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At Holocaust museum, a million victims are still nameless


This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Yad Vashem recently inaugurated a new installation containing the names of 4.8 million Jews murdered in the Shoah, collected over the 70 years since the Holocaust Remembrance Center was founded.

The installation, which has been dubbed “The Book of Names,” consists of large printed pages that visitors can look through to search for the names of family members who perished in the Shoah. The final pages of the book have been left empty for the approximately one million names yet to be found and which may never be found.

Together with the effort at finding names, Yad Vashem is also working to correct errors in its database, including duplicate names and completely erroneous information.

In 2013, a similar installation was inaugurated by Yad Vashem at the site of the Auschwitz camp in Poland, which includes the names of 4.2 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. “In the decades since then, we’ve found 600,000 more names, and we’re continuing to search for more,” said Dr. Alexander Avram, director of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem.

The new names have come from a variety of sources, including “Pages of Testimony” completed by victims’ families, sometimes as late as 80 years after the event; archival sources discovered belatedly; proactive searches undertaken by Yad Vashem researchers in out-of-the-ordinary places such as religious books in which victims’ names were recorded as a memorial or on tombstones.

“We wanted to pass the five million mark. That way we could have said we did the best and most that we could,” Avram said in response to a question by Haaretz about the goals the authority has set for itself in the project. As to six million, which he called a “mythological number,” the researchers never expected to achieve.

“Demographic research put the number at 5.8 million Jewish victims, but due to the circumstances of the Holocaust, it would be impossible to find all the names because not all of them were recorded and there are not enough witnesses. The work will continue for many more years, but as time passes, it is becoming more difficult to find new names. We know that we will never be able to document them all.”

On top of the challenge of missing names, Yad Vashem is also contending with the opposite problem of duplicate names. The Book of Names contains the same person recorded two or more times, each one under a different name. In other cases, names appear of people who survived the Holocaust.

Researchers who specialize in locating the names of the dead and family members of Holocaust victims and survivors provided Haaretz with several examples of such errors.

“Our registry is more or less clean, but there is no way it can be 100 percent so,” said Avram. “There is still a lot of work. Some names are still in the process of being verified but we’re reducing double counting as much as possible. We try to check if the same person appears two or three times in different sources and link them so that the person appears only once.”

Avram said the verification process is being done with “tools that we developed for checking names in different alphabets and languages.”

As for names of people who appear in the Book of Names even though they survived the Shoah, Avram said “that also happens occasionally, but we’re not talking about in the thousands.” The reason for these mistakes is that Yad Vashem’s database of victims is based, among other things, on the names of those who were sent to extermination camps, even if researchers cannot verify what ultimately happened to them. “Sometimes we find here and there a name was on the deportation list, but that person stayed alive. It can happen,” said Avram.

One of the ways Yad Vashem tries to correct errors is to make use of volunteers from Israel and around the world who in their free time look for mistakes and send back reports with recommendations for corrections.

One of these volunteers is Shavit Ben-Arie, an expert in archival and family research who has participated in various historical undertakings in Israel and abroad. Since he began volunteering at Yad Vashem two years ago, he estimates he has reported on some 2,500 names that appear two or more times in the database because of recording errors or because they were provided by two or more different family members.

“I expect that in the coming years, this giant and praiseworthy database of names will be significantly updated,” he said.

Ben-Arie believes that the verification work can be made more efficient, enabling the database to be updated more often than once every few months as is the case now. As an example, he cites a member of his family, Elizabeth Klein of Hungary, who survived the Shoah but appears in the Yad Vashem database both as a victim and as a survivor even after researchers were notified. “It takes the Yad Vashem people a long time to update the records, even after they are contacted,” he said.

Other sources who spoke with Haaretz backed up Ben-Arie’s claims. “My father, who survived the Lodz Ghetto, is recorded as having perished. The documents I showed them in the application to change it didn’t help. Yad Vashem works on the assumption that no one there survived,” said one person.

Another source who spoke with Haaretz described a faster pace of work. “To Yad Vashem’s credit, I can say that every time I alert them to a survivor who appears as having perished, they correct it immediately. But there is still a lot of work,” he said.

The post At Holocaust museum, a million victims are still nameless appeared first on The Forward.