On 19 August 1942, the Nazi Germans began to liquidate the Kowel ghetto in Volhynia. Most of the 8,000 Jews remaining in the ghetto were shot to death that very day at the Bakhov murder site near the city; those caught trying to escape were crammed into Kowel's Great Synagogue. They were held there for several days without food or water, and in highly unsanitary conditions. In view of their impending certain death, the victims inscribed their last words on the walls of the synagogue for posterity. Some wrote testimonies and wills, while others signed their names to farewell letters and calls for revenge. One woman chose to write, “Farewell, my beautiful world. Your friend, Chaniu Awruch.” With her last words, Awruch was able to convey something of her love for life.
A portrait of Chaniu Awruch can be drawn from viewing the Page of Testimony, Yad Vashem’s unique biographical record of individual Shoah victims, filled out by her brother-in-law after the Holocaust. The Page of Testimony records that Awruch was born in the town of Wierzbnik; her parents were Menachem Mendel and Sarah Feiga Tenenbaum, and she was a teacher by training. She was married to Josef, who was also a teacher at the local Tarbut School, and together they raised their two daughters, Frida and Lea. Awruch was 34 years old when she was murdered. The Yad Vashem Archives contain additional sources that shed light on the Awruchs, including a photograph in which Josef can be seen sitting in the company of teachers from the Jewish Gymnasium (high school) of Kowel. Another archival file reveals information about Josef's last moments: survivors recounted that at the time of the execution, he shouted at the German commander that even if they killed all the Jews, Germany’s downfall was sure to come. The officer shot and killed him on the spot.
Chaniu and Josef Awruch’s final words, the Page of Testimony and the archival sources restore the identities of two people whom the Nazis sought to erase. These pieces of evidence bring back their faces and voices, and recover their individuality.
The annihilation of the Jewish community of Kowel, and the obliteration of any memory of Jewish life there, were part of Nazi Germany’s ideology of systematically and comprehensively destroying the Jewish people. The city’s last Jews, who etched their names and testaments onto the walls of their synagogue, acted in total contradiction to this nefarious plot. They sought to be remembered.
Their aspiration was realized with the establishment of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which endeavors to record the names of the millions of Jews murdered in the Shoah. Calling on people to fill out Pages of Testimony, Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, then-Yad Vashem Directorate Chairman, wrote, “Let there be no person who knows the names of brothers and sisters, relatives, teachers and classmates, friends and acquaintances who were annihilated and who will not commit them to writing. A name is a source of strength, [as in] 'Yad Vashem' [a memorial and a name]. A nation's strength derives from its memory, in the vigor of its memory. This is what sets humankind apart.” Prof. Dinur called upon individuals to commemorate their murdered relatives and friends in the spirit of the Jewish precept "to remember," and as an expression of the human need to perpetuate individuals and communities.
Leyb Rochman, a Jewish native of the city of Minsk Mazowiecki in Poland, hid in a barn with four other people for approximately two years. During this time, he decided to write a diary, in order to remember and be remembered. “Ladies and gentlemen,” wrote Rochman, “Fellow human beings after the war! I know you won’t lay a wreath on my grave… after all, you won’t know where I have been buried. Just as I don’t know the burial places of my mother, my sister, my brother and my every acquaintance, who in death have turned to dust, coating every field and garden… I’m not afraid of writing thus. I’m afraid, God forbid, lest I dishonor the memory of the forgotten martyrs. That in ten years, perhaps even less, no one will remember them. Neither them, nor their terrible calamity.”
Even as the Holocaust transpired, Rochman feared that no physical traces would be left of the murder or of the victims. Through his diary, he sought to venerate the victims, so that their memory, would never fade away over time.
The Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem paint the portraits of millions of Jews, each of whom had a name and an identity. Every victim was an entire world. Every person carried the story of a past – the legacy of a community, of experiences, of the spirit of a family and of a future brutally cut short. “It is not that six million Jews were murdered. Rather there were six million murders, and in each case one Jew was murdered,” said Abel Jacob Herzberg, a Dutch survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp who sought to underscore the unique characteristics and shared humanity of every one of those victims. They were human beings – with names, dreams and loves — who found themselves persecuted, frequently standing in terrible loneliness on the edge of the abyss. Uncovering the identities and worlds of the victims reveals the annals of the Holocaust as a human story, one with which we can identify and from which we can learn.
Restoring the victims’ identities by documenting, remembering, researching and educating not only commemorates the world that was lost, but also makes a substantial contribution to shaping a new and better world. Bonding in this way with specific individuals from the Holocaust enables us, in our post-Holocaust generation, to gain meaning that helps shape our own identities and enrich our world.