The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem is the world's most significant memorial for Holocaust victims. But gathering information on thousands of people killed so many years ago is not easy. Teams of dedicated historians and archivists work every day to find, gather and present information in a way that will properly honor those lost.
Hall of Names, Podcast Transcription
Welcome to "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem, I'm your host Nate Nelson. In this episode of our program you'll be hearing from Dr. Alexander Avraham, Director of the Hall of Names in the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names at Yad Vashem, discussing the Yad Vashem Hall of Names. The Hall of Names contains thousands of Pages of Testimony, each one a memorial to a Jewish person who perished in the Holocaust. Together they paint a picture of a people who will not be forgotten. But collecting these pages is not easy; teams of dedicated archivists have been working on it for years. How did they find this information? How are these pages created and what can ordinary people do to help?
Q: Greetings Dr. Avraham. My first question to you - the Holocaust claimed the lives of millions of ordinary people without much regard for who they were. What kind of information is left for us about who those people were, and crucially what information has been lost permanently?
A: Much of the information was lost because there are not so many records from the time of the Holocaust. Because of this we have to rely for documentation and commemoration of the names of the Holocaust victims on these Pages of Testimony, which are in fact testimonies by members of the family or friends or acquaintances, who remember those victims, and can register their names and some of the biographic details. So, until now we have been able to document something like 4,800,000 names of Holocaust victims. Many of these names come from the Pages of Testimony - 2,700,000. And the other names come from other sources, hundreds of sources. We are trying for instance to locate in different archives around the world, mainly in Europe but not only, names of Holocaust victims. Sometimes we have personal cards from concentration camps, for instance. Some of them were preserved, many of them were destroyed during the Holocaust or in the end of the Holocaust. We have partial records from ghettos. In most ghettos if there were registration lists, or something like this, many were destroyed. We have partial deportation lists from different countries, from France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, Austria. But we don't know exactly… we know who was deported, but we don't know exactly if they arrived to the end of the tragic [way], or what happened to them after that. So the information is rather scant and partial.
Q: So despite the difficulty, how does Yad Vashem acquire information on individuals that are now long deceased? Describe the process.
A: One of our areas of working is the Pages of Testimony. We still receive Pages of Testimony. Years ago, in the 1990s – the early 2000s, we were receiving something like 40,000 or 50,000 new Pages Testimony every year. Now the numbers are dwindling but still in 2019 we have received 18,000 new Pages of Testimony. So that means 1,500 every month. So this is still a source of information about Holocaust victims. We are trying to find other different sources linked to the Pages of Testimony. We are making a great effort to reach Russian-speaking Jews in Israel, in the former USSR, in other countries like Germany or the United States, in order to help them, or to convince them to fill out Pages of Testimony. Because one of the gaps in names that we have is Poland, Eastern Poland, and the former USSR. And because in the former USSR, the awareness about the Holocaust was almost nil, because the authorities didn't speak about the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews was silenced, in fact, we have to work with the families and make them understand how important it is to fill out Pages of Testimony, because otherwise there are no sources for the names of the victims in the former USSR. Most of the Jews in the former USSR were killed by bullets in the first month after the invasion, Barbarossa Operation, and there were no lists or whatsoever of the victims. So this is important.
Another source of names we have found in the last years is linked to religious or Orthodox Jews, in Israel and in other countries, that we have found that many of them did not fill out Pages of Testimony. But they found, or established other different or parallel ways of commemoration. For instance, at the central library, the National Library here in Jerusalem, we have almost all the books published in the world on the Jewish thematics, and we have found that many books include what we call "dedications", that means the author of the publisher is dedicating a book to a number of members of the family, who were murdered in the Holocaust. And we have performed random searches and found that something like 60% even 70%, of these names are not present in our database of Holocaust victims.
So we are now extracting names from these sources. And we have found also, if you visit a synagogue, there are many memorial plaques - people are making a donation of a book, of a stall, or something to the synagogue, and they dedicate this in memory of members of the family who were murdered in the Holocaust. And also many times in Jewish cemeteries you have MATZEVOT, you have tombstones on which next to the name of somebody who passed away after the war, you have inscribed the names of siblings or parents who perished in the Holocaust, because their families need, you know, a tangible place for memory. So, in fact we have a team of young people who are taking digital pictures of these MATZEVOT and the memorial plaques, and somebody working at the university, and we are retrieving these names and including them in the database.
Q: You know speaking of a tangible place, what is the Hall of Names? What does it look like? How is it organized?
A: Well the Hall of Names is a separate pavilion at the exit from the historical museum at Yad Vashem. The visitors go through the museum and learn about the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust and the events of the Holocaust, and next to the exit there is this Hall of Names, it's a circular pavilion, where we are trying to give the victim's back their names and their identities. When you go through the museum you understand that most of the victims, more than 99% of the victims of the Holocaust, don't have a grave, don't have a tombstone, there's nothing left. So the Hall of Names is this attempt of reconstructing their identities, and giving them back their names. We know that in many camps the Nazis assigned numbers to the Jewish prisoners, so we are trying to give them back the names instead of these numbers.
When you enter into the Hall of Names, all around you, there is the gallery with files and in each file there are something like 300-400 Pages of Testimony. So in fact the whole collection of Pages of Testimony, more than 2,700,000, is stored and preserved in this Hall of Names, which is something like eight meters high, and the entrance is at the mid-level, so you can see, we can look to the ceiling or to the bottom of this pavilion. It is very high, and all around you there are these Pages of Testimony. And the ceiling is made out of a collection of, something like a puzzle, if you like, or mosaic of 600 Pages of Testimony, with pictures that are a fraction of the six million victims. And it gives something like a fresco, if you want, of the Jewish life before the Holocaust. Because the photographs in the Pages of Testimony are photographs from before the war. So we want to remember the victims not as victims, but as free people before they became victims, and, you know, people with a future, with plans, or something like this. So it's in fact a picture of the Jewish life before the tragedy.
