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I didn’t remember her name. But I knew her face and stopped to say hello, and we stood there talking she with her two children, me with my father, in a wheel chair, in the Katamon park, at dusk. We hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. Osnat now works for Yad VaShem, in charge of a unit that collects the names of unidentified Holocaust victims. Of the estimated 6 million only 4.2 names are actually listed by name. In recent years, as the youngest survivors are aging, they have increased the department’s operations, adding a Russian team and a Haredi team. She asks my father whether he had reported names of the deceased that he personally knew of, back in the day. he shrugs, probably. But maybe he can review the list. She promises to look into it and call us tomorrow, and the sun sets and its gets cold and stroller and wheelchair roll home.
Osnat calls the next morning. Records show that my father, back in 1961, listed only 2 people – his mother and brother. Would he be open to a visit from her or one of the interviewers in her department to get more names? It has to be people you know for a fact perished during the war. Eye witness evidence is best. He agrees. My mother calls Sonye – my father’s Haredi cousin, in her 80’s, to invite her over. They talk in Yiddish, on the speaker phone for my father to hear. She may have other names. it was a big family. They’ll arrange a meeting.
I talk about this with a friend later. She worries that it will upset my father to recall all those names. And, besides – It’s a noble enterprise, this gathering of names — but- what’s really at the root of this obsession with memory? with lists? what’s this anti anonymity project really about?
I suggest that maybe its a post traumatic stress reaction and it goes way further than WW2 and all the way back to Egypt. Our first collective host turned hostile – it’s where we lost our names for the first time. We’ve been fighting to be named for who we are in the world ever since.
The opening chapters of Exodus, this week’s Torah tale are a bitter reminder of what being a powerless minority can be like: nameless slaves. strangers in a strange land. In true Biblical irony, this second of the five books, Exodus, has a Hebrew name – ‘Shmot’ – ‘Names’ – although it lists less than 100 names in all its chapters. The majority of the people in the story, our history – are unknown, un-named, clustered in tribal affiliations, tattooed slaves, so many forgotten. Anonymous ancestors.
Even the first verses of the book points at the invisibility that sometimes comes with history:
These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; every man came with his household:(Ex.1:1)
Not a single woman of the entire clan is mentioned. No names.
So many missing names in our stories. And our desire to fill the blanks with known names and histories is our first desire to never be unnamed again. to add things up.
‘But you know, not every body had a name’, my father tells me when we walk again around the park two days later. ‘remember I told you about Hillel, that man that I worked with in Buchenwald? We had to pick up bodies and carry them to the piles. He would mumble over each body, ‘abraham son of abraham’ before adding to the pile, so that they wont go to the grave without a name. Any name.
But I’m not so sure how many names I now remember.”
These are the names. We make lists to remember, count our gains and losses, to make sense of the far too vast, and to try and make it all add up.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org