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The importance of bringing names back to life

The very youngest Holocaust survivors are now almost exclusively in their late 80s. And the critical question is what will happen when they are gone, asks Yoni Birnbaum

    Picture of Henio taken by a street photographer in Lublin. (via Wikipedia Commons)

    Henio is only nine years old, yet he has managed to attract over 2,279 friends and over 6,500 likes on Facebook. Even more surprisingly, there is nothing unusual about his story. He is an ordinary child, who goes to school, plays with his friends and is loved by his family.

    His profile on Facebook looks ordinary too, it shows a picture of a small boy with black hair and impish looks, dressed in shorts and a white shirt. There is only one small detail in his profile that is unusual. It tells you that Henio was born on March 25, 1933 in Lublin, Poland. Henio will never be more than nine years old because he was murdered in Majdanek in 1942.

    This week, March of the Living commemorates 30 years since its inception. It was founded as an international educational programme, designed to bring people from around the world to Auschwitz-Birkenau each year on Yom Hashoah. Thanks to the inspirational leadership of Scott Saunders, the UK delegation has grown year on year, with some 275 participants this year alone, many of them young future leaders of the British-Jewish community.

    There is a growing sense of urgency around Holocaust remembrance. The very youngest of Holocaust survivors are now almost exclusively in their late 80s. And the critical question is what will happen when they are gone? How will those memories continue? And most importantly of all, how can young people be inspired to continue the sacred work of memory, even without the power of a living survivor’s testimony?

    It was this concern that led the founders of a research centre in Lublin dedicated to the preservation of the history of Jewish life in that city, to establish this Facebook page for Henio. They chose Henio because the boy’s parents had survived and had given a photo album to the research centre in which there was a picture for each year of his short life. The researchers post messages on Henio’s behalf and his “friends” from around the world respond. This is a medium which helps young people relate to Henio as a real person, not just another statistic.

    The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC takes a similar approach, handing visitors a card with the name and profile of a victim of the Holocaust to take home and personally remember. And the highly successful “70 Days for 70 Years” programme, as well as the more recent Yellow Candle Project, also encourage people to remember just one person as they take part in the initiative.

    Movingly, I know one individual who developed such a close connection with the person they had been remembering that they named their own son after him.

    But there is also a more fundamental reason why this approach is an essential one to take.

    Those prisoners who survived the initial selection at the gates of the death camps underwent a systematic process of dehumanisation, designed to strip them of all vestiges of their independent identity. Their heads were shaved, their clothes changed into camp uniforms and they were given numbers to replace their former names.

    That deprivation of personal identity was a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to reduce the victims of the Holocaust to a set of statistics, rather than individuals with aspirations, loves, dreams and names. That is why the process of remembering the names of individual victims returns to them the most precious gift of all — their individual names and identities.

    March of the Living is always full of inspirational and emotional moments. One of the most moving of all, however, involves listening to the words of Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (d. 1984) in Auschwitz-Birkenau: “Every person has a name, given to him by God…” For many Israelis, these words, recited every year throughout the country on Yom Hashoah, have become emblematic of the importance of Holocaust remembrance. They command us not to remember mere statistics, but to breathe life back into lost names.

    As the years go by, sadly more and more of those who perished in the Holocaust have no-one left within their own extended families to remember them. As collective members of the Jewish people, we all share a joint responsibility to remember every single victim of the Holocaust. And when we remember specific individuals like young Henio, we do our own small part to ensure that they are never forgotten.

    Yoni Birnbaum is the Rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue

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