Friends  |  Press Room  |  Contact Us

The International School for Holocaust Studies

"A Memorial and A Name”: Restoring the Identities of 24 Death March Victims

Sheryl Ohayon


One of Yad Vashem’s mandates is to preserve the memory of Holocaust victims by collecting their names, the ultimate representation of a person’s identity. A name is that which turns a person from an anonymous statistic into a flesh-and-blood human being. The name “Yad Vashem” itself comes from the Bible: "And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (Yad Vashem)…that shall not be cut off." (Isaiah 56:5) Yad Vashem therefore attempts to raise the victims from the ashes and anonymity of the Holocaust, retrieve their humanity and rediscover their families, communities and culture.

An important project in this vein was recently undertaken by Naama Galil, Director of Yad Vashem’s Guiding Department. Ms. Galil, aided by other Yad Vashem researchers, as well as archivists and experts in research from all over Europe, managed to painstakingly piece together the names and identities of 24 victims of a particular death march that left Auschwitz in January, 1945.

The routes of the death marchesThe routes of the death marches

These 24 victims had been murdered in the vicinity of Książenice, Poland, a tiny town not more than an hour and a half’s drive from Auschwitz-Birkenau. On 18 January 1945, when Auschwitz-Birkenau was being abandoned to the advancing Russian Army, the victims were among the many thousands of prisoners who were herded together and forced to walk and run dozens of miles through heavy snow and winter weather, dressed only in rags and wooden clogs. Prisoners who stopped for a moment were immediately shot and killed by SS guards. As Yehiel Dinur, a prolific author and survivor of Auschwitz and the death marches, known by his alias Ka-Tzetnik (meaning “prisoner of a Konzentrationslager”) wrote:

Myriads streamed from every sub-camp and off-shoot of Auschwitz; the masses dragged along the roads by day and by night, by night and by day….[T]he Germans, guardians of the marchers…strewed the roadsides with bullet-ridden bodies, their machine-gun fire spitting at the laggers, leaving the bony carcasses for the snowfall to swallow[1].

After a march of approximately 59 miles, the prisoners reached the train station in Gliwice, where they were loaded into open cars, 100-150 prisoners to each car. Transported for hours in temperatures of 20 degrees below zero, many of the prisoners froze to death. When the train stopped, those still alive were marched again, though they hadn’t received food in three days. On 22 January 1945, after five days of this exhausting, futile march, the prisoners entered the forest near the Polish towns of Młyny and Rybnik. There, SS guards staged a fake attack, shouting and screaming that partisans had ambushed the convoy. This ruse gave the SS an excuse to arbitrarily mow down with rifle fire those prisoners who had not already died as a result of the grueling march.

The Germans and the remaining prisoners moved on, marching west. But the local Polish population, having heard the sounds of the massacre, ventured out and found the area filled with dead and wounded. Local Poles brought the corpses, in carts, for burial in Christian cemeteries near Młyny. Forty-five anonymous victims of the slaughter were brought by the locals to the Christian cemetery in the tiny town of Książenice, 2.5 kilometers from where the shooting had occurred.

The list of numbers as written by the undertakerThe list of numbers as written by the undertaker

There, the local priest, Paweł Ryś, before burying the victims, was determined to document them. He used the only information he had available that could be used to identify them – he had the undertaker record on paper the prisoner numbers that had been tattoed on their forearms at Auschwitz. Two of the prisoners had no numbers. After listing the numbers in a handwritten document – which today is preserved in the Auschwitz archive, and a copy of which appears in the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, Father Ryś buried the bodies in a mass grave in the Catholic cemetery at Książenice in early 1945.

Father Ryś and the Poles of Książenice put a sign over the mass grave of the victims of the death march. On the sign, the forty-three numbers listed by the undertaker were written. Two final victims, who had neither names nor numbers, were also listed on the tombstone as “Bez Nr”, meaning “no number” in Polish. In 1965, the local Poles decided to put a black marble tombstone on the grave; on this new tombstone those same numbers were engraved.

The 'Number Tombstone'The "Number Tombstone"

Over the years, the mass grave in Książenice with the curious tombstone, called by the locals the “Number Tombstone”, was visited a number of times by the advanced course of the interdivisional units of the Israel Security Agency, guided by Yaki Gantz, himself a former member of the Israel Security Agency. Yaki prompted the members of the course to commit to take on the challenge of restoring the identities of these victims of the death marches. They turned to Yad Vashem for help.

