Steven Spielberg’s U.S.C. Shoah Foundation has partnered with the genealogy giant Ancestry to digitize about 50,000 records, adding to a free searchable database in Ancestry’s Holocaust archive.
The Shoah Foundation’s partnership, and an additional nine million records from the Arolsen Archives in Germany that Ancestry digitized this year to add to its site, nearly doubles the size of Ancestry’s Holocaust archives.
The partnership makes available a Shoah Foundation index of survivor video interviews, and, from the Arolsen Archives, a trove of passenger lists of displaced persons and other persecution documents.
But a recent glitch during a soft launch trial run left some survivors and their family members, already uncomfortable about having so much sensitive information public, wondering just what is free and what isn’t. A formal announcement of the partnership and a media rollout, originally set for Wednesday, is now slated for Sept. 2.
“The customer experience was not optimal” during the soft launch, an Ancestry spokeswoman said in a statement. “We regret that some individuals had an experience during this period that led to the impression the materials were not free.” (My maternal grandparents recorded video testimony with the Shoah Foundation in the 1990s. When I tried to access the records, like Shoah testimony and concentration camp documents, on Ancestry’s free guest membership, I hit the paywall.)
While access to those records was being fixed, there has been past confusion. Those paying members who access the 10 million Arolsen records that Ancestry received last August continued to pay fees to view a collection that was promised as free. The company would not say whether it would offer refunds to those customers and maintains that access has been free.
Ancestry said in its statement that it is working to “simplify” the experience so that “there is no possible confusion about the free availability of these two collections.”
Some survivor families feel betrayed by Shoah’s move to add their family histories to a public website without consulting them, given the psychology of victimhood and trauma of the Holocaust’s legacy.
“It is not only a painful record, it is a private record,” said Klara Firestone, whose mother lived through Auschwitz. “It should not go outside of the family except for legitimate researchers.”
The Shoah Foundation’s executive director, Stephen D. Smith, said that the partnership is part of Shoah’s mission to help families learn about their stories “through testimony — and to educate the public so that these stories are never forgotten.” Seventy-five years after Auschwitz was liberated, there are an estimated 400,000 living survivors.
He added that when survivors agreed to record testimonies with Shoah, they effectively transferred the rights to them. The foundation has 55,000 Holocaust survivor video testimonies — totaling over 115,000 hours.
Klara Firestone and her mother, Renee Firestone, 96, have spent decades as the Shoah Foundation’s unofficial ambassadors.
Klara Firestone said: “We have extreme loyalty to Shoah and to Steven Spielberg for creating it, and yet, it’s hard for me that any entity benefits financially off of our information and our history.”
Renee Firestone added, “Those records have to be made free for survivors.”
Ancestry said in a statement that it “does not seek to profit from these collections through our partnership.”
Shoah remains committed to the partnership. No money changed hands, Mr. Smith said. “For genealogy we are not the go-to place,” he said, but Ancestry is.
Representatives for Mr. Spielberg, who founded the Shoah organization in 1994 to record survivors’ stories, said he is not involved in day-to-day operations. He declined to comment.
The records remain available for relatives at the Shoah Foundation or other participating institutions for free via a downloadable link; members of the public, such as documentarians, pay varying administrative fees. Much of the Arolsen Archives are also searchable free online at their website. “To our knowledge, Ancestry provides the free search for names in our documents” at its web page, ancestry.com/alwaysremember, Floriane Azoulay, director of the Arolsen Archives, said.
Some public libraries, like the Los Angeles public library system, have institutional Ancestry accounts and offer free access there. It is available at some college campuses as well.
Ancestry secured the records from the Shoah Foundation before the company was sold earlier this month to Blackstone, for $4.7 billion, though some families say protecting the victims the project sought to help were an afterthought.
“I don’t love the idea that your records are there for anyone else to research,” says Gail Ressler, a Brooklyn interior designer whose survivor parents were interviewed by the Shoah Foundation. “It’s a weird mix of privacy.”
Multiple paying users of the site called Ancestry’s offerings both misleading and confusing. “I never knew the difference between what’s essentially free, free temporarily, or what’s behind the paywall,” said Tamar Weinberg, who found United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arolsen records on the site and paid for membership.
An Ancestry spokeswoman says the company decided back in 2008 to make all of its Holocaust collection — which now totals more than 25 million records — free, at a cost to the company of “millions of dollars” to digitize. But some of those older Holocaust records, such as those from the National Archives, required payment when the company updated its records this spring, the spokeswoman said, adding “the free designation was missed and now that is corrected.” A search this week of the site’s Holocaust records from the National Archives showed lists and registers of German concentration camp inmates were only fully viewable with paying Ancestry memberships.
Ancestry, which has over three million paying customers, is currently facing a class-action lawsuit in California filed in June accusing it of false advertising and unauthorized recurring membership payments.
Ancestry said the lawsuit does not have any merit.
The company has suffered past privacy failures, which highlight the potential for misuse with Ancestry’s open-door policy. Quinton Atkinson, Ancestry’s senior director of global content acquisition, said in an interview that there have been no attempts to hack the site’s Holocaust records. Ancestry does not require any identity verification to create an account beyond a working email address.
Mr. Atkinson said that more information about sensitive histories, including a Danish archive of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, is coming next year. Ancestry “brings to light records that need to be shared,” he said. “I feel good and am confident that people are doing this for the right reasons.”