The War Years

Issue #48

“Our Boys Need Sox - Knit Your Bit!” During World War I the American Red Cross, along with the British Red Cross and similar groups around the world, encouraged people, mostly women, to help the troops by knitting warm clothing. Along with Victory Gardens and War Bonds, knitting “for the boys” was seen as a useful and wholesome way for those on the home front to support the fighters on the front lines. But some knitters used their craft for a secondary purpose: to communicate hidden messages within their stitches.


The Code-Knitters

When we hear the term “binary code” we typically think of computers and the way in which they transform two simple symbols, 0 and 1, into all the programming instructions required to perform their computation tasks. Yet binary code has been in use for thousands of years by civilizations all over the world, long before computers were dreamt of. 

Sometimes described as the oldest book in the world, the I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes, originated in insights and traditions 6,000 years old, stemming from the philosophical investigations of the (perhaps mythical) first Chinese Emperor, Fu Hsi (2852–2737 B.C.E.). Inspired by the patterns on the shell of a turtle, Fu Hsi had a revolutionary insight into how two distinct abstract symbols (a binary) can be rearranged in various ways to create meaning. In Chinese practice, the binary was often referred to as Yin (written as a broken line) and Yang (written as an unbroken line). Yin/Yang could represent Female/Male, for instance, but when combined in sets of three they could be reinterpreted as trigrams and in turn as 64 different hexagrams, which underlie the I Ching’s code of spiritual and philosophical divination. Different systems of binary code were also independently developed by people of French Polynesia by 1450, and by the English explorer Sir Francis Bacon in 1605.

But it was the German philosopher and all-around genius Gottfried Wilhelm von Liebniz (1646-1716) who, in 1689, published his own treatise entitled "Explanation of the binary arithmetic, which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi.” Leibniz’ work was revolutionary in its vision of how the simple 1 and 0 could be combined not only in trigrams or hexagrams, but to communicate even extremely complex ideas and instructions. Leibniz’ breakthrough enabled British mathematician and philosopher George Boole (1815-1864) to employ binary code as a form of symbolic logic. Around the same time, the Americans Samuel Morse, Alfred Vail, and Joseph Henry were developing an alphabet that would become known as Morse Code (1844), which used a form of binary code (dot/dash) to send messages via their other invention, the electric telegraph. In the twentieth century, information scientist Claude Shannon used Boolean algebra to program the first modern computers, but many ordinary women applied it to a handicraft not often associated with the communication sciences: knitting. 

Modern knitting at its most basic is composed of two stitches: knit and purl. The knit stitch is flat and the purl is a bump; the two stitches create the texture in knitted garments. Because knitting is essentially a long series of knit and purl, it is by nature a binary system. By the First World War all the countries involved had already adopted the use of the telegraph and Morse Code. Intelligence agents realized that people living alongside the railroad tracks in German-occupied Belgium were privy to useful information about what kind of cargo was being transported by the trains of Imperial Germany. 

The intelligence operatives persuaded some of the older women living in proximity to the railroad to act as spies. They were asked to keep track of the cars going by and mark their notations in their knitting patterns. When a train full of soldiers passed by, she marked it by omitting a stitch--leaving a hole in her pattern. If a train of munitions appeared, she added a purl. Later, she could pass the scarf or sweater on to a fellow spy who could decode the pattern and pass on crucial logistical information to the Belgian Resistance. The Germans never suspected that little old ladies knitting by their windows were actually working against them. 

Steganography is the term used to describe the practice of hiding information in plain sight. This is what the Belgian knitters were doing. Other ways of using knitting and sewing include surreptitiously tying encoded knots in yarn or thread or even wrapping a note inside a ball of yarn that is then handed off to military strategists. One of the reasons these techniques have been so successful is because the creators of the codes--women--were almost never perceived as potential spies. Contemporary textile artist Kristen Haring utilizes the technique in her knitted art pieces, explaining that “all communication depends on cultural codes. Understanding Morse code knitting requires combined knowledge of domains often set apart as masculine and technical, in the case of Morse code, and feminine and folksy, in the case of knitting.”

Another reason knitting worked so well for wartime spies was that knitting to support the war effort has been a common theme in modern times. Knitting warm socks, hats, balaclavas, and scarves for the troops was a necessary effort when the normal suppliers of clothing and textiles were disrupted during a conflict. In Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, the character Madame DeFarge hides the names of future targets of the French Revolution inside her knitting stitches, creating them in public view without raising suspicion.

The wartime knitting spies of World War I were successful enough that both the United Kingdom and United States banned the printing of knitting patterns during the Second World War. In Britain, some spies were posted in towns posing as everyday civilians--often knitting. 