At Yad Vashem, Naama Galil’s first step was to contact the Auschwitz-Birkenau archives, to see whether any files existed in connection with the numbers listed on the tombstone. She turned to Mr. Wojciech Płosa, the head of the archives, and sent him the list of numbers. Mr. Płosa responded with a large number of names and additional information, though not all of the numbers could be traced. This in itself was a pleasant surprise, as the tens of thousands of prisoner cards at Auschwitz were still held – physically – in long drawers in filing cabinets that had not yet been computerized, and many were even still filed according to Nazi methods.

A major basic resource used by Ms. Galil was Danuta Czech’s Kalendarium der Eriegnisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau (Calendar of Events in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, or the “Kalendarium”). The Kalendarium is a chronicle of daily events in the life of the camp, and includes a register of the incoming transports on any given day, together with information detailing where the transports came from, how many men, women and children on each transport were gassed on arrival, how many were admitted to Auschwitz-Birkenau as prisoners, and – most significantly for Ms. Galil’s work – the prisoner numbers that were tattoed on the arms of the admitted prisoners with respect to each transport. Using the Kalendarium, the lists of prisoner numbers it contains, and information known about these prisoner numbers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ms. Galil was able to discover information concerning prisoners whose numbers were etched into the Książenice tombstone but whose names had not been identified by Mr. Płosa, including the date on which they had arrived at Auschwitz and where they had come from. For instance, it was now possible to state with certainty that one of the prisoners (#354) had arrived on the very first transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau and, as such, was indisputably Polish; that prisoners whose numbers began with triangles were Jewish, since triangles denoted a Jewish series of numbers; that other prisoners whose numbers began with B were men (since “B” was a male series) and were probably Jewish (since the majority of the B series was Jewish); and that prisoners whose numbers began with A had arrived after May, 1944 (since the “A” series began only in May, 1944 and was given both to men and to women).

Once a clearer picture of the origin of the prisoners on this death march and their prisoner numbers began to emerge, Ms. Galil and the researchers at Yad Vashem suddenly understood that the Książenice monument actually told the tale of the very same death march that is presented in the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum as an example of the scores of death marches that occurred during the war. By complete coincidence, the gallery in the Museum that depicts the death marches deals with one particular transport and with the massacre that occurred close to the towns of Młyny and Rybnik – the same story that is memorialized on the Number Tombstone.

The next step was to “map” the prisoners whose names had been sent by Mr. Płosa or whose origins had been identified through the use of the Kalendarium according to their countries of origin. This was done because the path of the research would be very different according to the countries from which the prisoners came. For instance, there is a wealth of archival information easily accessed online for prisoners who originated in Holland, while there is a relative paucity of information, much more difficult to access, concerning prisoners whose origins are in Poland. The archival resources in the European countries from which the prisoners came – Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, etc. – are very diverse. As a result, the detective work necessary would vary with each country.

From this point, therefore, Ms. Galil was able to proceed on the basis of the country from which the prisoner had come. Her experiences differed with the extent of the archival resources in each particular European country.

Holland was perhaps the easiest country to research. One of the best, and easiest to use, archival sources concerning victims of the Shoah is the online archive for Holland, the “Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands”, found at www.joodsmonument.nl.

The 'Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands'The “Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands”

The Digital Monument is an internet monument that dedicates itself to “preserving the memory of all the men, women and children who were persecuted as Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and did not survive the Shoah”; that is, all Jews who were deported from the Netherlands and killed between 10 May 1940 and 8 May 1945, as well as those who died on Dutch soil in this period, including those who died a natural death. The home page looks like a tapestry of pixels in different colors – this is the “monument”. Each pixel represents a victim; the different colors of the pixels represent different ages and different genders of the victims. For instance, there are tall blue bars for adult men, short pink bars for little girls under six years old, half-length green bars for boys aged 6 to 21, etc. Clicking on any given pixel pulls up a personal page that commemorates one of the tens of thousands of Jews from the Netherlands who did not survive the Holocaust. The personal page contains basic personal details including, where possible, a reconstruction of family relationships, an address and additional information, meant to put together a “snapshot” of each victim’s household in 1941 or 1942 and even allowing a virtual walk through the street or town from which the victim came.

