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Yizkor Book Project

Our goal is to facilitate access to Yizkor Books and the information contained in them

Development of the Yizkor Book Project

Compiled by Joyce Field

The Yizkor Book Project as we know it today occurred because of at least four incidents of serendipity.


Serendipity I

Len Markowitz posted a message on the JewishGen list on October 18, 1994 which ignited a huge response. In this posting he expressed his frustration that translations of yizkor books into English were not available. A discussion between Leonard and Martin Kessel started, which was soon joined by others. Martin suggested that, “Perhaps we could begin to assemble a database of Yizkor books that have been translated …[privately by individuals]. As a second step, we can contact fellow genealogists from our shtetls and offer to share the cost of translation.” Martin Kessel offered to help with the project, making many suggestions about databases and collaborations. Because of the volume of mail on the subject which was flooding the JewishGen List, Susan King offered to set up a Yizkor List on November 12, 1994. The group became a SIG, one of the first JewishGen SIGs, it seems. Leonard Markowitz headed the group and informally reported to Bernie Kouchel, JewishGen board member.

The initial group pondered the administrative issues of the evolving project – who pays for translation costs, how are copyright issues to be addressed, what would be shared – in lively postings. As originally conceived, translations would be shared privately and not be put on the Internet; the thought was then that “fair use” would cover only the table of contents being posted online. Martin was primarily interested in creating databases and Susannah Juni was involved in developing the translations project. Because of his concern with the legal issues of posting translations on the Internet and the mixed reactions he received from attorneys about this, Leonard cautiously tabled translations.

The genealogical information in the yizkor books – approximately 1200-- could not be discovered until these books, usually written in Hebrew or Yiddish, would be translated into English, the primary language of most of the JewishGen researchers at that time. The conundrum facing those interested in this project was how to stay within legal bounds as it was imperative that permission from the copyright holders be secured before translations could be started and put online. That was the daunting task that stalled the desire to open the light on these valuable books.

Martin Kessel's recalls:

Under Leonard's overall direction, the Yizkor Book SIG had several distinct projects, as explained in his January 27, 1996 Update:

In February 1996, Martin took over as head of the SIG, as Leonard had new responsibilities as president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Philadelphia as well with the JewishGen Advisory Board.

During this period of JewishGen's development, Michael Tobias created automated e-mail systems that could search various JewishGen databases. Patrons would type search parameters within an e-mail message, and the JewishGen server would e-mail back the search results. Martin felt that a web-based search system was the wave of the future, and enlisted his wife's cousin, Eric Rose, to design such a system. After several months of testing, in February 1996 the search system was announced to JewishGen users, and became JewishGen's first web-based search engine. Because some users still did not have web access, Michael Tobias designed a parallel e-mail search engine, which went online in March. Various other search systems were designed for the other two active databases.

The three separate databases were eventually merged into one consolidated database, in which the table of Yizkor Books was linked to the table of Contact Persons, as well as the Library Call Numbers. By this time, Michael Tobias was designing web-based search engines for many other JewishGen databases, and in July 1998 he created a new search engine for the consolidated Yizkor Book database.


Serendipity II

As can be seen, a number of problems had to be solved before a translation project could begin. Martin Kessel managed the Yizkor Book Project at the time (February 1996-October 2000), and his major duties involved administering the databases. Susannah Juni, who had little free time, nevertheless was handling the nascent yizkor book translations project, which had up to then – during 1996-- no online translations.

On April 9, 1996, Susannah Juni wrote to the Yizkor Book SIG with an ambitious proposal to raise funds to translate all known yizkor books and make these translations available to the public. Susannah was convinced that the copyright impasse could be overcome. Susannah was a CPA who knew a number of attorneys with expertise in copyright issues. JewishGen's pro-bono attorney wrote a clear policy on how JewishGen would make the best possible effort (documented “due diligence”) to contact the original publishers of yizkor books or their successors. Also developed were a set of legal forms, and disclaimers that would appear on all web pages.

While the copyright issues were being resolved, Susannah collected important information on the yizkor book publication committees, variant legal forms and requirements, and other administrative procedures without which the translation project could not move forward. She also researched vital information on various incomplete translations that individuals had undertaken for their own personal use. Very often these translations covered only references to one's family and were on paper. What became evident is that people could not afford to hire a professional to translate an entire book, but that by pooling the resources of numerous individuals with an interest in the same town, tax-deductible funds donated to a non-profit organization, JewishGen, Inc., could be devoted to a specific translation project so that a professional translator could be hired.


