"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."
This verse from the Book of Isaiah embodies Yad Vashem's Names Recovery mission. Each and every Holocaust victim had both a name and a story, just like every person that has ever walked this earth. They were individuals with unique attributes and accomplishments, hopes and dreams. The perpetrators of the Holocaust sought not only to destroy their lives, but also to erase their personal identities. For decades, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has been working tirelessly to ensure that this will never happen, and that the memory of the Holocaust will not be relegated to the pages of history.
Perhaps there is no-one at Yad Vashem more aware of the importance of restoring the identities of the victims of the Shoah than Dr. Alexander Avram, Director of the Hall of Names and the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names, who has been leading this unique program for over three decades. This substantial undertaking has been made possible through meticulous research in order to piece together the complex puzzle of the Holocaust.
"This work is not without its challenges- in some respects it is a 'mission impossible'- but it is one we are determined to accomplish to the greatest possible extent," declares Dr. Avram.
Yad Vashem in general, and the Hall of Names in particular, is a living memorial, established by the State of Israel and the Jewish people in tribute to the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust. Situated at the end of the Holocaust History Museum, the Hall of Names is an emblematic site of Holocaust remembrance. The circular room, designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, is filled with Pages of Testimony containing the names and biographical information of some 2,700,000 individual victims of the Holocaust.
Using these Pages of Testimonies, as well as other forms of documentation collected over the years, Yad Vashem has created a Central Database for Shoah Victims' Names including, thus far, more than 4,800,000 names of victims murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices. Despite ongoing efforts by dedicated staff, the hallowed chamber still contains empty shelves, ominously reminding visitors that over one million identities have yet to be recovered.
The ceiling of the Hall is a 10-meter cone reaching skywards, displaying a striking collage of some 600 photographs on the background of Pages of Testimony: portraits of men, women and children slaughtered during the Holocaust simply because they were Jewish. Each of their faces 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.
A grassroots initiative that became an international mission
Even before the end of WWII, people realized the importance of gathering and recording the individual experiences of victims of the Holocaust. At the height of the persecution and murder of the Jews of Europe and North Africa, diaries, letters and archives of documents were kept to ensure that the memories and names would endure. Immediately following the war, newly liberated survivors in the DP camps and those arriving in the Land of Israel were interviewed and names of the dead were gathered.
What began as a grassroots initiative grew into a central mission of Yad Vashem, which was established by the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) in 1953. Names Recovery efforts began in earnest some two years later, when an official campaign was launched in Israel urging survivors and family members to fill out Pages of Testimony with the names and biographical details of victims they knew. Some 800,000 names of Shoah victims were collected in just two years – "slightly less Pages of Testimony, as the names of children and their parents were, at that time, recorded together," states Dr. Avram. "We since decided that each individual should be listed on their own Page of Testimony."
In the years that followed, the campaign continued, with the assistance of Israeli embassies and missions in Diaspora communities across much of the western world, including Europe, North and South America, Australia and South Africa.
Throughout the 1980s, Yad Vashem continued to collect some 15,000 new Pages of Testimony each year. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Soviet regime by the beginning of the 1990s, the number of incoming Pages of Testimony shot up to 35,000 a year, thanks to increased access to information in former Soviet bloc countries such as Russia, Romania and Poland, as well as from newly arriving Russian immigrants in Israel.
The next great step came in 1992, when Yad Vashem began to glean names of Holocaust victims from a variety of different sources. Between 1992 and 1998, approximately 470,000 names were digitized from Pages of Testimony; tens of thousands of additional names were gathered from other sources of data, including lists of deportations from France and the Netherlands, as well as from camps and ghettos, that Yad Vashem had acquired over the years.
The Birth of the Names Database
In 1998, scandal shook the world when it was discovered that there were some 300,000 unclaimed bank accounts in Swiss banks. These accounts had been intact since May 1945, and many of the holders were Holocaust victims. Upon further investigation, the banks requested the names of Jewish owners so that their descendants could make a claim. Dr. Avram recalls:
"The world discovered what we had known for a long time; we agreed that there were six million Jewish victims, but there was no comprehensive list of their names."
With the 500,000 names they had amassed so far, Yad Vashem undertook the hefty responsibility of gathering additional names. From February to June 1999, with the help of Tadiran, IBM and Manpower Israel, a thousand people, mostly students, were hired for the project, and they digitized more than a million additionalnames from Pages of Testimony. Cross-matching with the list of unclaimed accounts identified over 54,000 former Jewish owners of Swiss bank accounts.
