Israel Marks Holocaust Remembrance Day

Death Did Not Kill Their Names: Yad Vashem’s Quest to Identify Holocaust Victims

Sixty years of painstaking research through interviews, pages of testimony, archives, tombstones and dedications on ritual objects by Yad Vashem have yielded the names of 4.2 million victims of the Holocaust.

Reuters

Try to remember the name of your childhood friend. The neighbor's son who had a pretty older sister named Sara. The one you played ball with on Friday afternoons in the field down the street before your mother called you home to get cleaned up for Shabbat. You can still hear the sound of his laughter. His name evades you like the features on faces that fade from images in wartime photographs. He was deported together with his entire family during the Aktion on the eve of Passover 1943. He was just a boy.  He has no grave; no tombstone; no one to grieve and say kaddish for him.  How can you ensure that his name and memory will not be forgotten? 

Many people think that the Germans kept meticulous lists of all the Jews who were murdered and that it should be relatively easy to know their names.  But that is only true for a minority of the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.  In the areas of the former Soviet Union, some 1.5 million Jews were simply shot to death where they lived.  There were no transports, no lists, no records. 

Since its inception 60 years ago, one of Yad Vashem's central missions has been to recover the identity of each and every victim of the Holocaust. The Shoah Victim's Names Recovery Project realizes the moral imperative to remember each victim as a human being, with a name and a unique personal story.  It’s an extraordinarily complex endeavor, that requires sifting through archival material and postwar commemoration projects, working with Holocaust survivors to fill out Pages of Testimony, understanding many languages and the complexity of the etymology of names. Yet, to date, this ceaseless endeavor has identified an incredible 4.2 million names of Shoah victims, documented inYad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names.

Although the initial 800,000 names were collected on Pages of Testimony in Israel during the 1950s, the Hall of Names was inaugurated in 1977, in the presence of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Joseph Burg, then Chairman of Yad Vashem’s Council. As public inquiries into the fate of Holocaust victims steadily increased, the collection of 1.1 million Pages of Testimony was copied to microfilm in 1984, thereby establishing an effective search capability. Global outreach efforts to identify the unnamed victims expanded among Jewish communities throughout the world with the support of Yad Vashem’s Friends Societies around the world.  In 1990, our Hall of Names began to actively gather and process lists of names originating from such sources as deportations, camps and ghetto records.

In 1999, Yad Vashem embarked on a revolutionary project – the computerization of all names collected to date, thus creating a database containing over two million names of Holocaust victims. During that period a well-publicized media campaign under the auspices of President Ezer Weizman to collect Pages of Testimony was launched and yielded an overwhelming response from Jews in Israel and abroad. It is significant to note that during the campaign more than 80% of all incoming pages contained names of victims that had not been previously recorded in the Hall of Names. By 2000, the number of victims commemorated in the database climbed to 2.5 million. 

Yad Vashem developed a sophisticated technological platform for the names database in order to provide free public access with advanced search and retrieval capabilities alongside an online Page of Testimony form and interface for submitting feedback.  When the Database was launched in 2004, close to three million victims' names were accessible in English and Hebrew. Today the Database is available in German, Russian and Spanish as well. 

Notwithstanding these great efforts, many Jews murdered in the Shoah remained nameless.  For example, in territories of the former Soviet Union, extensive information was not accessible due to the stringent ban by Soviet authorities on activity related to Holocaust remembrance. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Holocaust-era archives have gradually opened up throughout Eastern Europe and great strides have been made in retrieving the names of millions of Jews who were wiped out in the centers of Jewish life which had existed for so many years before the Shoah.  

Over the past six years Yad Vashem has also stepped up efforts to recover the names of Shoah victims among the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and the United States that traditionally commemorate the victims in unique ways acceptable to the Torah world. Our staff from the ultra-Orthodox community has digitally photographed over 600,000 names from these sources, including religious books, commemorative plaques and ritual objects in synagogues as well tombstones of survivors engraved with names of family members murdered in the Shoah.

The names collection project has impacted lives the world over. It has led to hundreds of reunions, discoveries of lost families, and enabled people to connect personally with the victims of the Holocaust. 

When one has a personal connection to the past, history becomes tangible and meaningful. Just last month, President Barack Obama visited Yad Vashem's Hall of Names. He noted the importance of the names recovery project and the idea that lies behind it, calling our undertaking "a service to humanity." That phrase encapsulates the essence of what Yad Vashem has taken on. Only if we remember that each of the six million was an individual, a whole world unto himself, can we begin to fathom the nature and extent of loss, and start to take responsibility for the future – of the Jewish people, certainly, and for humanity as a whole.  

Cynthia Wroclawski is Manager of the Yad Vashem Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project.

Yad Vashem invites the public to submit Pages of Testimony for Jews they know who were murdered during the Holocaust. Assistance in filling out Pages of Testimony in Israel is available at: +972 2 644 3111.  Outside Israel, please contact: names.outreach@yadvashem.org.il