Sure, tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google provide a wonderful sense of what's happening this instant, anywhere around the world. But they're also being used to unlock mysteries that have existed since the end of World War II.
Millions of children were displaced or separated from their families during the Second World War. Many would never be reunited, and many had no family left.
As the war wound down, relief agencies photographed some of the surviving children. The BBC made routine announcements over the airwaves, attempting to reunite families. A long list of names was followed by a request: "Will anybody who recognizes himself write to the British Red Cross?"
Now, some 66 years later, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is counting on the Internet to help fill the holes of history. The museum is using social media to gather stories of children who survived the Holocaust, in an online photo project called, "Remember Me?"
Jean-Claude Goldbrenner is approaching 70, and just like any other Internet user, he occasionally Googles himself. That's how, a few years ago, he discovered a photograph of himself as a boy — at the time, it was housed at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. It's a photo he had never seen before, and he has no recollection of it being taken. For Goldbrenner, it's one more piece in the puzzle that is his past.
Goldbrenner was only 3 or 4 when the war ended and has very little memory of that time. Sitting in his home in Potomac, Md., he clarified that he was never really displaced.
His mother was killed at Auschwitz; his father survived the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Treblinka. In the absence of his parents, other family members cared for him, and for that he considers himself fortunate. Vague memories bring him back to a farm, where he went into hiding with other children. Perhaps that's where his photo was taken, though he is not sure.
A more recent Google search returned that same photo, but it had moved from an archival box in Cincinnati to a website. It joined more than 1,100 similar photos of children on the Holocaust Museum's website.
But the power of the Internet is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's now easier than ever to find what you're looking for — like a person. On the other hand: What if that person doesn't really want to be found? Theo Meicler, for example, considers himself content if not happy, now living with his wife in Houston, Texas. He's on Facebook, yes, at the urging of his children and grandchildren. But it has taken him decades to get to this place, and he's not one for trips down memory lane. That is, of course, where his rediscovered photo took him.
Case in point for a 21st-century quandary: The more we engage online, the less we can control what information we find, and what finds us. In the online world, your life is everywhere, all the time, a totally open book.
Memory is tricky territory, but the Holocaust Museum is used to that: Its mission is to preserve stories and memories of war — even those that survivors are trying to forget. It's important so that future generations can remember, says Dr. Lisa Yavnai, a director at the museum.
Jean-Claude Goldbrenner was too young during the war to have many painful memories of that era; if anything, he wishes he had asked more questions. "Most of us either didn't think or didn't dare to ask questions," he says of his generation of survivors. "I think when you're young it's a question of didn't think, and when you're older didn't dare too much to stir these memories."
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wants to stir memories. It's using social media to gather stories before it's too late. "At this point we feel like it's really a race against time," says Yavnai, "because we want to help as many living survivors and their families as possible." If Facebook and Twitter are good for anything, it's racing against time.
"Remember Me" is one of a number of recent initiatives by the Holocaust Museum to employ the best available technology to document history. Last week, the museum also announced a project partnering with the genealogy website Ancestry.com. The World Memory Project, as it's called, relies on anyone with a PC to download software and join the effort to digitize, index and archive the museum's holdings.