MyHeritage: reuniting the war’s lost families
Cati Holland with a photograph of her grandmother, milliner Recha Cohn
When Cati Holland (née Cohn) was a little girl living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, 60 years ago, her grandmother Recha Cohn would tell her stories of 20s Berlin, the vibrant city where she’d grown up. “She was a milliner, and she owned a shop on the poshest street in Berlin, Kurfürstendamm boulevard, where all the high society came to buy her hats,” says Holland, now 76. “Those hats, they had a certain style — big, striking, with veils and feathers. I have a picture of three German princesses wearing them.”
Holland remembers her grandmother as a feisty woman; proud of being self-made. “She picked up the skill working in a department store and started her own business,” Holland says. The shop was called Maison Conrad: “An elegant name for its elegant clientele.
She said that Cohn sounded too unsophisticated, too Jewish.”
In spring 1933, circumstances abruptly changed for the well-to-do Cohns. On April 7, the Nazi government passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service – the first major law curtailing the rights of Jews in Germany. Among other injunctions, it suspended Jewish doctors and restricted their reimbursement from public health-insurance funds. In June that year, Recha Cohn’s son Siegbert, a physician, went to live with an ageing uncle in Chile. “If they say you cannot work any more and you have no way to earn a livelihood, you have to go,”
Holland says of her father’s emigration. Her mother and grandmother stayed behind to run Maison Conrad, hoping that things would quieten down. But seven months later, on a cold night in January 1934, they quietly left as well, abandoning the millinery shop and their residence. According to passenger records, they sailed on a British boat, the Reina del Pacifico, to Valparaiso, Chile, where Holland’s father was waiting for them. “My grandmother loved that shop. She never wanted to talk about why she left,” Holland says.
The only clue is a letter to her grandmother that had been sent by a neighbour in Berlin: “In it, the neighbour writes that the very next day, [the police] came and took everything.” Her grandmother had no interest in discussing the shop’s fate. “Every time we referred to it, she would say the French word ‘perdu’. Lost.”
Holland lives tucked away on a stone-paved street in the tiny Israeli town of Hadera with her second husband and a deaf cat; a hand-painted Hebrew sign on her gate advertises English and Spanish lessons. Her dining table is laden with five large cardboard boxes, each one containing folders labelled by family name. These are filled with thousands of photographs, documents, certificates, books and albums that chronicle the lives of the various branches of the Cohn family. Buried in this folder is a transparent document wallet containing a printout of an email dated June 13, 2013.
When Holland opened up the email that day, she saw a message that had been forwarded from her daughter in the US. The sender was someone named Gilad Japhet and the subject read “Message from MyHeritage CEO re: Jewish property of Recha Cohn.”
The contents were puzzling: “We have identified that a relative of [yours], Recha Cohn (born Kirschner) is on a list of property owners in Germany whose property was confiscated by the Nazis and whose descendants or heirs are eligible for compensation,” it read. “We are doing this project as a ‘mitzvah’ [blessing] for no return.”
The sender of the email was Gilad Japhet, the CEO of MyHeritage – a digital genealogy startup launched in 2003 from his living room in the Israeli village of Bnei Atarot. The service helps users create online family trees and find and connect to relatives. Until recently, the company had its headquarters in a rural family farmhouse. These days, Japhet works from a sunny corner office with dramatic views over Tel Aviv. Family photos dot the walls. Japhet, 43, talks in a thin, hoarse voice. “Family history has been a hobby of mine since the age of 13,” he says. So during a six-month hiatus after quitting his job as a software developer, he began looking for genealogy tools available online to build his family tree. “I couldn’t find anything useful, so I started building tools for my own use.” A year later, Japhet decided to make a business out of his hobby. “I had this passion for family history, and wanted to make it easy for others to preserve, document and share personal stories as well,” he says.
A decade after its launch, MyHeritage has grown into a community of 75 million people who have created 1.6 billion family profiles.
