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Group Searches for Holocaust Survivors to Record Victims' Names
Group Tries to Fill Out Database, Searching for Aging Survivors
 
Published Saturday, April 5, 2008
by Dianna Cahn

(SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL)

WEST PALM BEACH

In his last letter to his friend Elsa, 19-year-old David Berger knew the Nazis were closing in. It was 1941 in Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, and Berger had fled invading German forces as far as he could.

Resigned to his fate, he sent a final message: "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger."

That quote opens the Web page for a program of Israel's national Holocaust museum aimed at documenting the names of as many Holocaust victims as possible before those who remember them die.

After decades of efforts to record a history of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem has been able to ascertain the names of 3.3 million of the 6 million Jews killed by Nazis during World War II. The Shoah Victims Names Recovery Project is its ultimate push to add more names to that record.

On Thursday, Cynthia Wroclawski, who directs outreach for the program at Yad Vashem, made two presentations in Palm Beach County, pressing the urgency of recording names. But it hasn't been easy.

"Just remember us, remember our names, tell our stories," Wroclawski said, reciting phrases from the last letters of people like Berger who died across Eastern Europe from 1939 to 1945. "Over 60 years after the war and we are still trying to find out what happened."

Wroclawski made a lunchtime presentation at the Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service of South Palm Beach County, which offers counseling, support and education programs. The organization hosted social workers from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Jewish Family Service agencies whom Wroclawski trained Thursday in techniques for working with Holocaust survivors to fill out the single-page forms known as pages of testimony.

The aim is to create a page of testimony for each victim. But there is no expectation that all 6 million names ever will be compiled, she said.

In some cases, entire towns were wiped out. There is nobody left to remember them. Some survivors don't think they have enough information or they want to cling to hope that family members survived, she said.

And many survivors spent the decades since the war building new lives. They kept those memories so tightly tucked away that they need help drawing up all that pain.

"There's been no opportunity to mourn the losses," she said at her later presentation at the Red Cross. "We have to be active in pursuing a community-wide outreach."

Some tally the number of Holocaust survivors living in the tri-county area of southeastern Florida as high as 16,000, said Don Hirschhorn, a volunteer at the Jewish Genealogical Society, where his wife Sandra is president. Their organization has collected 1,000 pages of testimony since their volunteers took on the project more than a year ago, he said.

"Most of the [survivors] alive today were teenagers in the Holocaust," he said. "It's really a race against time to get as many names as possible before they leave us."

The Red Cross helps Holocaust survivors trace relatives through newly released Nazi archives that are under control of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Included in those archives are records from Auschwitz and Dachau, said Armen Gregorian, who manages the tracing program.

In Palm Beach County, the Red Cross has been able to help some survivors reunite with loved ones, Gregorian said. For others, it's an opportunity to glean information about relatives or themselves, as with one woman who was able to finally learn her birthday, he said.

Creating a database of names of those who died is more than just a memorial to the dead, Wroclawski said. It is a link for survivors and future generations to learn about their families and, occasionally, to find lost relatives.

"It's not our primary focus to reunite, but it is one of the beautiful outcomes," Wroclawski said.

For now, though, the race is on to get the names and put them in a database.

"There's still so much more to do," Wroclawski said. "And we are running out of time." 

Whom to Contact to Help the Holocaust


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