Serendipity III

Early in 1996 Susannah and Joyce Field discovered each other through the Family Finder and an article in the Gesher Galicia newsletter. They agreed that they shared an unknown common ancestor with the surname of Kestenbaum located in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk), and during the exchange of emails and phone calls they determined that there were too many coincidences for them not to be related. Susannah and Joyce decided to share resources for the translation of the Stanislawow yizkor book. As Susannah's time was increasingly stretched, Joyce offered to coordinate this translation project. What emerged was the model for JewishGen's future online translation project. Stanislawow was the first translation to go online in October 1997.

As the Stanislawow translation moved along, Susannah concluded that the project was too time-consuming because she was deeply involved in planning her forthcoming trip to Ukraine; therefore, she asked Joyce to take over her role and become the Translations Manager. Joyce agreed, not foreseeing what might be involved. She was completely shocked when Fed Ex shortly thereafter dropped two massive boxes of Susannah's files on her front porch, boxes so heavy that she couldn't lift them upstairs to her study.


Serendipity IV

As she worked her way through these files and tried to develop implementation plans, Joyce realized that a critical part of this project was getting permission from the landsmanschaftn that had published the yizkor books, most of which had been published in Israel. The Holocaust survivors who had decided to write the history of their towns were in the mid-1990s quite elderly and unaware of computers and the Internet. In addition, as most of them could not read or write English, the overriding issue was deciding the best way to reach them to explain the intent of the project and secure their written permission – on forms written in English-- to put the translations online. The most efficient way, it seemed, was to find someone in Israel who could phone the people, put them at ease by engaging them in a friendly conversation while explaining the mysteries of the Internet so they would feel comfortable with JewishGen's efforts. It was also vital to overcome their reluctance to see their work made available to a worldwide audience as they had written these books for very limited distribution just to preserve their memories. Up to then many felt that no one was interested in their books on the destroyed communities in Europe.

As she was thinking of how to do this, she posted a message on the JewishGen Digest asking for someone to help her find a telephone number of a friend in Israel. The first person to respond was Lance Ackerfeld! During subsequent email exchanges, she intuitively realized that he could be the right person to help with getting permissions. He accepted the challenge and, as they say, the rest is history. Without Lance to secure permission from the landsmanschaftn, the project would never have developed.


Historical Milestones

The translation project kept growing, stretching available human resources. Martin Kessel needed help in htmling and in handling the technical matters of getting the translations online and linked. Staff then included John Berman, Mike Kalt, Carol Monosson Edan, Jerry Esterson, Moshe Shavit, and numerous others who helped short-term on htmling, and Michael Tobias who helped with online linkages. Lance volunteered to also become an htmler, and later Max Heffler and Osnat Ramaty were added to the html group. When it was decided to include graphic images from the yizkor books to the online presentations, Osnat learned how and became the graphic image maven. By May 2004, 9,139 graphic images were online on the Yizkor Book site. By the time collecting stats on numbers of graphic images stopped, at the end of 2008, the number of these images had increased to 14,745!

On October 5, 1998, one year after the announcement of the Ivano-Frankivsk translation on October 6, 1997, 41 translations were online and 10 more were being htmled, giving us 50 translations submitted in the first year of this project. Another accomplishment announced on the first-year anniversary was the database of victims of the Shoah from Nuremberg, Germany. Aside from the compelling content, this was a noteworthy project because it was the result of a significant collaboration by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) represented by Peter Lande, Gerhard Jochem of the Nuremberg Archives, who spearheaded the project and wrote a brilliant Introduction in which he reviewed Jewish history in Nuremberg, and Michael Tobias of JewishGen, who created the search engine. This project was the precursor of numerous collaborations between the Yizkor Project and USHMM and between JewishGen and other organizations. It also prodded us to think about a Holocaust database and a necrology database of the names of the Holocaust victims listed in the necrologies of yizkor books.

In August 1998 JewishGen recognized that the Yizkor Book SIG had outgrown its status as a SIG, Special Interest Group, and it was renamed as the Yizkor Book Project to clarify its status as an integral part of JewishGen.

On May 28, 1999 Joyce posted a message to announce that the 100th translation had been uploaded. When she assumed the position of Translations Manager, she had set a personal goal of reaching 100 translations in two years, but that goal was reached in 20 months!

On September 12, 1999, Susan King focused on the Yizkor Book Project in her L'Shana Tova message to the JewishGen family, praising this project and enumerating its accomplishments and unusual projects since its inception.

