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The International School for Holocaust Studies

The Stories Behind the Names: A Journey of Discovery

by Naama Shik


Introduction

“And who will speak in the name of the silent ones besides us?!” Nelly Schs, Nobel Prize laureate for poetry, asks this question in the name of stones, the only remnant that might be able to tell the tale of the people who were murdered in the Holocaust. “The Stories Behind the Names” offers an opportunity to piece together information about the lives of Holocaust victims, tell their stories, and shed light on Nelly Sach's rhetorical question.

“The Stories Behind the Names” expands on biographical details on Pages of Testimony that have been collected by Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem has been cataloguing Pages of Testimony about victims of the Holocaust since the 1950’s. To date, Yad Vashem has over two million Pages of Testimony, which are kept in its Hall of Names, where they serve as symbolic gravestones for those who were murdered in the Holocaust. Recently, the Pages of Testimony have become available to users outside of Yad Vashem through the Central Database of Holocaust Victims’ Names.


"Every Person Has a Name": The Human Story

Many people who perished in the Holocaust wished that their names and existence be remembered. Anne Frank writes in her diary: “Margot and I started packing our most important belongings into a schoolbag. The first thing I stuck in was this diary, and then... schoolbooks, a comb and some old letters... I stuck the craziest things in the bag, but I’m not sorry. Memories mean more to me than dresses.” (Anne Frank, The Diary of A Young Girl, Wednesday July 8th 1942, pp. 19-20).

Nachum Gazivach writes: “I see them running. I rush down to the street... I quickly ask: ‘What’s going on?’ And they tell me that that street is also blocked off. I don’t know what has happened to my parents, and I’m waiting for a chance to reach them as soon as possible. What about my parents? – I hear a shout. The sound of steps. I’ve reached the yard... I am gripped with fear. Look, I’m already inside the building, and now I’m going to my parents, to see how they are. And I don’t know what will become of me or if I will be able to tell you of the events of the coming days. Remember: my name is Nachum Gazivach, 30th July, 1942.” (Shlomo Derech, ed. Pages of Holocaust and Rebellion Research, 2nd Series, Vol. I. Ghetto Fighters' House: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1970 [Hebrew]).

We are able to fulfill a few of these wishes, through educational work using the Pages of Testimony. “The Stories Behind the Names” turns Pages of Testimony into complete stories of victims’ lives, thus serving as portraits of Holocaust victims, enabling us to remember Holocaust victims as individuals, with faces and identities.

The International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem is committed to understanding and presenting the Holocaust as a human story. Our activities at the School focus on Jewish victims, whose murder is the central aspect of the story of the Holocaust. When we come to teach the story of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, we need to present students with real people who have faces and identities, people whose unique humanity the Germans sought to wipe out. From out of the ashes, we need to retrieve their individual features, their families and communities. By restoring victims’ names and faces, we aim to frustrate the Nazis’ goal of wiping out their memory, and also to come to know what we have lost so that we may better remember. With regard to Jewish victims, we are particularly interested in exploring and educating about four areas: the lives of Jews before the war, everyday life during the Holocaust, the lives of Jews in a world of dehumanization, and the return of survivors to the cycle of life.


Examining Pages of Testimony

How do Pages of Testimony work? This article will use as an example the Page of Testimony about Yehuda Kagan. You can follow the links to print out a copy.

If we examine the structure of a Page of Testimony, we find that it is divided into three sections. The first section includes prewar biographical details of the person who died. The middle section tells the story of how that victim was murdered in the Holocaust. The third section includes details of the person who submitted the Page of Testimony, and allows us to consider the lives of survivors, or of other relatives who are not survivors, in the wake of the Holocaust.

“The Stories Behind the Names” presents students, teachers, and the general public with the human story that lies behind the biographical details that appear on Pages of Testimony. The educational value of “The Stories Behind the Names” is twofold:

  1. Rather than relating to Holocaust victims as abstract numbers, “The Stories Behind the Names” conveys the message that behind the statistic are six million human stories. It exposes students to individual stories and a multifaceted Jewish world, thus enabling students to better grasp the significance behind an inconceivable number. The Israeli poet Zelda wrote that “Every Person Has a Name,” in a poem which has become iconic for the perpetuation of Holocaust memory. These apparently simple words have been our inspiration and guide in writing “The Stories Behind the Names.”
  2. By revealing the human stories behind the biographical details, we restore a face and an identity to people and communities whom the Nazis sought to wipe out. Beyond the Nazis' major goal of murdering the Jewish people, they sought to wipe out any memory of the Jewish people: they confiscated Jews’ property, burned synagogues, banned Jewish art and literature, looted Jewish houses, burned Jews’ family pictures and personal possessions. The Nazis and their collaborators subjected Jews in Germany, Austria, and countries that Germany occupied to a process of dehumanization. “The Stories Behind the Names” attempts to restore human identities to the Nazis’ victims.