The information in the Digital Monument was taken from the register lists of Jewish residents in each municipality in the Netherlands, which were compiled according to Ordinance 6 issued by the Nazis on 10 January 1941. The register lists were drawn up primarily between February and May 1941 and were based on forms that the Jews themselves were required to complete. These register lists were preserved in the archives of the Zentralstelle für Jüdische Auswanderung – the Amsterdam office of the Nazi Sicherheitspolizei and the SD, which supervised the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands. Gaps in the lists are filled in by data like the death registers from Camp Westerbork, Vught concentration camp and Camp Amersfoort, the Honour Roll of Resistance fighters, obituaries from the Jewish newspapers published in the Netherlands and even burial books kept by Jewish cemeteries and records of suicides compiled by the Jewish Council who, on the order of the Nazi occupiers, ran the Jewish communities in the Netherlands. The information has been linked together, and is able to be supplemented by visitors to the site. As such, it is very reliable.

The Israel Security Agency and Yad Vashem had already decided that they would not be satisfied by restoring only the names to the victims listed on the Number Tombstone; they wanted, as much as possible, to put together a picture of the person behind the name – where he was from, what his life had been like before the Holocaust, etc. For the victims from the Netherlands, the combination of the Auschwitz archive, the Kalendarium and the Digital Monument unearthed a fair amount of information about the prisoners killed on the death march to Rybnik and buried in Książenice.

For instance, the painstaking sleuthing work concerning the number B9228, one of the numbers that appeared on the Książenice monument, revealed the name and much more additional information behind the number. The Auschwitz archives indicated that B9228 was the prisoner number tattoed on the forearm of Samuel Kops, a Jew born in Amsterdam. Tracking the number in the Kalendarium showed that Samuel had been sent to Auschwitz on September 3, 1944, from Westerbork, had reached the camp on September 5, 1944, had passed selection and had become a prisoner in the camp. On the same transport to Auschwitz with Samuel were 1,019 other Jews; only 470 of them were admitted as prisoners – the rest were gassed to death immediately upon arrival. Another interesting piece of information was that Anna Frank and her entire family – her father, Otto, her mother, Edith, and her sister Margot – had arrived in Auschwitz on the same transport as Samuel.

Entering the name “Samuel Kops” into the Digital Monument revealed that he was born on July 29, 1916 to Jacob Kops and Sarah Kops-Zwaaf, both of whom were murdered in Auschwitz on December 7, 1942 – the family did not arrive in Auschwitz together. The Digital Monument also indicated that Samuel was “on the verge of graduating as a partial physician” on September 20, 1942. An additional, curious, piece of information was that he lived at the Dutch-Jewish orphanage for boys on the Amstel in Amsterdam, and was arrested and taken away with one hundred orphan boys on March 5, 1943.

This information would have been sufficient to give at least a partial picture of who this man was: a 29-year-old Dutch Jew, a few steps away from becoming a physician, who presumably cared for Jewish orphans. But sometimes fate plays a part in research, even when the best archives are involved. On May 30, 2008, one of the major Israeli newspapers published an article on the search for the names from the Number Tombstone. The author of the article, Ronen Bergman, began to receive emails following publication of the article, emails which he dutifully sent to Naama Galil at Yad Vashem. One of the emails was from a man who had grown up in orphanages in Holland. He stated in the letter: “Thanks to your article, I now know that the hero, Samuel Kops, has a tombstone.” But how did Samuel become a hero?

Alphabetical listing of prisoners deported from Westerbork, containing the name Samuel KopsAlphabetical listing of prisoners deported from Westerbork, containing the name Samuel Kops

Between the letter and further research, the pieces of the puzzle came together. Samuel had been sent to live in an orphanage as a boy because of financial difficulties suffered by his family. He was reared and educated there. His dream was to be a doctor, and after graduating from high school, he asked the director of the orphanage whether the orphanage would finance his medical education. The orphanage agreed – on the condition that Samuel remain in the orphanage to work as a mentor. The orphanage paid for him to study medicine beginning in 1936, and Samuel continued to live in the Amsterdam orphanage – metamorphosing from a child needing others to take care of him, to an adult who himself took care of the children. On 20 September 1942, with the Nazis already occupying Holland, Samuel passed the test of pre-qualification as a doctor. He continued to live and work in the orphanage. On March 5, 1943, Dutch police surrounded the orphanage with orders from the Nazis to seize only the children. The caretakers and managers were allowed to go free. However, Samuel, together with the director of the orphanage Mrs. S. Hamburger, and her deputy director, E.R. Bing, agreed that they could not leave the children and allow them to go alone into the unknown. In an act of defiance and courage similar to that of the well-known Janusz Korczak in the Warsaw ghetto, the three adults stayed with the children and were taken with them to Westerbork. None of the adults or the children would survive.

