On Yom HaShoah, Why Don’t We Read All the Names?

April, 23 2017

By Darcy R. Fryer

I never thought much about the choreography of reading the names of Holocaust victims on Yom HaShoah until I started participating in these events. It took a while for me to volunteer because, like most people, I don’t relish getting up at 3:30 a.m. to stumble out and read tongue-twisting names by candlelight at an unfamiliar synagogue. But after years of thinking vaguely that signing up to read names would be an admirable thing to do, I finally made myself go. But only then did I discover how rough and ready such commemorations actually are. What I had naively imagined was this: Some central authority parceled out lists of names systematically to all of the Jewish communities around the world that read names aloud on Yom HaShoah, and every known name was read aloud every year. The truth turned out to be very different. We’re not even trying to read all the names.

It turns out that the custom of reading aloud names of Holocaust victims around the clock on Yom HaShoah is much younger than I had realized. The Israeli Knesset fixed the date of Yom HaShoah in 1953 to fall close to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and exactly one week before Yom Ha Atzma’ut. The price of this portentous choice of dates is that Yom HaShoah falls soon after Passover, in an exhausting rush of spring commemorations. Other dates of remembrance compete with it: the anniversary of Kristallnacht in November, International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January and Tisha b’Av (historically, the preferred date for commemorating disasters) in late summer. It took decades for Jewish communal observances of Yom HaShoah to settle into a recognizable pattern. Rummaging through two of the hit Jewish books of the 1980s, Michael Strassfeld’s The Jewish Holidays and Yitz Greenberg’s The Jewish Way, I found that Greenberg mentioned name recitation ceremonies only briefly, as something innovative that some college students did once. The practice took off only in the 1990s. Loosely promoted by Yad Vashem, it took root in a haphazard organic fashion and quickly crowded out earlier expressions of the holiday, including stumbling efforts to craft what Rabbi Greenberg called a Holocaust megillah.

And yet, 20 years later, we still don’t read all the names. Individual communities choose for themselves which lists they will read; Yad Vashem publishes a few dozen lists for use in name recitation ceremonies, but some communities read other lists instead. One name might get read aloud 20 times each year, another never. Some communities choose to read only the names of children, and Yad Vashem publishes lists of child victims specifically for this purpose. This custom disturbs me: The deaths of children are always poignant, but when we remember the Holocaust, do we regret the deaths of adults any less? Why do we choose to commemorate some of those killed and not others?

It is not a problem of mathematical scale: 200 teams, each reading for 24 hours straight, could read 6 million names in a single day. A more significant practical challenge lies in the fact that not all of the names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust are known: Yad Vashem has so far collected about 4.5 million names out of an estimated 5.5 million or more. Nazi records of the murdered were far from complete, and now that the last generation of survivors is slipping away, we will probably never know most of the missing names. But surely we could read aloud every one we do know, every year.

This is what I envision: A central authority, either at Yad Vashem or working in concert with Yad Vashem, would distribute to Jewish communities throughout the world regionally-based lists of names, making sure that every name that is known was placed somewhere each year. The reading assignments would be rotated from year to year, and a public database would be maintained, so that an interested individual could log on and see that in 2017, his grandmother’s name had been read in Jerusalem; in 2018, in Madison, Wisconsin; in 2019, in Atlanta; in 2020, in Buenos Aires. Of course, communities would still make room for individuals to read aloud the names of victims from their own families at their local commemorations, but the overarching value would be that no known name, whether of a child or an adult, whether of someone with living relatives or from a family that was entirely wiped away, would ever be overlooked. It would be a Jewish observance for the digital age: coordinated community action, drawing on the possibilities of the internet and our 21st-century sense of connection to a world Jewish community. In time, with international participation, we could build a collective impression of the names of all of the Jewish dead echoing around the world, every year on Yom HaShoah.

It has now been more than 70 years since the Holocaust ended, and it will soon lie outside living memory. The generation alive today is the generation that will fix the observance of Yom HaShoah for time immemorial. Let us commit ourselves to reading all the names.

Darcy R. Fryer studied history at Yale University (Ph.D., 2001). She has published personal essays in CJ: Voices of Conservative JudaismLilithKerem, and Skirt!

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