On the morning of February 19, 2013, Japhet was eating his breakfast while reading the Israeli news site Haaretz when he came across an intriguing headline. “The title was dramatic — something like, ‘Last Chance: millions of dollars seeking heirs’. It caught my attention because of the word ‘heirs’, so I clicked on it,” he says. The story was about Berlin Jews who had had property confiscated or looted by the Nazi government in the 30s. The news was positive: the Claims Conference, a Jewish organisation that negotiates reparations for victims of the Nazis, had accumulated a large pool of money from the German government on behalf of Jewish property owners from Berlin. About €637 million (£530 million) had already been claimed by heirs, but €50 million remained; it was entitled the Late Applicants Fund. The organisation had released a list of properties and their last known owners, asking descendants to come forward and claim their rightful compensation. A deadline of December 2014 was imposed; any unclaimed money after that date would be forfeit and allocated to other causes.
Japhet immediately understood the story as more than just a captivating piece of news: it was a challenge for MyHeritage. “I clicked that link and the names popped up. I love names. To me, it looked like 45,000 jigsaw puzzles just waiting to be solved,” he says. He scanned the list and looked for unusual names to use as a test case. “I’m experienced in family-tree research and, while in A, I found Ahlfeld, an unusual name. The woman was called Gertrude; the combination wasn’t typical. So I thought, if I find this person’s descendants, I’ll have found her.” Minutes after searching the MyHeritage database, he had found Gertrude Ahlfeld. The closest living descendant was a woman called Monica Becker, Gertrude’s great-granddaughter and Japhet’s patient zero.
He called her to introduce himself and described his reason for contacting her. He asked her to verify the information and she found she was a legitimate claimant. She was so shocked, she asked Japhet for a photo of himself — she couldn’t believe that he was real. “At the time, I was intrigued. I realised, in ten minutes of work, I had solved a mystery open for the last 60 to 70 years. So I thought, imagine what I could do in more days, with more people working on it,” Japhet says.
His goal was to find as many people from the list as possible and notify them of their inheritance. His reward, he decided, would not be monetary. “I wanted it to be a blessing – their Jewish ancestors were killed in many cases, so I thought I would be doing a justice.” On the same day, Japhet put together a team including two engineers, a researcher and a customer-service employee at MyHeritage who would verify and notify each heir personally.
In March 2013, they began their search.The confiscation of Jewish property – bank accounts, art, businesses, household items and real estate — began with the removal of German citizenship from emigrant or deported Jews from 1937. According to Martin Dean, a British research scholar at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies in Washington DC, instances of denaturalisation rose sharply from 155 cases in 1936 to more than 10,000 in 1939.
Correspondingly, property confiscations rose from 93 to 1,300 in the same period. By the early 40s, this co-ordinated state attack moved from targeting Jewish emigrants to the seizure of property from all Jews, the value of which some scholars estimate to be about $215 billion (£130bn) in today’s terms.
Reuven Merhav, the chairman of the Claims Conference’s executive committee, is responsible for creating the Late Applicants Fund featured in Japhet’s newspaper article. “When my father escaped Berlin, he had a clinic of 3,000 patients; he never got anything for it,” says Merhav, who is also the former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The flat where my grandmother lived, it was bombed. The only thing left is a copper stone in front of her house, which says she used to live here until she was murdered in Auschwitz.”
The Claims Conference has publicised the Late Applicants Fund by advertising in newspapers but, despite these efforts, the heirs of the 45,000 properties on the list have remained unknown for over two decades – entire families were either wiped away or were scattered across the globe. “The scope of the information on the list is amazing, but they were trying to take families that nearly disappeared from Earth about 70 years ago and find them one by one,” Japhet says. “It should have been impossible.”
The MyHeritage database contains 27 million family trees in 40 languages; it also houses about six billion digitised historical records that are used to cross-reference the accuracy of family trees. These records, drawing from 400 databases, include US and UK census data dating back to 1790; birth, death and marriage records from dozens of government catalogues; archives of tombstones such as Ireland’s Gravestone Index; the largest digital store of 20th-century newspapers; and passenger lists and manifests from international shipping records. “I look at myself as a museum curator, a custodian of all these records, helping people to rediscover their roots,” Japhet says.
