorek said, adding a piece of advice for others who have lost track of their families in the Holocaust: “Don’t walk to the Red Cross — run!”