Emma Rhodes had heard the numbers associated with the Holocaust: an estimated 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis during World War II.
But, the sophomore history student at Virginia Tech had never really read much about the individual atrocities of the war until she took part transcribing Nazi rosters of people sent to concentration camps in digital archives so they can be remembered and discovered by relatives decades later. The names on the list made it so much more real.
“You’re never exposed to the Holocaust at that small of a level,” she said.
The work Rhodes took part in was a piece of history professor Bradley Nichols’ history of modern genocide class. Over the course of the class during the fall semester about 35 students digitally transcribed about 7,000 Holocaust-era records for the World Memory Project, an initiative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Ancestry.com.
Each student was instructed to transcribe 10 documents that had a list of names of people on it. The documents often were rosters of people sent to labor or death camps, Nichols said.
As students transcribed, they were instructed to glean what they could from each entry, which often included things like people’s names, birth dates and occupations.
“The idea behind using this project is to give students a hands-on activity to really show them how historians really go about using primary documents to tell the story of the past,” Nichols said.
In order to transcribe the documents, the students had to download software from ancestry.com. They would enter words into fields and then would be judged by their ability to type out the rosters.
It’s an activity any person can participate in by visiting the World Memory Project’s website at worldmemoryproject.org.
Transcribing was sometimes challenging because the documents were mostly in other languages and sometimes had hard-to-decipher writing, said Kyle Michalski, an engineering freshman who took the course.
“Not all documents are meticulously kept like people assume,” he said.
A media release from the Holocaust Memorial Museum said the work of the students and other volunteers since the World Memory Project began in 2011 has been invaluable to providing information about the human impact of the Holocaust.
“The Nazis tried to erase these people from history,” Neal Guthrie, director of the Museum’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center, said in the media release about the Tech students’ participation. “These Virginia Tech students are helping restore their identities for posterity and honor those who were lost.”
For the students, it was just an honor to participate, Michalski said.
“I felt like I’m actually part of history in the making,” he said. “I’m helping solve mysteries.”
Nichols has taught courses about genocide several times both at Tech and at the University of Tennessee, where he worked previously. This was the first time he taught it with the help of the World Memory Project. He will use the project again next fall for another course in genocide he’s planned to teach.
“Working with primary documents gives you a much more direct window into the past as opposed to reading a textbook,” Nichols said. “In addition to that, when you take all these different pieces of evidence and put them together it gives you a broader understanding of… the Holocaust.”