Yad Vashem in Israel, arguably the largest Holocaust institution in the world, is literally translated from the Hebrew language to “hand” (less literally, but more to the intended meaning, the word refers to “memorial”) “and a name.” In this vein, Yad Vashem strives to ensure that every victim of the Holocaust is given a memorial as a place of comfort and a “name.”
In terms of the latter, Yad Vashem is committed to collecting the names and identities of every person who perished in the Holocaust. This is done by filling out a one-page form called a Page of Testimony, which documents the most essential facts of a person’s life: name, date of birth, parents’ names, siblings, occupation, place of death. The page, typically filled in by a living relative, ensures that the person’s life is documented for historical records. There being no grave to mark the person who perished in the Holocaust, the page of testimony proclaims: “I once lived. With this page, I still have a voice that calls from the grave… I lived. I had a life that was full of promise, but it was tragically cut short. Come learn about me.” More than anything else, a Page of Testimony serves the purpose of bringing comfort to the families that have lost loved ones.
Thus far, Yad Vashem has collected approximately 4.5 million names of the 6 million who were murdered.
At the time of this writing, I was an employee of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, the Canadian office of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, which is located in Toronto. It pained me that I failed to approach my father with empty Pages of Testimony so that we could fill them in the names and details of the lives of his brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust.
I meant to but I kept on pushing it off. And now that my father is no longer alive to fill in the missing details, I will take this opportunity and try my best to remember them here…to do what I should have done before.
The picture above is the only surviving family photo of my father’s family. It was taken in Nagyszalonta, Romania, where my father lived until the age of 12.
In the back row, left to right, are the following:
Sarah Chana Perl: my father’s mother, who died in 1943 from an illness before the Germans entered the town and took away the family
Avraham Perl: my father’s father, who survived the Holocaust
In the front row, left to right, are the following:
Herschel Perl, my father who survived the Holocaust
Simcha, murdered in Auschwitz
Yisroel Moshe, murdered in Auschwitz
Esther, murdered in Auschwitz
There was another child, Chana Miriam, not pictured, who was also murdered at Auschwitz.
And there was a baby who died at 5 weeks from pneumonia.
What were they like? I never asked and will never know. It is a tragic omission on my part. I do know that my father was reluctant to speak about his family or what occurred during the war. And so they will forever be plastic, but beautiful ghost-like figures staring out of a frame.
I think it is important to mention that following my grandmother’s death, my grandfather remarried. My father never met her, since he was learning in a yeshiva (a Jewish institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah study) in Békéscsaba, Hungary, at the time. He was about 19 years old. Because the family was too poor to bring him home (not even for his mother’s burial), he never met her. Instead, he received a letter from her, and it conveyed the warmth of a lovely woman who would devote herself to raising the children that she would consider her own. It was this woman who perished at Auschwitz.
Family lore tells the story that she and the children approached Mengele, the notorious Nazi who selected his victims to be killed in the gas chambers. With a flick of his wrist, he directed the inmates to either the right line or the left, to freedom or death.
We never learned my father’s stepmother’s name. She is a heroic ghost that we speak about rarely but when we do it is with awe. When offered a chance to be separated from her stepchildren and given the chance to live, she refused to leave the children alone and marched with them to the gas chambers, sharing their tragic fates.
To learn more about the Auschwitz concentration camp, please watch the video below called The Auschwitz Album, presented by Yad Vashem.