For decades, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has been heeding the cries of the six million murdered by the Nazis, pleading with us to rescue them from the depths of oblivion. Yet, the question begs, how exactly will we remember them?
Do we remember these Jewish men, women and children as faceless, passive victims or as individual members of society, each with their own attributes and accomplishments, hopes and dreams? What is the legacy they leave behind?
In the Jewish faith, one of the most precious things we bequeath to the next generation is our names. There is no greater honor than to name a baby after a dearly departed loved one. This is one of the ways Jews have ensured the continuation of their culture and their legacy, passed from parent to child for millennia.
The essence of a name is at the very heart of Yad Vashem’s identity. “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a “yad vashem”)... that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:5)
Each person is unique
Like every person that has ever walked this earth, each and every Holocaust victim had unique characteristics and life paths. The perpetrators of the Holocaust sought not only to destroy their lives but also to erase their personal identities. For decades, Yad Vashem has been working tirelessly to ensure that this will never happen.
I am keenly aware of the importance of remembering the victims of the Shoah. For close to four decades, I have been the director of the Hall of Names and later the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. My and my colleagues’ work is not without its challenges – in some respects, uncovering the names of all six million victims is a mission impossible – but it is one we are determined to accomplish to the greatest possible extent.
The Hall of Names is a living memorial, established by Yad Vashem on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people to pay tribute to the Jewish men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust. Situated at the end of the Holocaust History Museum, it has evolved into an emblematic site of Holocaust remembrance. The circular room, designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, is lined with pages of testimony containing the names and biographical information of some 2,800,000 individual victims of the Holocaust.
The gathering of names
USING THESE pages of testimony, as well as other sources of documentation collected over the years, Yad Vashem has thus far gathered some 4,800,000 names of victims murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices. This substantial undertaking has been made possible through meticulous research in order to piece together the complex puzzle of the Holocaust.
Despite ongoing efforts by our dedicated staff, however, the hallowed chamber still contains empty shelves, ominously reminding visitors that over one million names have yet to be recovered. One of our greatest challenges in this pursuit is that often there was no one left to remember the victims. Especially in Eastern Europe, entire communities and families were annihilated without any registration and their memory erased, as if they never existed.
What began as a grassroots initiative has grown into a central mission of Yad Vashem, which was established by the Knesset 70 years ago. In 2013, Yad Vashem was presented with a certificate of recognition marking the inclusion of the Pages of Testimony Memorial Collection in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
The new Book of Names being inaugurated at the United Nations Headquarters in New York is the extension of this unique, worthy project. The sheer size of The Book of Names is symbolic of the unprecedented scope of the tragedy and epitomizes the insurmountable task of preserving each victim’s identity.
A major hurdle we have encountered is identifying the youngest and oldest segments of the persecuted Jewish people, who comprised perhaps the most at-risk populations during the Holocaust. In the eyes of the Germans, they served little to no purpose.
During the Holocaust, some 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered, many of them not remembered by name. In addition, a large number were hidden during the war, under false names and were lost to the Jewish nation if, at the war’s end, there was no one left to reclaim them.
Thanks to indefatigable efforts, we are finally giving Holocaust victims back not only their names but also sometimes, through rare, surviving photographs, even their faces. Each of these is a visible reminder that the six million murdered Jews came from all walks of life and were somebody’s brother, sister, father, mother, child or friend. Let that be what we remember: their names and human identities and not their victimhood.
The writer is the director of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem.