Identifying the six million

Identifying the six million

Yad Vashem lecture for JN June 2020

In 1953, when Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance centre, opened, there was already an ambitious, if impossible-sounding, plan in place — to collect and document the names of every one of the six million Jews murdered during the Shoah.

The recording of the names, as Yad Vashem’s head of archives, Dr Haim Gertner, revealed in an on-line lecture on Sunday, has been at the core of the institute’s work ever since. From crumpled and faded pages of testimony in the 1950s, the work — aided by the latest technology and a crack team of linguists and behind-the-scenes researchers — has continued apace, so that in 2020 Yad Vashem can say it has recorded around 4.8 million names.

The enormity of the task facing Yad Vashem was highlighted by Dr Gertner in just one tiny example — there are, apparently, 1008 different variants of the name Abraham, one of the most common Jewish names. Trying to “join the dots” consists of careful working out of seemingly disparate pieces of evidence, checking wherever possible with whatever files and archives are available.

But as Dr Gertner made clear, it is not just the names which are now being recorded by Yad Vashem. “There is a void created by the annihilation of the Jews”, he said, and Yad Vashem is trying not just to respond to that void but to add, wherever possible, to what is known about those who died.

Between 1953 and 1999 the work was done primarily relying on the pages of testimony, painstakingly filled in by survivors. Many such pages are full of questionmarks where the writer did not know all the details of a person’s birthplace, or age, or often their first name.

But in 1999, as new technology became more sophisticated, Yad Vashem launched a national campaign to collect more material for its new online central database of names. This has become the heart of Yad Vashem’s focus, and Dr Gertner revealed some of the remarkable stories made possible by this work.

He spoke about a memorial in a Christian cemetery in Poland, bearing the names of 45 people. mostly Jews, who had been killed by the Nazis and then buried by a local priest. The memorial bore only numbers, not names: but through painstaking work, at the behest of a group of participants in the March of the Living, Yad Vashem was able to identify almost all of the dead.

“The people were shot on a death march away from Auschwitz in 1945, because the Nazis were afraid of the partisans nearby. The priest did not know any of the names — but his assistant copied down the tattoo numbers on the bodies, and on their camp uniforms”. And this list of numbers survived, and for more than 70 years, said Dr Gertner, this was all that was known about the dead in this cemetery.

Eventually, after matching archive lists from a variety of sources, Yad Vashem was confident it knew who most of the dead were. One of those who had been shot was a Polish Jew called David Pastel, details of whose life were recorded in the French Jewish Holocaust archives, the International Red Cross archives at Bad Arolsen in Germany, the Auschwitz Museum, and Yad Vashem itself. In 2008, Pastel’s grandson, named David Pastel for his grandfather, said kaddish at a new memorial at the Polish cemetery, this time bearing the names of the dead.

It was, said Dr Gertner, “a unique challenge” to assemble all the information and to re-establish the identities of those who had been murdered. And for the young people who went on March of the Living, who had been involved in the research, “David Pastel was by no means a relative [when they began]. But he became a relative. They felt that they looked in his eyes, and they saw him”.

Yad Vashem, as well as holding its own records, spends time going round the world to negotiate agreements with governments to copy their internal archives. In this way, Dr Gertner said, the institute is creating “a building block of memory”. Not every initiative is successful, however, and he said that access to municipal archives in Poland was “forbidden” and that research was becoming more and more difficult there. “It’s not so easy, because of data protection laws, not only in Poland but all over eastern Europe.”

Nevertheless, he said, Yad Vashem — aided by members of the public who frequently supplied previously unknown information to the on-line data base — was now within sight of its original target, with “only” between 1.1 and 1.2 million names still to be identified. Dr Gertner, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, is confident that ultimately the work will be completed.

  • 22 June, 2020