Silence Speaks Louders Than Words During Holocaust Memorial Day


On Monday, many turned out for the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem memorial with some survivors participating in the “Every Person Has a Name” ceremony that tries to preserve the memories of the many who died during the holocaust by sharing the personalized stories of individuals, families and communities destroyed during World War II. As pictured above six survivors lit six torches representing the six million victims of the Nazi genocide during the opening ceremonies in Jerusalem on Sunday April 7 2013. The annual memorial begun with a ceremony to mark the 70 years since the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Among the crows was a retired American Air Force colonel from San Fransisco who cam to honor his family he never new as Bertrand Huchberger was too young to remember his parents reports the Associated Press. Along with him, his older sister was also sent to the french countryside to escape the Nazis during World War II and for three years was hidden before being sent to an orphanage eventually being adopted by American Jews at 11 and taken to New York.  Now, 75, Huchberger took part in the ceremony by reading the names of his relatives who were all killed. As he explains, “It is still settling in. It was just overwhelming. This place is `terra sancta’ (holy ground) for people who have been associated with the Holocaust. Now I feel that I find myself and my heritage, and it’s just uplifting … it helps build a spiritual bridge to my parents.” At the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials read names of their relatives killed in the Holocaust.

The country came to a standstill at 10 a.m. Monday to honor the victims with a siren that wails for two minutes across the country as part of the annual tradition with many more poignant moment to follow. The momentary pause allowed everyone to reflect on the past as pedestrians stood still, buses stopped on streets and cars pulled over as the drivers stood on the roads with their heads bowed. Homes and businesses took time to pause and pay homage to the victims of the brutal Nazi genocide that claimed a third of the worlds Jews.  A wreath laying ceremony followed at Yad Vashem with Israeli leaders, Holocaust survivors and visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in attendance while at schools, community centers, and army bases ceremonies took place to commemorate the day with prayers and musical performances. The day marks one of the most solemn days on the calendar in Israel as restaurants, cafes and entertainment shuts down and radio as well as TV programs focus on Holocaust documentaries, interviews with survivors and somber music.

The Israeli flag flew at half-staff to commemorate the day as Peres, 89, in parliament recite the names of his family members and 2060 members of their community who were killed in August 1942 in Vishneva, Poland now Belarus. The Nazis and their local collaborators rounded up the Jews and herded them into wooden synagogue where his grandfather lead the community into the building where the Nazis shot at the structure and set it on fire burning the people to death. This year marks the 70 year anniversary since the Warsaw ghetto uprising symbolizes the Jewish resistance against the Nazis that helped to inspire other acts of uprising and underground resistance. At the opening ceremonies Sunday night at Yad Vashem, Israeli leaders linked the Jewish revolt of 1943 to the warrior mentality that enabled the establishment of Israel five years later reports the Associated Press.  They also tied the Nazi genocide to Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear arms urging the world to stop them as Iranian leaders have denied the scope of the Holocaust while making references to the destruction of Israel. Netanyahu explained, “The murderous hatred against the Jews that has accompanied the history of our people has not disappeared, it has just been replaced with a murderous hatred of the Jewish state. What has changed since the Holocaust is our determination and our ability to defend ourselves.” Just three years after the war Israel was created as hundreds of thousands of survivors came to the country, while today fewer than 200,000 elderly survivors remain and the Jewish genocide of World War II still plays a major role in the Israeli psyche.

Remembering the Past to Preserve the Future

Rivaled only by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Center and the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum in historical value, Bad Arolsen contains 30 million documents on survivors of Nazi camps, Gestapo prisons, forced laborers and displace persons. One example of the power of preserving the past is George Jaunzemis who received a letter in 2010 from the International Tracing Service in Bad Arsolen which changed his life finding out his real name was Peter Thomas and had a nephew as well as a cousin in Germany. He never knew that the Latvian women he emigrated with to New Zealand was not his mother and had no memory of his early years as he was only three and half at the end of WWII when he separated from his mother as she fled with him from Germany to Belgium. Jaunzemis, 71, told Reuters, “I was astonished, thrilled. After all this time, I was an uncle. You don’t know what it’s like to have no family or childhood knowledge. Suddenly all the pieces fitted, now I can find my peace as a person.” Even though the story has a seemingly happy ending, it took Jaunzemis three decades of searching to find the vast archive in a remote corner of Germany.

Many people don’t even know the archive exists as it was only opened to researchers in 2007 after being widely criticized for overprotecting the original material locked in its facility, but Bad Arolsen still struggles to receive the recognition it deserves says many academics. Only 2,097 people visited Bad Arolsen compared to 900,000 who visited Yad Vashem reports Reuters. Rebecca Boehling, a historian from the Dresher Center for Humanities at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, wants to change this, “We have a new agenda. We’re sitting on a treasure trove of documents. We want people to know what we have. Our material can change our perspective on big topics related to the war and the Holocaust.” Boehling is the first archive director not affiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross who managed Bad Arolsen since 1955 who handed the reins over to an international commission of 11 countries in January hoping to open the archives for academic study.  Boehling hopes to open the archive for international conferences, get foreign students to use the ITS, publish research and host teachers’ workshops even though the budget of 14 million euros from the German government may not cover it all. The archive, as Boehling believes should be used as an educational tool for the younger generations as the ITS can provide an abundance of personal stories from victims and hope the events they host will draw more than just the townspeople and groups of pupils from nearby.

The location of the archive site in Bad Arolsen was chosen because of its central location between Germany’s four occupation zones and located next to a site where Hitler’s SS officers once had barracks according to Reuters. The problem now is there are no big cities nearby and connections to Berlin and Frankfurt are slow as the town itself is location on the norther edge of the state of Hesse population of just 16,000. The archive itself hold clues to the fate of 17.5 million people housed in a white building that included 25 kilometers of yellowing paper showing typed lists of Jews, homosexuals and other persecuted groups, files on children born to the Nazi Lebensborn program to breed the master race and registers of arrivals as well departures from concentration camps. A carbon copy of Schindler’s List is even housed here with the 1,000 Jewish workers saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler. As spokeswoman, Kathrin Flor explains, “At death camps like Sobibor or Auschwitz, only natural causes of death are recorded – heart failure or pneumonia. There’s no mention of gassing. The last evidence of many lives is the transport to the camp.”

The ITS receives 12,000 inquiries a month to and reunites 50 families  a year as the number of Holocaust survivors decrease the work continues as the new phenomenon of grandchildren and great grandchildren want to find out about the fate of their loved ones during the war. The task of digitalizing the records is an ongoing project in order to make the archive user friendly and easier to search the large database. Even though the location is remote, Boehling says the archive will not be moved as it has become a memorial to the Holocaust survivors like Auschwitz inmate Thomas Buergenthal who came in 2012 after getting new information on where his father perished Reuters reports. He himself escaped Nazi shooting squads, Auschwitz gas chambers and a death march before the age of 12 later he was found by his mother found him in a Polish orphanage in 1947 through the Red Cross. As he explains from his home in the U.S. at 78, “This is my hallowed ground. These documents are more important for the future than for the past. They will be the common heritage of mankind of what really happened during that period. (They are) what we need to prevent it happening elsewhere in the world.”