The development of symbolic logic codes that began thousands of years ago has since found expression in ways Emperor Fu Hsi could never have imagined. Today, knitters are experimenting with creating their own codes into their knitting, including secret messages of love and goodwill into, for example, a baby blanket. Steganography through knitting will no doubt continue, whether for wartime purposes or happier events.


Weekly Discoveries

  1. Register for the two upcoming virtual presentations sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois, “Here Comes The 1950 Census: What To Expect” and “Finding Difficult Passengers on the Ellis Island Manifests”.

  2. A new collection of Missouri county naturalization records encompassing the years of 1883-1927 has recently been added to the offerings on Ancestry.com.

  3. Bostonians who can trace their ancestry to Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America are celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month through October 15th.

  4. New research could help preserve Gullah Geechee lands in South Carolina.

  5. A newly added collection of Ireland Prison Registers, covering the years of 1798-1928, is now available on FamilySearch.


Expert Corner: Kinga from Poland

Kinga is a professional genealogist in Poland. She holds a masters degree in history, with a focus on archival and historical sources. She manages historical projects and works to preserve local history and lectures on Polish genealogy both in Poland and abroad. Kinga’s main focus is on 19th-century Polish emigration and the incorporation of non-traditional records in Polish research, including records such as military, employment, education, nobility, census and court, as well as published works, among others. She and her team contribute research for the television show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr, for featured guests who are of Polish ancestry, including Dustin Hoffman, Juliana Margulies, Tea Leoni, Gloria Steinem and Bernie Sanders, among others.

Today’s Topic

Ancestral research in Poland, with a focus on the time period leading up to World War I and World War II and the impact on Jewish records.

Question:  When researching ancestors in these areas, what are the initial steps one should take?

Location is key!  In order to research Polish ancestry, regardless of religion or time period, a specific location must first be established within Polish borders, either modern-day or historical.  In most of the cases your ancestors had to possess identification documents when emigrating from their motherland. This could have included vital records, such as birth or marriage,  certificates or even passports. One should then document the ancestor after their arrival in the United States.  Vital records, military records, passenger lists and naturalization records may include details about the specific location of birth or last residence prior to their emigration from Poland. 

Question:  What are some of the unique challenges encountered when researching in these war-torn areas?

The most challenging part is the fact that many of the records from both World War I and World War II  have been destroyed. Nevertheless there are a few institutions who work to preserve records that were not destroyed. Due to the lack of original documentation some of the information may be based only on witness recollections. Memories can be quite selective and subjective - especially when it comes to traumatic events such as wars. 

Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, is dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead, honoring people who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need, and researching the the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, with the aim of avoiding such events in the future. The institute, among others, collects testimonials of people who personally experienced the Holocaust.  Similarly, the Warsaw Rising Museum of 1944, collects the sources and information on the history of the heroes and victims of the biggest uprising in Poland during World War II. 

Another obstacle is that many documents that were issued by the occupants (Nazis or Soviets) were faked, most especially records created for death camps prisoners.  For example, most of the death certificates issued in the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz included erroneous causes of death.  Though the prisoners were being murdered, their records provide that they died of heart diseases, nephrosis, accidents (unintentional injuries), etc. It should also be noted that documents regarding Holocaust and the World Wars are very decentralized. 

Question: Are there any specific challenges we should be aware of for research of those of Jewish heritage? 

Looking for Polish-Jewish ancestry can be quite complex. Polish-Jewish common history dates back to the early Middle Ages, and throughout history the reign was constantly changing as were the borders and the laws concerning dissenters. Government administration changes resulted in a different place of archival documentation storage being established each time. Also, through all the partition times (1772 -1918), depending on the partitions, the documents were being created in different languages: Latin, German, Russian and even Yiddish. In order to successfully research Polish-Jewish ancestors one needs to have a good understanding of Polish history, with a focus on the location where their ancestors came from. 

Question: What types of records are available for victims of the Holocaust?

In the places where Nazi death camps were established there are normally museums or memorial centeres which also serve as archives for that geographic location. For example the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau holds, among others, prisoner records which detail  new arrivals to Auschwitz, personal files,death certificates, disciplinary reports, with requests for the punishment of prisoners.

Displaced persons records, in most cases traveling from a resettlement camp to a final destination (often the United States), can be found on Ancestry.com (detailed in a separate article in this newsletter).

Question:  In regards to records, have there been any new discoveries or upcoming collection releases that we should be aware of?