What sets MyHeritage apart from its major competitors, such as 30-year-old American firm Ancestry.com, are its underlying technologies, which help users discover previously unknown branches of their families by the matching of family trees. The SmartMatching algorithm compares names and dates across its user base and sends out notifications of possible relatives or ancestors from other people’s trees that are verifiable. The RecordMatching tool will send photos and other archived documents related to people in your tree. The company claims the systems have 97 per cent accuracy. “Matching is one of the most exciting things we do,” Japhet says. “Every time our system finds an overlap, it means you are related to someone new and your family trees connect and you can make life-changing discoveries. People have found their grandfather had a sister they never knew about, or a whole branch of the family that they thought had died in the Holocaust had actually survived and have living descendants today.” To increase the probability of these serendipitous encounters, the team is building new technologies that integrate into the service, such as Record Detective, which suggests similar records to those you already have, rather like suggested videos on YouTube or books you may like on Amazon. In October, MyHeritage announced an unusual partnership: it will gain access to another two billion records from Utah-based FamilySearch, the world’s largest library of family records owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. The Mormon faith preaches that tracing family lineage is important so ancestors can be baptised in their afterlife, which has made this one of the largest existing genealogy organisations. Despite obvious religious differences, the two platforms will work together to leverage technology and share data on families around the world.
Marianne Melcherts, who contacts the heirs located by MyHeritage, holding a family photo sent by a grateful claimant
MyHeritage’s engineers have also built their own multilingual search engine called SuperSearch. If your French cousin has saved a relative as Jacques in his tree, Jacques’s profile will show up even if you searched for “Jack”. “We have built very likely the world’s best database of names. It can reconcile nicknames like Alexander and Sasha, translations, maiden names and misspellings,”
Japhet says. “We know Indians have their fathers’ names as middle names, that the Polish list namedays rather than birthdays and that Germans have two wedding dates.” All this cultural knowledge is built in when you search for names, dates and facts in the startup’s vast social network.
When Noam Kovacs, an engineer and project manager at MyHeritage, was told about the Late Applicants list, his first thoughts were that the MyHeritage search engine was perfectly suited to locating the long-lost heirs of the dispossessed. “There’s nobody else that has this magical combination of a database with a lot of family trees, many of which originate from Europe. So it makes sense that a lot of these people who are the original owners of the properties and their descendants are somewhere in our network,” Kovacs explains. “Then, we don’t just have a list of people, but we have all their relationships and descendants. The final thing we have is a very strong search engine to find results for very specific queries. So the people we do find, we can have confidence about their identity.”
Japhet had run a few manual experiments and knew his idea could work; Kovacs’ task was to automate the process of searching through the 45,000 names on the list. He wrote a script that runs through every name on the list, determines if it is female or male, and identifies all the surnames, including if there are maiden names. It then computes all variations and returns a list of results that could correspond to each person. “The whole querying and sorting process was done automatically, but then we actually had to have a person look and see if the results made sense.” For instance, the names could be exactly the same, but if the property owner was born in Canada they were unlikely to have had any land in Germany. A part-time researcher began checking through the results and each time she thought she found a likely match in terms of age, place of birth and other logical facts, she would pass it on to Marianne Melcherts, the employee at MyHeritage whose job was to actually contact the heirs, using the contact details of the MyHeritage user whose tree contained their names. Dutch-born Melcherts is animated and warm, often placing her hand on her heart when she cannot put her feelings into words. Her job at MyHeritage is in customer services, where she speaks with Dutch users around the world, helping with technical or other difficulties on the site. Japhet picked her specifically to be the person who first contacts the descendants of property owners – heirs contacted by Melcherts treat her with absolute trust and many now call her a friend. “People would write back with personal stories, memories of the person we were writing about, sometimes even photographs,”
Melcherts says. “It becomes a lasting relationship, because at that moment you are somehow part of their family story.”