In April 1999, a new operation was launched to collect more names of Holocaust victims, specifically in Israel. Announcements were made over the radio, television and through the press, starting with the office of the President of the State of Israel H.E. Mr. Ezer Weizman. Two hotlines were established to help these efforts. The success was almost immediate; on the first day, Bezeq (Israel's telephone company) had to install 20 additional lines. "Over the course of the next two months, almost 150,000 new Pages of Testimony were gathered from the public," remembers Dr. Avram. By the end of the year, the total input of new Pages of Testimony was 380,000.
Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names was born in 2000, consisting of around 2.5 million names from Pages of Testimony as well as additional, published and unpublished sources. When the list was uploaded to the internet in late 2004, the number had grown to 2,800,000 names.
Since then, the mission has continued. Yad Vashem continues to receive an average of 1,500 new Pages of Testimony per month, 18,000 per year. The forms are now available online in 14 languages. Fifteen years after its online launch, the information housed in the Names Database – now accessible in six languages (English, French, German, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish) – reflects the names and identities of over 4,800,000 Holocaust victims. Interested parties are able to search through the Database with ease, using specially developed proprietary algorithms that take into consideration a multitude of spellings and languages. "The Jewish name Jacob or Yakov has hundreds of iterations," Dr. Avram gives as an example.
In addition, two important advances to the Database were made in the last decade: In 2013, the inclusion of the Names Database in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register; and the expansion of the Database in 2014, with the addition of information on victims not previously reported, such as those whose fate remains unknown; for example, Jewish prisoners in concentration camps, ghettos or forced labor camps, or those deported without further details. In all likelihood, a large number of these individuals did not survive. Efforts continue to obtain reliable information verifying their fate.
Six Million – Real or a Statistic?
As the Second World War was coming to an end and the atrocities of the annihilation of the Jews of Europe and North Africa were discovered, the world began to talk about the six million Jewish victims. This number is based on census reports of Jewish population from before and after World War II, as well as a figure the Nazis themselves estimated they had killed during the Holocaust. The number six million was further solidified during the Nuremberg trial based on documentation presented during these proceedings.
One of Yad Vashem's greatest challenge to the number six million and the Central Database of Shoah Victims' names is that often there is no one left to remember. "Entire communities and families have been erased – as if they never existed," explains Dr. Avram. For example, it is said that there were less than 100 survivors of Treblinka, one of the most infamous Operation Reinhard Extermination Camps. The names of Jews deported to Treblinka are often presumed murdered and counted in this number. "After all the Nazis did not write death certificates."
It has also happened – though it is very rare indeed – that survivors find their own names on the Names Database, and have reported to Yad Vashem that they survived the Shoah. In these instances, Yad Vashem has removed their names from the database. A little more common, albeit still rare, are instances involving children. Perhaps one of the most at-risk segments of Jews were the children and elderly. In the eyes of the Germans, they served little to no purpose. During the Holocaust some 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered. "However, there were children who were hidden throughout the war, under a false identity, and subsequently remained Catholic after the war, because there was no one left to come and get them," Avrams says. In some cases, a relative or community member who knew that a particular Jewish couple once had children listed those children on Pages of Testimony. It happened that some of those children manifested themselves later on and their names were removed as well. The scholars and archivists working at Yad Vashem try to ensure that the information storied in these entries are as accurate and verified as possible.
Clusters – A Technological Expansion
As the world entered into quarantine due to the Coronavirus health crisis, Yad Vashem launched a new project to upgrade the Names Database, making the search process easier and more accurate. Records contained in the Central Database of Shoah Victims Names are gathered from various sources found in Yad Vashem's Archives, which houses over 200 million pages of documents. "In many cases, we have a number of documents relating to the same person," explains Dr. Avram. "We have now developed the technology to identify records of like individuals and combine them into one 'Personal File.'
"Now we have opened to the public the option of identifying multiple entries, this will allow us to streamline the process of creating these virtual personal files," says Dr. Avram. " So far, we have created hundreds of thousands of this kind of files, in order to provide a more complete identity of these victims and their individual lives. We are finally giving them back not only their names, but also their identities and sometimes even their faces."
To learn more about the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names, click here.
This blog was originally published in French.