Prisoner's card of Samuel Kops at WesterborkPrisoner's card of Samuel Kops at Westerbork

From the archive at Westerbork, Samuel Kops’s prisoner card supplied additional pieces of the puzzle. Samuel was held in Westerbork for a relatively long period: from September, 1942 until he was taken to Auschwitz two years later. While at Westerbork, he was active in the camp underground. He was caught and punished, confined to the penal barrack in Westerbork on 13 July 1944. Less than two months later, in September, 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz. Within five months, this unknown hero had been cut down by German rifle-fire and his corpse buried anonymously in a mass grave, far from home.

Just as Holland has excellent archival material, so does France. The online site for Holocaust research in France is Mémorial de la Shoah, found at www.memorialdelashoah.org, and its Centre de documentation juive contemporain (“CDJC”). The archives of the CDJC include archival collections of more than thirty million documents, including many originals bearing the signature of the heads of the Third Reich and those responsible for the deportation of the Jews from France. The archives of the military command are included; these cover the collaboration between the occupation authorities and the Pétain government and deal most directly with the deportation of Jews. The archives of the administrative command are also included, and deal with the German control over the French economy. The CDJC has records of the Gestapo in occupied France, including letters, telegrams, and reports on internments, deportation and other measures taken against the Jews, such as wearing the yellow star, rescinding naturalizations as well as general reprisals. This group of archival records contains documents on the Gestapo in France preserved in the German federal archives (Bundesarchiv Koblenz). The CDJC also includes a portion of the documentation collected for the Nuremberg Trials, and its French sources include the archives of the General Commission on Jewish Affairs (CGQJ), as well as Jewish organizations such as: l'Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (O.S.E.), les Eclaireurs Israélites de France (E.I.F.) la Fédération des Sociétés Juives de France (F.S.J.F.), Le Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (C.R.I.F.), l'Oeuvre de Protection de L'Enfance Juive (O.P.E.J.), and la Commission Centrale de l'Enfance (C.C.E.).

The number 43405 was one of the numbers listed on the Książenice tombstone. The name behind the number was David Pastel. The research team at Yad Vashem found that David was one of the only people listed on the monument for whom a Page of Testimony had been submitted. Pages of Testimony are one-page forms that have been collected by Yad Vashem since the 1950’s, containing the names and basic information of victims of the Holocaust. The forms are submitted to Yad Vashem by survivors, remaining family members, members of the victims’ communities or friends. As many of the victims have no graves or tombstones, the Pages of Testimony are like paper tombstones with names and short biographies of the victims. The first 800,000 Pages of Testimony were collected in the 1950s, and the rest have been collected since. The Yad Vashem archives currently contain some 2,000,000 Pages of Testimony, written in about twenty languages.

David Pastel and his son AaronDavid Pastel and his son Aaron

In David’s case, there were two Pages of Testimony that assisted in ascertaining information about him. These Pages of Testimony, together with the Auschwitz archives, the Kalendarium and the Memoriale led to a great deal of information. David was born Aaron David Pastel on 15 January 1901 in Stojanów, in the district of Tarnopol, Poland. He was a trader by profession. He married Leonora, a French national, and they lived in the heart of the Jewish Quarter in Paris. In 1932 their son Aaron was born.

David, who never received French citizenship, served with the French Foreign Legion at the beginning of World War II, apparently with the Polish unit of the Legion. However, he was swept up in the wave of persecution in France of Jews who did not hold French citizenship. Arrested on 14 May 1941, he was sent to the concentration and transit camp Boone de Roland, and from there, to Auschwitz on 28 June 1942. Arriving on 30 June 1942, he was tattooed with the number 43405. Fully 752 members of this transport from France were Jews of Polish citizenship. Only 49 people would survive this transport.

