Dr. Alexander Abraham. Photo by Yehoshua Yosef.
Dr. Alexander Abraham. Photo by Yehoshua Yosef.
featureHolocaust & Holocaust Survivors

‘Around a million names of Shoah victims still missing’

Searching cemeteries and synagogues, from Hong Kong to Monaco—Dr. Alexander Abraham, director of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, is in a race against time to locate more names.

Q: You’ve served as director of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem—the World Holocaust Remembrance Center—for nearly 30 years. You told me before that the preoccupation with names and the stories of the victims in the Pages of Testimony collection fascinates you. On a deeper level, what does this pursuit mean to you?

Alexander Abraham: “Shimon Peres once said that people are not floating in the air like in Chagall’s paintings, because every human being is tied to a specific place. For me, the pursuit of the source of the names, their place of origin, and their roots is a winning combination of history, geography and textual research in multiple languages.

“Of course, the fact that we’re helping people to get closure and sometimes find living relatives also contributed. Our main work is based on the page of testimony, a personal card briefly describing the identity and a short biography of the Holocaust victim. These are usually filled out by family members, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. While the page of testimony itself is printed in 14 languages, our work involves more than 30 languages.”

Q: You’ve typed countless names into the database of victims’ names. You must have encountered some unique stories.

Abraham: “I worked for years at the Hall of Names desk, where people came and asked for information about their relatives. Once, a man insisted on receiving the original page of testimony, which was forbidden. He kept requesting it until I finally complied. When he had the page in his hands, he stepped aside, turned around, and I heard him recite the Kaddish mourner’s prayer inside the hall. It broke my heart.

“The page of testimony is a symbolic gravestone because most of the Holocaust victims did not have a grave. This is the reason our work touches the deepest chords of people’s souls. To this day, we receive about 1,000 pages of testimony per month. The first one arrived at Yad Vashem in 1954.”

Q: What did early efforts to collect names involve?

Abraham: “The first protocol of Yad Vashem included a recommendation on how to approach the mission of collecting names—contacting families and requesting them to report missing persons. Another channel was appealing to the archives of the extermination camps, which was, of course, an oxymoron, because there were no records kept at all. Initially, in the 1950s, registration was done by communities, and along the way, the idea of personal commemoration emerged based on the page of testimony, which incidentally is also legally valid.

“In 1955, a national campaign to collect testimonials lasted over two years, with registration stations set up across the country. At one point, when organizers were unsatisfied with the public response, teams of pairs went door-to-door asking people to fill out the pages.

“Years later, in 1994, we worked in the southern city of Kiryat Gat and the city of Carmiel up north, sending high school students door-to-door. We managed to collect about 30,000 names there, but one of the teams, consisting of two girls didn’t return on time. We waited and waited, and they simply didn’t come back.

“Towards evening, they returned pale-faced with tears in their eyes. We didn’t understand what happened until they explained to us that the delay was caused by one family filling in more and more pages of testimony. They brought over 100 pages from one family. It was an unforgettable event.

“In the end, the operation in the 1950s led to the collection of about 800,000 names, and following another operation in April 1999, we collected about 400,000 more.”

Q: You’ve worked on the collection since 1984, locating names from various populations in unconventional places. Where did you find victim names?

Abraham: “We search everywhere—in schools in Poland, checking September 1939 student lists, realizing the missing Jewish children were murdered. We received pages of testimony from unlikely places like Suriname in South America and Hong Kong, where Jews lived. Inevitably, there will always be someone who lost family in the Holocaust.

“We even got pages from Monaco, even though it’s not exactly the place one tends to think of in the context of the Holocaust. But the Holocaust reached there, and several dozens of Jews were sent to the camps from there.”

Q: What about locating names in the ultra-Orthodox community?

Abraham: “In the ultra-Orthodox sector, various forms of commemorating names have developed. In books dealing with religious subjects, there are dedications by the publisher or author to family members who were murdered in the Holocaust. We scanned tens of thousands of books for dedications.

“We also found many memorial plaques in synagogues with names, and sometimes names on synagogue seats dedicated to victims’ memories. We photographed 99% of synagogues and study halls in Israel. In some cases, discarded memorial plaques had to be reassembled from backyards after renovations. 

“We concluded that 65% of the names we found in synagogues were not registered in our database. This is a serious and significant source. Additionally, we attempted to locate more names in cemeteries.

“Roughly speaking, on one of every 10 tombstones in Israel, there are names of Holocaust victims. In the absence of a proper grave for the victims, the family seeks a physical, tangible place to commemorate their memory. I think over the years we have covered over half of the graves in the State of Israel, probably hundreds of thousands of graves.”

Q: You had a similar project among Jews from the former Soviet bloc. 

Abraham: “We made significant efforts to raise their awareness of the importance of the subject because, in the former Soviet Union, the Holocaust was a taboo topic. They had different narratives, and almost no approval was given for commemorative actions. Before the Iron Curtain fell, we received some self-printed testimonials, smuggled out by foreign tourists.”

Q: How do you feel when you discover a new name?

Abraham: “The Nazis wanted to destroy the Jews, and also to annihilate their memory. Therefore, for me, every new name is another victory over the Nazis.

“I have a picture in my office of a machine developed by IBM and marketed in Europe in the 1930s, which served the Nazis in managing the population census of the Jews in May 1939. Today, we use similar, advanced technology, but for the opposite purpose—to preserve the memory of the Jews and to turn them from numbers into people. For me, it is another victory over the Nazis.

