January 26, the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked the inauguration of the exhibition Yad Vashem Book of Names of Holocaust Victims at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The installation is a massive book that stands 6.56 feet high, 26.45 feet long and 3.3 feet deep. Inside the pages are 4.8 million alphabetically recorded names of men, women and children who perished during the Shoah. Lights from below illuminate the names to honor their memories.
Each name is a living legacy and testament of each person who once existed and made an indelible imprint on the world. A person’s name is in the hearts of their loved ones who look for it, remember it, or are affected by it from just passing by it. Every name is also a stark reminder of how life can be cut short due to unbridled prejudice and hate.
Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, spoke at the inauguration ceremony regarding the rampant rise in antisemitism today. Ambassador Erdan recounted how his grandfather’s wife and seven children were murdered in Auschwitz and are listed in the Book of Names. Referencing the importance of combatting Holocaust denial, he stated, “Even at the UN, a Member State openly calls to wipe the Jewish State off the map, while openly denying the horrors of the Holocaust… Exhibitions such as this one are weapons in the fight against the twisted phenomenon of Holocaust denial and distortion as they turn the six million victims from a mere number to individuals – individuals who had names, lives, and families.”
The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, means “a memorial and a name” in Hebrew. Of the 4.8 million names it has amassed since its inception in 1953, 2.7 million are from the Pages of Testimony, which provides biographical details about each person who was killed in the Holocaust, such as date of birth, place of residence before the war, profession and names of family members. Some of the other sources from which names are collected include transport and deportation lists, memorial plaques in synagogues and tombstones in Jewish cemeteries in Israel. Yad Vashem tries to connect photographs with the names whenever possible, but unfortunately most photographs from this time period have been destroyed.
Dr. Alexander Avram, Yad Vashem Director of the Hall of Names and Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, tells The Jewish Press that the Pages of Testimony is “something like a personal card for a Holocaust victim… like a matzevah, a tombstone for the victims.” He said it gives people closure and “it’s symbolic, people need something tangible. I think the book that was produced now on the basis of our database with all the names is a kind of answer to this need.”
Dr. Avram recalls seeing a man go into the corner to say the Kaddish over the Pages of Testimony. “At that moment, I understood how important this could be, this piece of paper from somebody from the family. There is no grave, there is no tombstone, the only thing is this thin piece of paper that stands between this person, this victim, and oblivion.”
For the last 20 years, the Yad Vashem database of names has been digital, and now, the Book of Names makes the experience of searching for lost family and friends a more personal experience. Simmy Allen, Head of the International Media Section at Yad Vashem, explains, “People can actually come to visit the book, the site, and look and see and feel the ink underneath their fingertips of the names of their loved ones and really connect with the memory of the victims in a very real and very physical manner.”
Dr. Avram emphasizes the importance of filling out a page of testimony if one remembers someone who died in the Holocaust. It helps bring closure to other people who may be looking for that person. He said that sometimes people don’t want to do it because they are holding onto “hope that somebody will still come back from death.” Pages at the end of the Book of Names are blank, waiting to be filled in by loved ones of people whose testaments are still untold.
Auschwitz survivor Bronia Brandman, 90, from Borough Park, Brooklyn, submitted 35 Pages of Testimony for her family members. At 12 years old she found herself alone in Auschwitz, after three of her sisters, her brother and her parents had been sent to the gas chambers. She only had one surviving older brother, who had been sent to a different camp. Brandman’s life was miraculously saved several times; once when Dr. Mengele ran away when the Allies started bombing and he took her name off a list, and another time when a nurse – who Brandman calls “beyond an angel” – pretended Brandman was her own sister to conceal her identity.
Brandman did not speak about her experiences in Auschwitz for 50 years, until she was prompted to do so by a fellow trainee at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where she volunteers as a member of the Museum’s Speakers Bureau. Since then, she says, “It’s my mission to inform,” and she shares her story with people from all over the world.
Brandman spoke at the UN ceremony on January 26, where she described how the first time she was able to laugh in 25 years was when she went to Israel, because she felt so happy and proud. “I happen to be very short, and I felt like (I was) six feet tall!” She remembered what it was like during World War II, when “in every country there was silence and the silence was deafening and all doors were closed to us, all borders were closed to us and the idea of having a country to run to – I am very proud of Israel.”
When asked about what the Book of Names means to her, she said, “When all survivors are gone, the book will be a testimony… the testimony of my family having lived and having dreamt and breathed. The Book of Names will remain as a testimony.”
The exhibit runs until February 17, 2023. Afterwards, the Book of Names will be brought to Yad Vashem’s Museum’s Complex on the Mount of Remembrance in time for Yom HaShoah, which commences on April 17, 2023.