Every writer has the responsibility of understanding what it is they are writing about. Biographers and memoirists are tasked with corroborating the personal narrative of their subjects with verified facts, documentation, and external perspectives. An author of historical must have a good sense of the time period their book inhabits: everything from global phenomena to the details of daily life has some bearing on who the novel’s characters are, how they behave (and why), what the world around them looks like. And if you’re telling the story of your own relatives, ancestors, or personal acquaintances, you’ve probably already discovered that memories and family lore will only get you so far.
As always, revisiting your articulated motives for writing about the Holocaust will help you assess what kind of research is needed and determine which resources will best assist your work. We’ll talk more about why historical research is critical to any writing project about the Holocaust, even (if not especially) for works of fiction. Here’s a list of online archives to get you started, with directions for how to use and access them:
Yad Vashem’s digital collections include a wealth of documentation concerning the Holocaust in multiple languages including a database of Holocaust victims’ names, photos, documents, and films. The individual collections can be accessed from the home page of the digital collections site. To search Yad Vashem’s archives by name and/or location, the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names provides basic biographical information (available in multiple languages) about the millions who perished.
National Library of Israel
The National Library of Israel’s Genealogy portal provides free research consultations “to help people who are not experts in the field of genealogy to conduct research into their family roots.” In addition, the Library provides a detailed list of resources for Jewish genealogy research and a basic guideline to conducting research.
KTIV: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts
A wealth of Jewish communal records from pre-Holocaust Europe are held by research and national libraries. Digitized manuscripts from the National Library of Israel and dozens of partner organizations are accessible online through KTIV, which can be searched by call numbers or keywords. For communal records, the Pinkas (פנקס) is one of the most common sources of information. Sources available through KTIV are primarily in Hebrew or Yiddish or in the regional vernacular of a document’s origin. To locate a manuscript, visit the KTIV search engine and enter your search term in English or in Hebrew. Documents will display as an image and can be viewed on the site, along with detailed information about the manuscript and a selected bibliography.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has a wealth of online resources for historical research which are freely available. One important resource is the three-volume Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos which is available for any user to download for free from the USHMM website. The PDF files for all three volumes are fully indexed and searchable. You can also use the site’s submission form to request research assistance from the USHMM staff, as well as guides to navigating the Museum’s digital collections.
Digitized Yizkor Bicher
Yizkor Bicher, published in Hebrew and Yiddish after the Shoah, are a key source of information for Ashkenazi Jews seeking to learn more about their families’ origins. These memorial books provide detailed histories of individual Jewish towns and villages throughout Eastern Europe, as well as information about the Holocaust survivors and victims of each community. Many of these books have now been digitized and translated into English. An online collection of yizkor bicher are available in their original languages through the Yiddish Book Center and the New York Public Library; translated editions and further genealogical resources are available on JewishGen.org.
Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America preserves significant holdings of Jewish archival material and historical records in numerous languages, as well as manuscripts, research guides, and audio-visual content. Much of the collection is available online through the Library’s website and on KTIV. You might also want to check out the JTS Library’s guides to external resources for Holocaust research and Jewish Studies while you’re there.
The largest single archive of materials related to the various groups persecuted by the Nazis in or before World War II, founded to help uncover the fate of all Holocaust victims.
Center for Jewish History Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute
The Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History aggregates archival and secondary sources for family history and has helpful guides for genealogical resources by country for Europe and parts of the Mediterranean.
Encyclopedia Judaica (1972, revised, 2006)
The Encyclopedia Judaica is the best encyclopedia for general knowledge and reference Jewish topics, providing extensive information on Jewish communities, texts and figures. It is accessible online through many research libraries and universities, and may well be accessible through your local public library.
International Jewish Cemetery Project
A project of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, IJCP documents Jewish cemeteries across the world, collecting information and images of extant Jewish graves.
Jewish Encyclopedia (1906)
Though dated, the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia is still a valuable source for information on pre-war Jewish communities and should be used alongside the updated Encyclopedia Judaica (see above). The Jewish Encyclopedia is freely accessible and searchable online, however the images and illustrations from the print edition are not included.
Leo Baeck Institute
The Leo Baeck Institute, one of the constituent institutions of the Center for Jewish History in New York, is devoted to the study of German Jewry. Much of LBI’s extensive archives — with materials from the fifteenth century to the present day — has been digitized and is freely accessible online.
The Shoah Foundation hosts one of the largest collections of survivor testimony, recorded through audio and video interviews. These testimonies are publicly available through the Visual History Archive Online. Registration for the VHAO is free (and required for access).
YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe
The YIVO Encyclopedia is most complete reference work on the history and cultures of Eastern European Jewry, with extensive references to additional sources. All entries are freely accessible online with a useful search function.
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