“The Stories Behind the Names” is also an educational model for how similar journeys can be constructed with the help of Yad Vashem’s online databases. We present here an educational activity in which students are required to design and undertake their own “Journey of Discovery,” for a Page of Testimony that they choose from Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Holocaust Victims’ Names. Studying a Page of Testimony will enable students to become familiar with an individual personality, and at the same time gain knowledge about Jewish communities that existed before the Holocaust, and their destruction. This activity can help deepen students’ connection to the Jewish people and its history, and help students develop empathy towards Holocaust victims.

We recommend that this activity be part of an extended educational unit about the Holocaust, with Holocaust Remembrance Day as its climax. Ongoing educational work about the Holocaust, using Pages of Testimony, can be incorporated into courses on sociology, literature, and history.


Sample Activity

This activity is intended for students in Junior High School and High School.

  1. The teacher presents the Central Database of Holocaust Victims’ Names to the students. The teacher provides information about Yad Vashem in general, and about the Hall of Names in particular. The teacher stresses the importance of perpetuating the memories of individuals, their families, and communities. The teacher can make use of various materials available in the online Holocaust Resource Center on the website of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.
  2. The class is divided into groups of two or three students. Each group receives the name of someone who died in the Holocaust, and each group uses the Central Database for Holocaust Victims’ Names to search for that person’s Page of Testimony. We recommend that students in Junior High School do not undertake an unguided search in the Database, but rather concentrate on a given list of names of Holocaust victims whose stories are appropriate for students in Junior High School. Students in High School can freely search the Central Database, to find a Page of Testimony that interests them.
  3. Students read the Page of Testimony they have chosen, and write a brief biographical sketch about it.
  4. Students expand their research about the victim they are studying, and his or her community, with the aid of the Holocaust Resource Center on Yad Vashem’s website. If, for example, students are researching a victim who was born in Warsaw, they can enter the keyword Warsaw in the Holocaust Resource Center educational database, and find out more about the city. If students are researching a victim who was murdered in a ghetto or a concentration camp, they can find entries that offer more details about these locations. If students are researching a victim who was a child, they can make use of the No Child's Play online exhibition, and they can use the Holocaust Resource Center, by clicking on the "Gate of Knowledge" entitled The Individual and the Family, and then choosing Children in the Holocaust. Students can also use the Central Database of Holocaust Victims’ Names to check whether the person who submitted the Page of Testimony they are studying also filled out other Pages of Testimony about other family members. This might enable students to build a family tree for the Holocaust victim they have chosen.
  5. After conducting research, students come back together for a discussion with the entire class. Each group describes the journey they undertook, and presents its findings.
  6. The teacher sums up the activity with a discussion about the importance of perpetuating the memories of individuals, and their communities. The teacher stresses that the research the students have done has actually uncovered the faces, human identities, and forgotten life stories of a number of Holocaust victims. The teacher suggests that the students can find out if any of their own family members died in the Holocaust, and if so, whether Pages of Testimony have been filled out about them. The teacher should recommend that students fill out Pages of Testimony for family members who do not yet have Pages of Testimony to memorialize them, and send the Pages to Yad Vashem.
  7. To sum up the project, teachers might choose to hold an exhibition in the school or on the school's website. An intergenerational gathering might be held in the school in which students present their work to their families.

Sample Project

Print out the sample Page of Testimony for Paula Schwarz.

With the help of Yad Vashem’s online educational databases (Holocaust Resource Center), students can learn about Berlin, Germany, Auschwitz, and the experiences of children during the Holocaust. Using the Central Database of Holocaust Victims’ Names, students can trace Paula's family tree.

An online exhibition, “So Vast Was the Crime”, demonstrates the educational value of retrieving names using Pages of Testimony.