Q: So I know the answer might appear obvious, but I want to hear your perspective - why do we do this or why should we do this?
A: Because we want to remember. And we want others to know what happened. This comes not in a void, let's say. They say the Jews are the people of the book, but we are also the people of memory. It's a long tradition if you... sometimes if you're looking in prayer books that they were preserved in the family throughout many generations, many times you have a family tree, going from generation to generation to generation. In the Jewish tradition many times people were very aware of the need to keep this link, and to register the members of the family throughout the generations. So this [the collection of Holocaust victims' names] is something of continuation of tradition, let's say. And it is something that also was very important to the survivors after the Holocaust, and many of them started to register the names of the victims in the DP camps, in the displaced person camps, in Germany and Austria and Italy, after the liberation. They were just recently liberated, but one of the things that was important for those survivors, was to document and commemorate the names of their mates in the camps that didn't make it, that were killed in the Holocaust and could not survive. And then you have an attempt by members, surviving members of the communities, to reconstruct, let's say, the list of their friends, members of families, acquaintances, from the communities to construct, let's say, the list of their friends, their families, acquaintances from their specific community, who were murdered in the Holocaust. So there are what we call Yizkor Books, monographs about the history of different communities from the very beginning up to the Holocaust. And in many of these books, there are something like the 1,300 books, Yizkor Books had been published since the late 1940's and 1950's, and more than 800 of them have list of the names of the victims from those communities. And we had a very important project of extracting the names from these lists into our database. Because it was important to them, and is important to us, to put together all these names in order to remember. And, you know, we are trying to document and commemorate not only the names, we are trying to document also the biographical details, including, many times, the professions of these people, what they were doing in their life before the Holocaust. Because we think that only like this, when you know who they were, what they did before the Holocaust, only then you can grasp the dimensions of the tragedy. Because if you don't know what was before, you cannot understand what was lost. You know, if you are looking in our database you can find, I don't know, hundreds of people who were KHAZANIM, for instance, cantors in the synagogues. You have many, I don't know, opera singers, plane pilots, I don't know, physicians, together with, you know, tailors and teachers and whatever. But it's a fresco of the Jewish life before the Holocaust, and it's very meaningful for us. You can learn what was then, and what was lost.
Q: Now that we have a sense for what you do, can you read us an actual Page of Testimony?
A: I have here a Page of Testimony about a young girl, Claude Eve Marcovici, who was born on the 9th of February 1938 in Nice in France. She was the daughter of Paule and Manus, and she used to live in Nice. During the Holocaust she was in hiding, in a small place in the South of France, in the free territory, Chateau des Lierres, Capendu. And nevertheless, she was found by the Nazis apparently, because she was deported on June 5, 1944 to Auschwitz. The page of testimony was filled out in 1992 by her brother, Robert Marcault, formerly Marcovici. Now, this is a Page of Testimony. In our database, as I said, we have names from different sources, and one of the challenges for us is to find out if a specific victim is documented in more than one source. And, in this case, for instance, the name of Claude Eve Marcovici appears on a Page of Testimony, and also on two other documents. One is a list of deportation from France, and on this list we can know exactly that she was sent with transport number 75, from Drancy, near Paris, on June 13th 1944 to Auschwitz. And her name appears also on a list of persons who were reported as missing. There was a search service for missing persons. So in the last ten years we are very active in this intent of linking together, when it is possible, and when there is more than one source, linking together the different sources that are related to one victim. And in this manner, we can sometimes reconstitute, or put together a larger picture, and understand more about the fate of these victims. We are using computer capabilities, algorithms and so on, and trying to match different variants of first names, last names, places and so on, and getting these clusters of different sources about the person. And in this case, attached to this Page of Testimony we have also a drawing. This little girl, when she was in Drancy, in the camp, was writing to her cousin, and it is very interesting that we have with the Pages of Testimony, sometimes we have photographs of the victims, and in this case we have not only a photograph, but also a small drawing that she was dedicating to her cousin. So we are trying in this manner, as I said, to learn who the victims were, and to have a better understanding of their existence before the Holocaust.
Q: And for those listening who can't see what you're holding, what does it look like?
A: Yes, she drew a house and herself, I think, it's a little girl. The house is in fact a school, it is written école, "school" in French, and there is a drawing of herself as a young girl, and wreath of flowers, or something like this, together with a tree. And she's saying in French that she's thinking of her cousin Jacques, and she is eager to have some news from him. So she was writing from the camp and trying to have news from the family.
Q: So quite literally a picture of Jewish life before the Holocaust, we might say.
A: Yes, and we have many like this. And our database is on the internet from 2004 and we invite everybody to look and search for relatives in the database. And if the names of the relatives who were murdered are not in the database, we asked to fill out Pages of Testimony because sometimes the only memory of victims who are not registered anywhere else, live only in the souvenirs and it the memories of their family members.
Thank you Dr. Avraham, for describing how you and your fellow archivists go about gathering information, organizing and then presenting it, in such a way where we can hopefully honor the memories of individuals wrongly taken from our planet.
This has been "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem, I'm Nate Nelson. Listeners, thank you all for tuning in.