As head of the Jewish Agency’s Search Bureau for Missing Relatives in Jerusalem for many years until my retirement in 1999, I have helped many Jewish genealogists locate family living in Israel and abroad. Since then, I have often have been asked about access to the files I used in my work, which were deposited at the Central Zionist Archives (CZA) upon my retirement. The following brief history of the Search Bureau and description of the tools used in our work may be helpful.
The Search Bureau was founded in 1947 soon after World War II, when thousands of survivors began to look for any family members who might have survived the Holocaust. Even while still in Displaced Persons camps, they wrote letters or had letters written for them. Some wrote when they came to Palestine; others sent letters from all over the world.
A second wave of inquiries came in the 1950s when Poland permitted survivors to immigrate to Israel. The Russian immigrants who began to arrive in the early 1970s generated another flood of inquiries. At its peak, the Search Bureau received up to 400 requests per month and employed several staff members. Even today, people continue their efforts to reunite with their families.
Central to the work was a huge card file, a catalogue of sorts that included for every inquiry family names, given names, country of origin, approximate dates of birth and, where relevant, dates of immigration. Most importantly, the cards included the file number where the original request was kept, along with a record of all the subsequent research done for that inquiry. All inquiries and copies of all responses were kept in individual files.
We employed whatever sources we could find to try to trace the whereabouts or determine the fate of those being sought. Resources included, for example, copies of the internal Israeli census, lists of survivors, books of immigration (arranged by date rather than name), and data at other archives. Until the late 1970s, the Search Bureau had broadcast a radio program. Much of the effort relied upon experience and intuition—plus my knowledge of several languages: English, German, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish.
In the 1990s, the catalogue of inquiries—more than one million of them—was computerized. The original inquiries were written in a variety of different languages and alphabets, but the computerization was done in Hebrew. Because written Hebrew lacks vowels, a certain degree of ambiguity unfortunately was introduced into the process. Because of my familiarity with the material, the transposition into Hebrew did not pose much difficulty at the time. For others less familiar with the data, however, often it is not easy to determine the exact spelling of a name; for example, is it Meyer, Mayer, Meier or Myer?
Today, the computerized inquiry database and associated files are held by the CZA. Although researchers may not have direct access to the material onsite at the CZA in Jerusalem, the data itself is open to the public, and CZA staff makes searches and responds to telephone, fax and/or e-mail inquiries. For details see the CZA website, <www.zoistarchives.org.il>. At the home page, click on “Family research” and then on “Relatives bureau.”