In 1998, I joined my mother on a trip to Florida. As on previous visits, we went to the
Holocaust Memorial located at 1933-1945 Meridian Avenue, near the Lincoln Mall. The memorial includes an amazing sculpture, a patined bronze arm marked with a numbered tattoo on its forearm, surrounded by hundreds of figures, some alive, some dead; some screaming, others crying, men, women and children. The towering arm, which reaches for the heavens, rises out of a placid reflecting pool filled with blooming lilly pads. No words I might say, or images I might share, can truly do it justice or describe the experience.
But in the days that followed, in the quiet moments as I sat by the water's edge, I wrote a poem-the same poem which introduces "the YIZKOR project" website. It's not the first Holocaust-themed piece I've written. When I served on the founding Board of Directors of the Avenue of the Righteous (Evanston, Illinois), I had the privilege of writing the heroic biographies of the Righteous Gentiles who the organization honored during my tenure. I also organized Yom HaShoah programs at several universities and prepared the companion educational materials for these programs. But the first piece I wrote about the Holocaust, I scripted when I was twelve years old. It was a call to action that linked the tragedy of the Holocaust with the struggles of Soviet Jewry and our collective responsibility to not stand by in silence. I read the piece by candlelight and recall how my hands shook as the cry of "Never Again" rang out in the assembly hall.
I mention these bits of information as a prequel, an introduction, to how the YIZKOR project came to be. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgable about the Holocaust. I learned about the Shoah in school and through independent study; I've worked with survivors, been friends with those who fought in the forests of Ponari, and shared Shabbat afternoons with others who have lived through the hell of Auschwitz.
My mother also shared stories with me about her time growing up in Gau-Odernheim, Germany, of being kicked out of school as a young girl, of watching her father be arrested on Kristallnacht and how he was released weeks later, bloodied and barely recognizable from the beatings he endured. My mother and her parents were fortunate, they escaped in 1940 making their way across Russia to Kobe, Japan and finally to Chicago via Seattle. My father's family, on his mother's side, came from Krakes, Lithuania. They left in 1911, thirty years before the Einsatzgruppen would sweep through their town, before the mass executions of 1941 would claim 1,125 lives...448 men, 476 women, and 97 Jewish children, before Jewish life in this small town would be annihilated and Krakes would become one of the "Lost Communities". As such, I am fairly attuned to the Holocaust, occassionally insightful, most certainly sensitive and aware, and which was why I was struck speechless in October 2009 when I learned through a friend of a friend that the names of millions of men, women and children who perished in the Shoah remain largely unknown and have never been recorded in the archives of Yad Vashem.
How could that be? How could I have not known about this? I asked friends and family if they knew about the millions of Shoah victims whose names are not known. They did not know about it either. The six million men, women and children who perished had names, but we didn't know them all. As I prepared to attend the Succot Yizkor service the following week I was struck by an idea, a way to honor the memory of the six million men, women and children-those whose names we know and those whose names may already be lost to Time. The idea was rooted in the Yizkor service itself. Traditionally, we say a communal Moleh Rachamim in memory of the K'doshim (the holy ones...the martyrs) who perished during the Holocaust and pledge to give charity and perform charitable acts in their memory, and in so doing help raise their souls in their journeys in the next world. And so the concept behind the YIZKOR project was born...