Making sure the 6 million’s names live on

I wrote this four days ago, after I had just returned from Reading the Names. The Beth Torah Men’s Club had this inspired idea, began it in 2003, and it’s now a sacred tradition.
This quote is attributed to an elusive figure named Bansky: “A person dies twice. First, when he takes his last breath. Second, when the last person remembers his name.” Whether that was the inspiration, I don’t know. But 15 years ago, someone in the congregation realized that the names of many of the 6 million had never been spoken since their Holocaust deaths, and this annual ritual of remembrance is the result. It is subtitled: “To Every Person, There Is a Name…”
Anyone who wants to read names may do so. It’s a 24-hour vigil, beginning after Havdalah on the Saturday closest to Yom HaShoah, and ending at Sunday’s sundown. (Guess who reads through the wee small hours? Teenagers who have an all-nighter under the watchful supervision of youth group leaders and Learning Center personnel.) This tradition was started by Beth Torah, but was immediately opened to the greater community; now, folks of other synagogues, of churches and mosques, come; some even Skype in — sometimes from as far away as Israel. The names come from Holocaust museums that lend what they have: the Nazis’ own records of their victims. Who lived where? Died where? At what age? Germans have always been efficient at keeping details; the Holocaust was no exception.
People who don’t want to read are encouraged to come, sit quietly and just listen, to hear the names read aloud so that those who have drawn their last breaths now become people who have not died that second time. So, I sat in the darkened synagogue sanctuary until it was my turn to read, listening to others, facing the line of 11 candles lit in memory of our own 6 million, plus the 5 million others who shared their horrific fates.
A table on the bimah was stacked with individual sheets of paper, all covered with those neatly printed German statistics for each of the non-survivors. Four piles, each about a foot high. I calculated: My two great-grandsons will likely have grandchildren of their own when the Reading of the Names is finally completed. Maybe not even that soon…
But we read on. Some of us have difficulty with pronouncing the foreign names, or the towns in which their owners lived (and often died). But less difficulty with some of the death sites so carefully noted: Auschwitz — Sobibor — Babi Yar; we are already too familiar with them. With each name, however, we do our loud-and-clear best, to make sure that these people have not yet fully passed away. Sometimes it’s hard not to cry; I have to exercise a seldom-needed kind of self-control when I realize I’m reading off the names of an entire family: I can tell by the surname, the town in which all lived, their ages — people in their 80s, 60s, 40s, 20s and those who were teens, or 10, 8, 6, 4, 2. But most often, most sadly, they have not even died together in the same place. However, every one of them is coming to life again, off those awful pages, if just for a brief moment…
Israel’s three most special days are in this order: Very soon after Yom HaShoah, when Holocaust survivors are celebrated and victims memorialized, comes Yom HaZikaron, paying tribute to those who have given their all as soldiers of their country, and others who have suffered terrorism. Then, just one day later, comes Yom HaAtzmaut: Independence Day. After first mourning the long-gone, then stopping all activity for an incredible silence to salute those whose bravery and suffering have made their country live, Israelis burst out in a show of life like nowhere else in the world.
That final day is today. Let’s celebrate, too. And let’s mark our calendars now, to join in the Reading of the Names next year.

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