REHOVOT, Israel – With a hand on her chest, 82-year-old Rivka Fringeru battled back tears as she reeled off a list of names she has rarely voiced in the past 70 years: her father, Moshe, then her mother, Hava, and finally her two older brothers, Michael and Yisrael.
All perished in the Holocaust after the Harabju family from Dorohoi, Romania, was rounded up in 1944 and sent to ghettos and camps. Only Rivka and her brother Marco survived, and like many others, they spent the rest of their lives trying to move on and forget.
Now, Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, is asking them to remember.
Decades after the Holocaust, experts have documented the names of about 4.2 million of the roughly 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis in World War II, and officials are going door-to-door in a race to record the memories of elderly survivors before their stories are lost forever.
It is a painstaking process, complicated by trauma, attempted cover-ups and limited record-keeping.
The Names Recovery Project has been Yad Vashem’s flagship mission in recent years. It’s a vigorous campaign to complete a central database of Holocaust victims’ names by encouraging survivors to fill out pages of testimony about those they knew who were killed.
The outreach effort has taken on a greater sense of urgency, with volunteers spanning the country to engage the fewer than 200,000 remaining survivors in Israel and etch the names of their dead relatives into the pages of history. Elsewhere — primarily in the United States and the former Soviet Union — testimony also is being collected from those unable to do so online.
With the passage of the years, Fringeru’s recollection of the details of her traumatic past has become sketchy, but the emotions remain raw.
After the war, she moved to Israel and later married, had a daughter, two granddaughters and six great-grandchildren. On occasion, she would bring up an old memory with Marco, who died 10 years ago, but largely kept them to herself, even shielding stories from her immediate family.
“Why suffer? Why go back into that trauma?” Fringeru said.
Now widowed, she lives with her partner, Baruch Bruner, 88, a widower and fellow Holocaust survivor. Only after he sought out Yad Vashem and filled out pages of testimony about his extended family did she relent and do the same.
Yad Vashem’s goal is to collect the names of all 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The memorial’s very name — Yad Vashem is Hebrew for “a memorial and a name” — alludes to its central mission of commemorating the dead as individuals, rather than mere numbers like the Nazis did.
It hasn’t been an easy task.
The project began in 1955, but over the following half century, fewer than 3 million names were collected, mostly because the project was not widely known. Many survivors refrained from reopening wounds, or they clung to hopes that their relatives might still be alive.
In 2004, the online database was launched, providing easy access to information in English, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish and German. The number has since surged to 4.2 million names, and the Internet search function has allowed tech-savvy grandchildren to research their families, leading to several emotional reunions between relatives who had thought the other to be dead.
Yad Vashem hopes that in the next five to six years, it will be able to reach the 5 million mark. Even the most optimistic, however, don’t believe it will go much higher.
Contrary to popular belief, the Nazis did not keep meticulous records. They kept tabs on the identity of Jews in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in central Europe, but ordered the wholesale murder of communities elsewhere that were not documented. They also tried to cover up many of their crimes.
Yad Vashem has essentially completed its database on German Jewry during the Nazi era. Its main struggle has been documenting the victims in Poland and eastward.