“But it is important to mention that there is great responsibility in locating the names. Our team is mostly composed of experts in linguistics and philology, proficient in several languages. Our goal is to thoroughly understand the name and interpret it in its historical context, as language changes over time.

“Sometimes, a single letter can alter the entire meaning. If we attempt to document the name of the victim, and we make a mistake with one letter—everything we did is worthless. That individual will not be remembered, as no one will find them due to the incorrect name.”

Q: Nevertheless, errors such as duplicate names might occur, and sometimes it takes time to update names, I presume. 

Abraham: “True, but that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. We try to be as accurate as possible and avoid duplicate names. It’s important for us to honor the victims and preserve their memory as accurately as possible, but only those who don’t work make no mistakes. Just a month ago, one of the employees at Yad Vashem discovered that her uncle’s name was listed with us as a victim, while he survived. It happens from time to time, and it’s preferable that these are the kinds of mistakes we make.”

Q: Was there a testimonial that moved you deeply?

Abraham: “In 1999, we executed an extensive computerized project in which we typed more than a million pages of testimonies. One was about a woman who had been sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. Her name was Bat Sheva and she was from Kavala, Greece. We had no other details except that she sold ice cream at a school.

“The person who filled it out was a child who bought ice cream from her, writing he didn’t know anything else except that he’d never forget her delicious ice cream, tasting like the madeleine cookies in Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ The flavors brought emotion and memories to life. We shared this story with all our typists, and I remember time standing still. It was very emotional.”

Q: Do you get overcome with emotion often due to your work?

Abraham: “Our team consists of about 20 people, and they are exposed to extreme emotional situations, both difficult and optimistic. But generally, these are people mainly dealing with death. Some of the team members write about 30 names of victims per day, for years. The pages of testimony also indicate how the victims were murdered, it’s incomprehensible. But this work is so important because we are responsible for ensuring that the memory of these people is not erased.

“There was a case where an employee came to me and said she could no longer type the names of the victims, that it was hard for her, and asked to type the names of survivors instead, thus connecting to the more optimistic aspect of the work.”

Q: Some of the victims were children. I suppose this makes coping more difficult and complex.

Abraham: “It’s painful because we have records indicating a child was murdered, but we don’t have their name. There are testimonies with the name of an adult who was murdered, and it’s noted, for example, that they had three children, sometimes even indicating their gender and age, but without their names. This is because distant relatives filled out the testimony page, but they didn’t always remember the names.”

Q: It’s chilling. They lived, but no one will remember them by their names.

Abraham: “It’s as if they never existed. Every time I encounter such a testimony page I shudder, my heart breaks. Currently, we have no solution for this because the law of privacy in Europe applies to 100 years from birth. Maybe in another 20 years, we will be able to locate the names of the children. It’s a little comfort.”

Q: When you began working at Yad Vashem, you had approximately one and a half million names, with about four million missing. Did you ever imagine you’d gather such a vast number of names over the years?”

Abraham: “I didn’t dare imagine it, but I held onto hope. Now, my dream is to reach five million names before retiring next year. That’s roughly another 100,000 names by then. Over the years, our team diligently typed countless names into the system, one by one. I’ve personally inputted thousands of names. Each name stirs something within us, offering a glimmer of hope for continuity. These names have become my life’s mission, albeit a challenging one.

“Every passing day, we exhaust known and potential sources, with fewer survivors and dwindling documentation. It’s a constant race against time.”

Q: You rely on artificial intelligence. Could this advance lead you to uncover more names?

Abraham: “Over the past year, artificial intelligence has ‘learned’ to scan written and photographed testimonies of Holocaust survivors, extracting additional names of victims. The technology keeps improving, allowing us to delve into testimonies provided by tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors over the years, some of whom have passed away, and extract additional names along with detailed information such as full names, birth cities, parents’ names, and the last place they were seen.

“This technology enables us to sift through vast amounts of data and uncover thousands of names in a fraction of the time it would take us manually. However, the machine still requires further training to become more accurate. If successful, there’s significant potential here for text scanning on a massive scale within a reasonable timeframe.”

Q: Even with artificial intelligence, do we need to accept that some names may never be identified?

Abraham: “I fear that might be the case. As of January this year, we’ve documented around 4.9 million names. The mythical figure of six million, as mentioned in the Nuremberg trials, is likely closer to 5.8 million in reality. The difficulty lies in knowing that we may never be able to document all the victims, especially in regions where sources are scarce.

“The issue is that people don’t understand that there was never truly a list of six million or even 5.8 million. I’ve encountered people who are genuinely surprised, and astounded, that there are still around a million names of Holocaust victims missing.

“They ask me, ‘Don’t you know all the names? We always hear about the six million.’ But it doesn’t exist, there isn’t a comprehensive list of all the victims, just as there isn’t an organized list of survivors. In our database, there are over a million names of Jews whose fate is unknown.

“In Germany, there’s currently an attempt to reconstruct the names of Jews who lived in the country between 1933 and 1945, but it’s challenging because at the time the Germans certainly didn’t document the names of the murdered. They simply annihilated most of them without any record.

“In contrast, our mission, as stated in the Book of Names, is to engrave the names of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims into the world’s memory. That’s our mission.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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