The Nazis infamously gave concentration camp prisoners identification numbers in place of their names. In the Auschwitz camp complex, these numbers were tattooed on the arms of the prisoners. Of course, this is well-known and seen as a hallmark of the Holocaust.
The Nazis are usually said to have replaced names with numbers as part of a process of dehumanization. But actually, this was done not because the Nazis set out to methodically dehumanize the prisoners, but because non-German prisoners were already considered to be racially inferior and treated accordingly. The Jews were not only considered to be inferior and at the same time highly dangerous, but also less than human. So, in the camps, they were treated even more ruthlessly than other prisoners.
Despite the inhuman treatment and use of numbers instead of names in the Nazi camps, the Jews clung fast to the human spirit. They struggled to survive, at least until the point when they could struggle physically and mentally no more. In the camps, they often bonded with family members, people from their hometowns, political parties, youth movements and others to provide each other with as much support as they could for as long as they could. We know of camp prisoners who did everything within their power to mark Jewish holidays, recall the food they ate at home and how it was prepared, discuss various intellectual subjects and, as the late David Weiss Halivni wrote in his memoir, even study and restudy a single page of Talmud that came into their possession.
When we talk about history, we talk about processes that shaped events to a greater or lesser degree, sometimes with roots that were centuries old. These processes are often complex, but when we talk about history, we are also talking about people. Real people with names who had lives before, during and sometimes after the events being discussed.
Because of this, we have come to place great value on the personal accounts of individual Holocaust victims and survivors. Personal accounts certainly aid us in understanding history. They are no less critical, however, to helping people identify on a deeply personal level with those being discussed and their travails.
This identification frequently leads to the realization that when we listen to the voice of a survivor, whether face-to-face or by some other means, that voice could easily belong to someone we know—a relative or neighbor. Survivors are not so different from us, even if they may not come from our own milieu, but rather from a different national, ethnic or religious group. This holds true even if the listener lives far from the events being discussed both temporally and geographically.
The gathering of the names of the murdered Jews of the Holocaust is no less important than listening to survivors’ voices. Recovering their names not only restores their identities but also helps us understand that Jews during the Holocaust were not just a nameless mass subjected to persecution and murder. The victims had lives, families, thoughts, fears and hopes for the future—and each and every one had a name.
Over the years, many names of Jews murdered in the Holocaust have come to light. If 30 years ago we spoke of about 2.5 million names, Yad Vashem and our partners, through painstaking efforts, have now recorded some 4.8 million names. The Holocaust destroyed entire communities and families. Reconstructing, gathering and preserving the names has taken tremendous effort. Millions have been reported in Pages of Testimony, other names have been found in yizkor (memorial) books, on deportation lists, in camp records and among other sources. In the Yad Vashem Hall of Names and The Book of Names of Holocaust Victims, they have been preserved and made available to the public.
The Book of Names is being inaugurated by Yad Vashem at the United Nations in New York for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The display contains all of the names of the victims of the Holocaust that are known today and will help ensure that they are never forgotten. As individuals, as members of the Jewish people and as human beings, their names symbolize the tremendous loss their murder means for all of humanity.
But the nature of the Holocaust was such that a great many victims were never registered on deportation lists or in camp documents. Many were unceremoniously and brutally murdered near their homes along with their entire families, friends and communities. After the war, there was nobody left to bear witness to their existence. Around a million Holocaust victims thus remain unidentified and most likely only a fraction will ever become known.
In the Yad Vashem Hall of Names, there is a Page of Testimony for a woman from Stalino, Ukraine who sold ice cream and was married to a man named Semyon. She was murdered in a mass killing action in Stalino, most likely sometime between Nov. 1941 and April 1942. That is all we know about her. The ice cream seller married to Semyon from Stalino. We don’t have her name, but she is not quite anonymous or forgotten either. Even if we don’t know the names of many Holocaust victims, they still deserve to be remembered—as best as we can.
Robert Rozett is a senior historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem.
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