Yvette Pintar began pursuing genealogy in 2011 when her maternal grandfather died in Chile. “I wished I had asked him all these questions, there was so much I didn’t know,” Pintar says. Last December, she found a close relative whom she had never heard of, through the site. “I received this email from Marianne at MyHeritage about a match on my tree to a property owner in Berlin.”
Pintar wasn’t contacted about a direct relative, but when she heard about the list from MyHeritage, she looked through it and found that her great-grandparents were on the list too. The property was listed under the name of her maternal great-grandmother Marie Schanzer — a drapery, linens and fine lingerie shop in Leipzig that Pintar had no idea existed. “I’ve learned it was my great-grandmother Marie who ran the business, and apparently that was very common. Men would pray and it was women who brought home the bread.” When she found out about the shop, Pintar wrote to the Claims Conference for more information, and was told that the shop was destroyed on Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom carried out by Nazi paramilitary forces. Marie Schanzer survived the war by hiding in Nice, and then went to live in Chile until she died at the age of 96, when her great-granddaughter Yvette was only four. “I remember how she smelled, a specific perfume. And carved wooden furniture, lace curtains, and a big armoire with china in it. I would have tea with her on the patio. I think she spoke Yiddish and German, no Spanish, so I remember the sounds of her voice. That’s all,” Pintar says.
Although the money – however much it turns out to be – may be a bonus, for Pintar it is only a small part of what these properties symbolise. “Seeing your ancestors on the list is a confirmation of all that pain, everything that they left behind,” she says, sitting in the coffee shop of a hotel in west London, where she has come to attend a reunion of a newly discovered branch of her family. “Even if I never get a penny, it’s filling in all these gaps and holes. I feel it’s my responsibility to remember; otherwise it vanishes as if it never happened. And it did happen.”
Another person who was contacted by MyHeritage is British-born technologist Matt Coates. The property he is claiming belonged to his great-grandmother Lotte Josephy. In the 30s, as Josephy saw the war approaching, she sent her children to England on the Kindertransport, the rescue mission in which Jewish children were sent to the UK at the outbreak of the second world war. She stayed behind and made up her mind to survive. “She felt the only way to do that was to change her identity without anyone knowing. So she started writing letters to an alias and began sending them to an address that had been bombed out, so [the correspondence] would be held at the post office; she would go in and say, ‘I’ve been bombed out, can I have my mail?'” Coates says. “She did this for a number of months. One day she walked in and said, ‘I’ve lost my papers, but you know me – can you do me new papers?’ So they wrote her new papers and she started a new life as a governess for a German general, and she lived on Pariserstrasse 9 — the house on the Claims Conference list.” Lotte Josephy survived the war and moved to Hull, in northern England, to live with her daughter. Coates hasn’t been to see the house in Berlin, but his uncle — Lotte’s grandson — has visited. The uncle wrote Coates an email about the visit – “No one answered the bell, so we did not go right inside the flat. Every third flat on Pariserstrasse is now a little park – that gap marks the time/distance interval at which an RAF bomber unloaded its payload along the street! But #9 survived intact.”
MyHeritage’s search for property heirs currently has about 5,000 leads. About 300 people have been contacted, many of whom who have already sent in their proof documents to the Claims Conference; the money will be paid out in 2015. What happens next? “If there are other lists with addresses and details, maybe of those in Poland or elsewhere, we can re-use this script,” Japhet says.
Back in Cati Holland’s home in Hadera, she pulls out a folder labelled “Recha Cohn”, filled with documentation about her grandmother, and a leather-bound autograph book, given to her grandmother in 1899, holding scribbled messages from friends and family. There’s also a photograph of a young Recha Cohn posing in one of the feathered hats from Maison Conrad, the shop she loved.
Holland has been back to Berlin to see Maison Conrad. “It had been turned into a home-appliances store, but we went through a corridor into the back rooms. My mother said that was where the seamstresses made the hats. She said to me, ‘Here is where I met your father,'” Holland remembers. “The outside was slightly changed, but the inside, my mother said, ‘It’s exactly like the day we left it.'”