Many changes took place early in 2000. On July 1, 2000 Martin resigned as Project Manager due to increasing time constraints and Joyce Field assumed the role of Project Manager as well as Translations Manager. John Berman was Webmaster until early in 2000, when he resigned because of time constraints and Lance Ackerfeld agreed to add the tasks of Webmaster to his other duties. Harriet Brown then also wore many hats: she moderated the discussion group, responded to public inquiries, updated the InfoFIles, and expanded the library call numbers in the Database.

Late in June 2000 the data sharing agreement with Yad Vashem would be signed, leading to significant collaboration between Yad Vashem and JewishGen's Holocaust Database and Yizkor Book Project, particularly the Necrology Database. The announcement of this agreement was made at the IAJGS Conference in Salt Lake.

In August 2000 JewishGen and USHMM developed an informal agreement on procedures for collaboration, which would positively impact all JewishGen projects, not just the Yizkor Book Project.

In December 2000 the Yizkor Book Necrology Database went online, thanks to the time-consuming and diligent work of Ernest Fine and Max Heffler. Currently over 240,000 entries from the necrologies of 265 different yizkor books are online. Max Heffler currently coordinates this task.

In August 2002 the Yizkor Book Project received the IAJGS award for Outstanding Contributions to Jewish Genealogy.

Susan King (left) and Joyce Field (right) with the IAJGS award


Joyce Field retired at the end of 2008 (Avraham Groll managed the project on an interim basis) and Lance Ackerfeld became the Project Manager in July 2009.

Other notable achievements in the first decade of the new century were the linkage of the YB Database to online yizkor book images at the New York Public Library, the linkage of the Yizkor Book Database to the WorldCat (OCLC) bibliographic database, and the Yizkor Book Master Name Index, managed by Osnat Hazan, which went live in July 2010.

Early in its existence, the Yizkor Book Project decided that there were many significant works which might not fall under the traditional definition of “yizkor” books, but whose historical importance required that they be made available on the Internet. As there were no other sites in JewishGen for these works, a category called “Miscellaneous” was created to feature them.

In addition, as requests came to the Project for yizkor books to be translated into languages other than English, a category called “Other Languages” was created. To date, 32 titles are in this section.

Due to increasing interest from people in purchasing hard copies of completely translated yizkor books, the Yizkor Book in Print Project was set up in April 2011 by Joel Alpert. The mission of this project is to prepare a professionally formatted “printed on demand” version of the online presentation. For more information on this project see: YBIP

The overall achievements of the Yizkor Book Project appear in the spreadsheet below:

These achievements were made possible because of some important decisions that were made early on.

  1. When it became apparent that our audience eagerly expected that the online translations would immediately reveal names – names of residents, names of notable personages from the town, and names of those who had perished in the Holocaust – and that it would be prohibitively expensive to translate entire books in a short period of time, we encouraged coordinators of each translation project to start with the table of contents and then the necrologies and get these parts online as soon as possible so that landsleit could search for the names of their relatives.

  2. The second decision was to allow the translation of each chapter to be put online as soon as it was translated. In other words, one didn't have to have the entire book translated before the material went online. Because translating a book takes many years, coordinators know that they are making a long-term commitment. To date 100 complete books have been translated and are online.

  3. The third decision was to establish fundraising projects under the aegis of JewishGen to raise donations to hire a professional translator. Each coordinator could decide whether to use volunteer translators or to hire a professional. If the latter way was chosen, the coordinator was responsible for raising the funds, which could be tax-deductible as they were donated to a non-profit organization. Thus far, around 100 translation projects have been formed; 75 of them are current.

    The Yizkor Book Project always tried to be flexible rather than rigid and to put online material that would be significant to family researchers, regardless of whether these works were considered to be “traditional” yizkor books. Therefore, we included research documents on, for example, Belzec, Holocaust memoirs, chapters from the Pinkas HaKehillot, Galician Jewish celebrities, and Oskar Schindler.

    The Yizkor Book Project has been enormously successful and popular with genealogical researchers. We have been told by numerous libraries that before the yizkor book project began, family researchers would beg librarians for translations of yizkor books so they could understand how their ancestors had lived and for the names of the martyrs. Of course, the librarians could not provide the answers these people were looking for. Now they can point to the Yizkor Book site on JewishGen so researchers can learn online how their families lived and died.

© Joyce Field, March 2012


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Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
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Updated 6 Aug 2023 by LA