They have names

An art professor with whom I once studied suggested that you don’t really know the thing you are observing until you can name it. For instance, order can be brought to the riot of parts under your vehicle’s hood, once you know that this thing here is the carburetor and that thing there is the alternator.

Likewise, while we think of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis in World War II with tremendous sadness and anger at the slaughter, we feel the loss more profoundly when we know the name of an individual. Knowing that name makes the reality more concrete, more knowable, more real.

I’m thinking about these things because on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), Yad Vashem, which has been on a mission to document the names of the entire 6 million,  sent an email to mark the day.

“For years people assumed that the Nazis kept meticulous lists of all the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust,” the email says. “But the reality is that few names of individuals were documented, and many people were simply killed with no one to record that they had once lived.  For the past 6 decades, Yad Vashem has been working to bring their names back from oblivion.  Combining information submitted by Holocaust survivors, next generation descendants or relatives of Holocaust victims with data gleaned from archives scattered across the globe, Yad Vashem, which literally means ‘a memorial and a name’ has been able to recover the names and identities of 4.3 million of the 6 million victims. It is a colossal effort that continues around the clock and around the world: volunteers meet with survivors to help them fill in Pages of Testimony in memory of their loved ones; volunteers and staff gather names from memorials and cemeteries; archivists and language experts pore over documents in a dozen languages to seek out the names; and digitization experts ensure that all the material is accessible.  The names are kept in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, are accessible online in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names on Yad Vashem’s website, and are recorded in the Book of Names unveiled by Yad Vashem in Auschwitz–Birkenau this summer.”

(The email also points recipients to a short video about Yad Vashem’s efforts.)

If Yad Vashem succeeds in this task, it will be quite an achievement. There can be no adequate memorial to all the murdered. There isn’t any one person who can truly remember those names, who can truly know each individual’s journey through that dark period. Yet finding all their names is the key to learning those individual stories, how they individually related to that great, churning engine that was the European Jewish community. We may not be able to know many of them in any depth, but the promise of Yad Vashem is that, when the task is complete, we’d be able to name ANY one of them without exception. To leave none of them nameless, to name them in our prayers and memories is to know them and to retrieve some light from the awful darkness of the Holocaust.


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