New discoveries are happening almost every day, mostly within family collections, as people are renovating old homes and finding hidden documents. What is really important is that the digitization and indexation process is progressing - new records and information are being published by memorial centers, state archives, and museums every day. It is worth revisiting these archives from time to time to determine if new or updated record collections may include information for your ancestors.. The most shocking and sad discoveries are often connected with photos, for example the wrenching images and first-hand testimonies of Dachau recorded by U.S. soldiers brought the horrors of the Holocaust home to America

Question:  Is there anything else you would like to add?

The subject of ancestral research in Poland during this time period is a very wide and complex matter. In this text I have only outlined a few challenges, sources, institutions and information that may help you understand this part of your ancestors’ history better.  Every person’s history has to be considered individually. Hopefully there are many sources that will help you find out more about your ancestors..

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Displaced Persons After the Second World War

After the end of the second World War there were upwards of ten million people, primarily survivors of concentration camps (both Jewish and non-Jewish), prisoners of war and forced or slave laborers, who were considered displaced persons - refugees from across Europe who had been displaced from their homes and were now faced with recovering and rebuilding their lives. Many of the displaced were repatriated quickly, but those who refused or were unable to return to their homeland were sent to displaced persons camps around Europe which were organized by nationality, some of which remained into the 1950s with the last displaced persons leaving Germany in 1957. 

The Arolsen Archives located in Bad Arolsen, Germany contains one of the world’s most comprehensive archive for records of displaced persons and has information on about 17.5 million people who were survivors and victims of persecution by the Nazi regime. The work of the archive is overseen by an international commission with members from eleven countries and they are working to digitize their holdings to make the records accessible to as many people around the world as possible. There are currently over 30 million documents available in their free searchable online archive. These records can include registration cards, employees’ record books, individual correspondence, passenger lists and photos in files with single to dozens of images. Note that not all files are currently name-searchable (searchability is a continuing process) and there may be multiple files for a single individual, so don’t miss out on information by thinking all of the records have been combined! Some of the archive’s collections have also been digitized and made available for free access with genealogy websites such as Ancestry (“Africa, Asia and Europe, Passenger Lists of Displaced Persons, 1946-1971” and “Europe, Registration of Foreigners and German Persecutees,1939-1947”). The archive also has a comprehensive E-Guide to help understand the abbreviations and short-hand used on many of the documents, which are written in several languages.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which spearheaded the repatriation of many Jewish people after the war, has partnered with MyHeritage to provide free access to the 241,000 emigrant registration cards from Munich, Vienna, Barcelona, Warsaw and Hungary under the “Index of Jewish Displaced Persons and Refugee Cards, 1943-1959” database. 

The events of the second World War and the decade after were one of the most influential periods of recent history, and particularly so for the millions of individuals and families who were displaced. These records represent a starting place for researching the family members who may have been displaced from their homes and scattered around the globe to begin life anew after the war and provide rich information for a period and places which are otherwise greatly affected by current privacy laws or records loss.

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Helpful Resources

Learn more about research during this time period with the articles World War I Memorial Plaques, Finding Records from the War to End All Wars and Finding Records From the War to End All Wars: Thinking “Outside-The-Box.”


Sources….Duh!!

Alan Siper, Roger Farley and Craig Lombardo, Pace University (https://seidenberg.pace.edu/ : accessed 15 September 2021), “The Rise of Steganography.” 

Natalie Zarrelli, Atlas Obscura (https://www.atlasobscura.com/ : accessed 15 September 2021), “The Wartime Spies Who Used Knitting as an Espionage Tool.” 

Jacqueline Witkowski InVisible Culture (https://ivc.lib.rochester.edu/ : accessed 15 September 2021), “Knit for Defense, Purl to Control.” 

The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/ : accessed 15 September 2021), “The Ancient Book of Wisdom at the Heart of Every Computer.” 

Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 15 September 2021), digital image from original publication, “Image 154 of Bound volume---28 November 1835-18 April 1838,” Digital ID: mmorse.012001. 

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (File:A-group-of-women-knitting-during-wartime-in-Finland-391764992305.jpg : 1 September 2021), digital image of original b&w photo, unknown photographer, sourced from Finlandia New Service via IMS Vintage Photos, 1939,  “File:A-group-of-women-knitting-during-wartime-in-Finland-391764992305.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Esquilo.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (http://ushmm.org : accessed 15 September 2021), “Displaced Persons.” 

Claire Bugos, Smithsonian Magazine (http://smithsonianmag.com : accessed 15 September 2021), 15 September 2020, “The Little-Known Story of World War II’s ‘Last Million’ Displaced People.

JDC Archives (http://archives.jdc.org : accessed 15 September 2021), “World War II-Era Refugees and Displaced Persons.”


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