Transport list from Boone de Roland to Auschwitz containing the name of David PastelTransport list from Boone de Roland to Auschwitz containing the name of David Pastel

David became a prisoner in one of the many subcamps of Auschwitz, the Güntergrube coal mine, where he served as secretary to the head of the camp, Ludwig Wörl. In his capacity as secretary, he worked with Wörl, who saved Jewish prisoners from certain death by putting them to work, and was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1963. This fact came to light completely by coincidence, as Ms. Galil was relating the story of the Number Tombstone one day to Irena Steinfeld, the head of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem. Ms. Steinfeld happened to remember that Wörl had been awarded the title and accorded the honor. From this coincidence, Yad Vashem has begun to understand the importance of digitation and cross-referencing of its databases so that the different archives have the ability to “speak” to each other.

At the unveiling of a new gravestone in 2008 sponsored by the Israel Security Agency – now inscribed with names and not just numbers – David Pastel’s grandson, also called David in memory of his grandfather, along with his sister, Emmanuelle, and other family members, were able to finally say the traditional prayers for the dead at a grave with a more personal tombstone.

Indeed, the Mémorial de la Shoah archives led to a lot of additional information, and the researchers there took Yad Vashem’s mission regarding the Number Tombstone very seriously. Researchers from Yad Vashem came in contact with researchers from the Mémorial at a conference that both teams attended, and this led to even closer cooperation. As a result of this close and continuing cooperation, Yad Vashem was able to give names to, and rediscover the backgrounds of, David Urbach, number 5315 A, and Albert-Abraham Banet, number 172626, both French Jews, and to put faces to the names by recovering a wealth of pictures and documents.

In contrast to Holland and France, where the starting-point for the detective work was easy and accessible due to the extensive archives for each country, the Yad Vashem team had a much more difficult time in Poland. In many towns in Poland, there was no systematic registration of Jewish residents. This made the research much more difficult. However, lists were drawn up in certain towns and cities. Based on such a list compiled in the city of Radom, the researchers at Yad Vashem discovered the name of Yaakov Zimmerman, formerly only known as Auschwitz number 137433. They were able to learn that Yaakov was a medic, had been married to Mania-Maria Steinbok, and that the couple had had two children, Henryk and Mauritzio. Yaakov and his family were forced into the ghetto established by the Germans in Radom in April, 1941. Most of the Jews of Radom were murdered in Treblinka when the ghetto was liquidated, beginning in 1942, but Yaakov remained alive in a work camp and was later sent to Auschwitz, on August 23, 1943. There he worked in Block 16 as a nurse. Though Yaakov’s fate is now known, the fate of his family is not.

Handwritten list in Yiddish of the names of the Jews of Krosniewice, including the Gostinski familyHandwritten list in Yiddish of the names of the Jews of Krosniewice, including the Gostinski family

In one case it was not archival information, but the memory of a single survivor, that enabled Yad Vashem to trace the name behind prisoner number 142023. This victim, named Jojne Gostinski, was from the town of Krośniewice, Poland, a town where there were no official documents of the Jewish community and no official lists of Jewish residents ordered by the German occupiers. However, there were Pages of Testimony in the Yad Vashem archives that had been filled out for the entire town by a Holocaust survivor by the name of Zvi Grabinski, who drew up a handwritten list of the residents of the town in Yiddish immediately after World War II. Zvi was able to remember a great deal of information about the town and its Jews, who made up 20% of the town’s population before the war. His memory for details was incredible, given that the events he was speaking about had occurred more than seventy years earlier. For instance, he remembered that Jojne’s was the very last wedding in the ghetto of Krośniewice, and that after his wedding, Jojne and his wife had had a baby boy. Jojne was ultimately interned in a labor camp, Küstrin, and from there was sent to Auschwitz on August 28, 1943.

Ceremony marking the unveiling of new tombstones with the names of the victims, and the original Number Tombstone in the middleCeremony marking the unveiling of new tombstones with the names of the victims, and the original Number Tombstone in the middle

Ultimately, the preservation of memory is a task that falls to all of us, and not just to the historians and the archivists. Thousands of people were killed during death marches; over 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz alone – the great majority of these have no tombstones, no graves and nothing to remember them by. Thanks to an idea put forward by the Israeli Security Agency, combined with the meticulous detective work of Naama Galil and her team at Yad Vashem, and the thorough research of archivists throughout Europe, graced here and there by a stroke of luck, at least we are now able to say that the humanity and identities of twenty-four of those previously nameless and faceless victims have been restored.


[1] Ka-Tzetnik 135633, Salamandra (translated into English as Sunrise Over Hell) (London: W.H. Allen, 1977), p. 214.