When the Jewish Federation decided to stage a 24-hour reading of the names of Holocaust victims last January at Pasadena’s City Hall, neither the organizers or participants knew what to expect. Although the UN declared January 26, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, an international day of remembrance for the Holocaust back in 2005, most of the Jewish community continued to only observe Yom Hashoah.
But in Israel, where civic and religious traditions often merge, the UN holiday has been observed since the 1950s. Each family that has lost loved ones reads their names aloud in a ceremony called “Every Person Has a Name,” after the poem by the Israeli poet Zelda (Zelda Shneurson Mishkovsky, 1914-1984). It’s an experience the Jewish Federation’s Program and Community Outreach Coordinator, Kim Banaji, grew up with on kibbutz and felt could enrich the Jewish community here.
“I had done something similar back when I was the Hillel Program Director at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville,” says Jason Moss, the Jewish Federation’s Executive Director. “We wanted to provide the experience of reading the names over 24 hours.”
But a program that could draw the whole community had to be ambitious. “We wanted it to be in a prominent location and we wanted it to be grand. It had to be on a weekend so more people could attend, and we didn’t want to duplicate what other congregations were doing.”
The jewish Federation spoke with Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek, a longtime member of PJTC, about using City Hall for the ceremony. “We encourage people to use City Hall as a public space and like to think of it as the People’s House, where they can express ideas and commemorate events,” Tornek says. “When Jason first approached me, I thought it was extremely ambitious, A, to do a 24-hour event and B, because it was in the winter—I thought it was a little nuts. But I embraced it because if he was willing to put in the effort and people were willing to volunteer throughout the night, certainly I thought it was worthy.”
Over nine months of planning, the Jewish Federation invited state and city officials to the commemoration and signed up volunteers to read the names, birthplaces and ages at death of more than 6000 Holocaust victims from Yad VaShem’s database. Congresswoman Judy Chu, State Senator Anthony Portantino, LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, and Assemblymembers Chris Holden and Blanca Rubio all attended the commemoration at sunset along with Mayor Tornek. A quartet, made up of Kol HaEmek members, and Jewish Federation’s Jewish Youth Orchestra performed; and rabbis and cantors from area synagogues led Kaddish. More than 130 volunteers stepped forward to read in 30-minute shifts.
But would a marathon reading of Holocaust victims’ names really connect with the community? What would happen during the night, and would people still come by to listen the next day?
Ruth Slater, one of the earliest volunteers asked to read names for the event, lived her early childhood in Vienna throughout the war and the Allied bombings in 1944. Her father survived Auschwitz, but other family members did not. With family in Israel, she says she’s only seen the reading of the names on television, and wasn’t sure it could work here. “It was a great idea but I was sure it would fail. I thought Jason was expecting more than he could get. The idea of having people there for 25 hours—but thankfully I was proven wrong. I was happy to participate and was very impressed that the Jewish Federation was able to sign up enough people.”
Slater, who has spoken about the Holocaust to students at Heschel and other schools around the country, brought her teenage grandson with her to read her family names as well as those on the list from Yad VaShem.
“While we were sitting there at the introduction I asked Ofek if he’d like to read the names for me and he said ‘of course.’ As a member of my family and a former student at Heschel, he knows about the Holocaust. But he said reading the names made it a real project and not just something in class.”
She says the importance of Every Person Has a Name is clear. “We who lived in those times and those places are among the last people who are witnesses. Once we’re gone, then theoretically it’s hearsay, except of course I as well as thousands of others have recorded, so hopefully that makes it a little more reliable.”
Although the Tree of Life shootings in Pittsburgh on October 27 were still fresh in everyone’s mind, Slater had no concerns about attending the open-air event. “I don’t know if it’s my optimism; of course you have to be observant, and I’m observant in Israel, but I don’t look over my shoulder every minute when I go into a store, and the same here. My local kids go to pro-Israel rallies in LA and we don’t worry about that. This is just what we do.”
Moss and Tornek both kept an eye on providing security, but as Tornek points out, Pasadena has long experience with high-profile events like the Rose Parade and he attends many others on a weekly basis. Moss remained for the entire vigil, and he says others came back several times. “At night it was very eerie—not unsafe, but it was getting colder. There was something powerful about that. People were reading the entire time, and some of the people who left came back at 2:30 a.m., 4:30 a.m. State Senator Portantino came back Sunday and commented on the power of the experience. We felt we were part of something special.”
Tamara Silver agrees. “I took two time slots, one with my husband and my adult son, and the three of us were there late, maybe around 10 pm. My son was affected much more than he ever thought he’d be. Then I came again at 1:00 a.m. with my sister, and the two of us read in the dark of the night with the quiet of City Hall and the chill in the air, and it was a spiritual and moving experience.”
Even though Silver has no relatives who were in the Holocaust, she says, “I grew up in Covina and one of my friend’s grandparents, whom I met, had brands on their arms. So that was in my childhood.”
Tornek, a longtime member of PJTC, gave opening remarks during the ceremony in his role as mayor, but he also volunteered as a reader. With no known family members in the Holocaust, he didn’t know what he would feel. “What did catch me by surprise was the names themselves and the intensity with which each of the readers seemed to be affected. The fact that they added information—the ages and where each person was born and died—reminded you that this was an individual. A lot of first names you don’t hear so much anymore, the Gittels and other shtetl names.”
Moreover, he found a surprise in his own list. “The random group of names I was given were from Mezrich, the town my grandmother was from. That really startled me because I know the place. So we’re all connected to it one way and another.”
Tornek came back three times during the 25 hours. “I felt proprietary about it—it’s my house. I was so moved and I wanted to be sure it was going well. One of the readings I came back for was the names of children with their ages and so on. I have seven grandchildren, and it’s just very difficult to listen to. I’ve been to Yad VaShem multiple times—we took the whole family there in March. One thing they’ve recently added is a children’s memorial and it’s just hard to endure, it’s crushing.”
Cantor Paul Buch of Temple Beth Israel in Pomona took a midnight shift. “One thing that surprised me was how fast the time went. The other is how many of the names I read sounded familiar. They could have been my own ancestors, the ancestors of my friends, or even my friends themselves.”
Buch says he does know of family members from Poland who were lost. “I don’t recall bringing a list of them—I’m pretty sure I just read the names that were compiled for me, but I will do that this year.”
Silver noticed that the gathering of readers and listeners, sometimes as few as a dozen during the night, made a strong impression on passersby as well. “People would be walking by City Hall talking and something about this hushed them. They would stop and stand for a minute and watch.”
Just as astonishing was the conversation she struck up with Assemblymember Blanca Rubio. “She told me she and her sister [State Senator Susan Rubio] believe they’re part Jewish.” Only two weeks later, the sisters told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune they had recently discovered Jewish ancestors from Spain on their mother’s side and have joined the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.
Moss and Tornek both look forward to more people participating this year, including more from the interfaith community. “It’s not a matter of self-flagellation,” Tornek explains, “but it is important to feel the pain and be reminded of what happened.”
Every Person Has a Name will be held at Pasadena City Hall on January 25-26. For more information or if you would like to read, contact the Jewish Federation office at www.jewishsgpv.org or call 626-445-0810.
deborah noble is A contributing writer To jlife magazine.