Israel’s National Library Gave Trove of Pre-war Jewish Documents to MyHeritage, Which Is Charging for Them

Haaretz 2 September 2022
By Ofer Aderet

The National Library of Israel recently gave genealogy company MyHeritage a unique collection of documents containing 200,000 emigrant applications filled out by Vienna’s Jews after Austria’s 1938 annexation into the Nazi empire, making full access to the records available only by paying the private company. 

MyHeritage, which is U.S.-owned and operates in Israel, has digitized the collection and is charging a fee to access it. Anyone wanting to look at the entire collection for free would have to go in person to the National Library in Jerusalem. Only part of the collection is accessible on the library’s website.

The documents contain personal questionnaires that Austria’s Jews were forced to fill in 1938 after the country was annexed by Nazi Germany. They include names, addresses, dates and places of birth, family status, citizenship, profession, economic situation, emigration destinations and more. These questionnaires were often accompanied by other documents, like letters, written declarations and transcriptions.

This information later helped the Nazis deport Austria’s Jews. Today, it’s an archival treasure for genealogist whose potential uses include building family trees, to trace lost relatives and proving eligibility for Austrian citizenship.

A document from the collection at the National Library

Adar Spitzer, a genealogist who handles citizenship requests for descendants of Austria’s Jews, spearheaded a petition, which about 100 descendants of Austrian Jews have signed, demanding to know why their families’ documents were taken out of the library and handed over to a private company.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Spitzer said it was absurd that he had to pay a commercial company in order to view the forms his great grandfather Eduard filled in on the eve of World War II.

“It’s outrageous,” he says. “There’s a good chance this was done out of economic interests, because these materials are very much in demand. Indeed, following a change in Austria’s citizenship laws that came into effect in 2020, demand by Austrian Jews’ descendants to obtain an Austrian passport has risen. The way to such a passport passes through historic documents of the kind the National Library gave MyHeritage.

Haaretz sent questions to the relevant official – the director of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, part of the National Library, Yochai Ben-Gedalia – but the library did not permit him to talk to Haaretz, instead sending a brief written reply.

“The archive didn’t sell the documents, but enabled MyHeritage to digitize them – including scanning them and indexing them in depth,” the library said. “Through this, the archive and public can enjoy the products of this cooperation free of charge... The information can be obtained on the sites of both on the library and Jewish people archive and by physically coming to the National Library.”

However, close examination reveals that some of the documents in the collection are digitally accessible only for payment via the MyHeritage site, while they are blocked to users on the National Library’s site. 

Clicking on the documents on the library’s site yields the statement: “Following restrictions in the terms of use, this item can be viewed only from the library building.” An attempt to view the documents on MyHeritage’s site leads to a window asking the user to subscribe to the site, using their credit card number, in order to view the files.

“I checked a few documents of my family and my clients,” Spitzer says. “Almost every one was accessible in MyHeritage but not on the library site.”

Haaretz was told that the library cooperated with MyHeritage on the materials because of issues with its budget and staffing that kept it from being able to do the digitization itself, and that the library attempted unsuccessfully to recruit donors before partnering with the company.

MyHeritage is an Israeli-founded startup company, boasting tens of millions of clients worldwide. It provides a platform for building and exploring family and genealogy trees, using vast databases it has acquired from all over the world. It did not respond to Haaretz’s questions.

In July, the company advertised the new database in a blog post under the headline “MyHeritage and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People publish exclusive collection of Jewish records from Vienna.” It described the documents as “valuable records.”

The National Library did not respond when asked why, as a national agency, it could not have digitized the documents internally, but had to share them with a private company that will profit from them. Nor did the library answer the request to reveal the agreement it made with MyHeritage, and would not say why that company was chosen and why it was allowed to be the only body to digitize the material. 

The papers were originally part of the archival collection of Vienna’s Jewish community. After World War II, the community donated them to Israel, where they were kept for decades in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, which was built in 1939 and consists of archives of hundreds of Jewish communities from all over the world.

In 2013, it was merged with the National Library. Officially, the archive a public benefit company and most of its budget – 2.8 million of 3.4 million shekels ($828,000 of $1 million) in 2021 – is funded by the government. Its directors are National Library executives, such as Oren Weinberg, the library’s director.

The Vienna documents include a few familiar figures, like the questionnaires belonging to Marcel Tobias (later Aryeh Tuvia), the Israeli commando nicknamed “father of the paratroopers”; Palmach commander and former major general Dan Laner, who was also a paratrooper in pre-state Israel; Ehud Avriel of the Haganah and Holocaust survivor Shaul Spielman, who lit a torch at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem last year.

Vienna’s Jewish community has previously asked to take back the collection, including the emigrant forms. The Central Archives objected and won in the trial that was held between 2011 and 2014. The Supreme Court ruled that “Israel is the cultural center of the Jewish people” that the documents could therefore stay.

Books containing the unique documents at the National Library

This makes Spitzer even angrier. “Allowing a foreign-owned private company to scan the collection and [get] the rights to it, after it was decided that the material must remain in Israel, is a scandalous, shameful, cynical decision that is unthinkable,” he says. “It’s not acceptable for a private company to make a profit out of archival records from the Holocaust, as though it were its own original content.”

Spitzer says the National Library, whose budget in 2021 was 60 million shekels, partly coming from taxpayers’ money, “must carry out its public work properly and enable free online access to the scanned material, which is already in its possession anyway.”

Following publication of this article online, Oren Weinberg, director of the National Library, said: “The archive is available from home. A small percentage of it (about 15 percent) is not yet open online... The process will be completed soon and I assume that almost all the material will be accessible. MyHeritage does not have exclusive rights and any body or person who approached us with a similar request could have done digitization.”

He further said that the archive “conducts digitization every year of many materials according to its list of priorities, and it is expanding digitization through donations and cooperative projects. As long as there are no exclusive rights and the public’s right to free access is preserved, what’s wrong with that? The archive has done something worthy that is for the benefit of the public.”
© website copyright Central Registry 2024