Holocaust memorial program evokes sacred obligation to remember
When the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valley developed its “Every Person Has A Name” initiative as a communal event for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, leaders sought to make the program experiential and interactive, according to Jason Moss, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation. Now in its fifth year, the program goes on for 25 hours straight with participants reading the individual names of people who perished in the Holocaust. And for the last several years, the City of Pasadena has been a co-sponsor and everyone in the community can bear witness to the unique program.
“Every Person Has A Name” personalizes the Holocaust, by attempting to remember each name of the 6 million, Moss said. While he is on hand for all 25 hours, he has never had to fill in for anyone to read names. The event—which will be held from Saturday, January 21, at 7 PM to Sunday, January 22, at 8 PM—uses names obtained from Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, as well as names of family members lost in the Holocaust. It began as a completely live event in 2019, went virtual in 2021 and then hybrid in 2022. It will be hybrid again this year.
One year the participants read 6,500 names, and one year they read 11,000. “The important thing is how many people are reading the names,” Moss said. “What I love is that people are worried they’ll say the names wrong. They are foreign names, and they work really hard to pronounce them correctly. They feel that what they are doing is sacred work.”
The first time Abigail Deser participated in “Every Person Has a Name,” it was somewhat by accident. Her civically-minded teenage daughter had asked her to set her alarm clock for 4:15 AM as she had to be at Pasadena City Hall by 5 and wanted to make sure she did not oversleep. Because the daughter was in deep sleep at the appointed time, Deser and her husband took her place on the steps of Pasadena City Hall. They found themselves each behind a microphone in front of a few fellow sleep-deprived volunteers who helped them to locate where they were to begin. They took turns reading the names, birthdates, ages and places of death of individual victims of the Holocaust from overstuffed three ring binders. “Mier, Schlomo, b. 1925 Rivne, died Buchenwald, 1939” “Minsky, Rose. b. 1921, killed Auschwitz, 1938.”
“It was quite a sobering way to wake up,” Deser related, adding, “We began to get the hang of reading the old-world names and became more familiar with the spellings of the Russian, German and Austrian camps. What was harder to manage was the seven rows of names that clearly belonged to one family, or the instances where the date of death was just six or seven years after the date of birth. As we came toward the end of our half-hour slot, three people from the audience, which had filled out as the sun began to rise, stood up to take our places. The scale of six million people began to hit us in a new way. We had gotten through fifty names each, maybe less. Even with three people reading for 24 hours straight, we didn’t make a dent. It was a profound experience to grasp, if only for a moment, just how many people the Nazis had managed to murder.”
“Every Person Has a Name” has become an annual commitment for Deser. As she said, “Last year, I found myself alone during the time the event was to be held. I was in the midst of editing my father’s memoirs which included a recounting of his early childhood running from the Nazis. He had never spoken much about his relatives who didn’t make it out as he and his parents were so lucky to have done. I asked if he could remember the names of his grandparents, both maternal and paternal, his uncles and aunts and their husbands and wives who didn’t survive the Holocaust. Together, we wrote a list of these names I had never heard before, names of my relatives that had been shot in the Sosenki forest after being forced to dig their own mass grave. Then I went out in the darkness to the steps of Pasadena City Hall, but I was most assuredly not alone. I carried with me the memory of my extended family, and I spoke their names and joined them with all of the grandparents and uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers who we will not let be erased by evil but instead, recognized, honored and named, for all of us to hear.”
Another participant, Geoff DeBoskey, said, “My children and I have participated in the ‘Every Person Has a Name’ program for several years. I’ve spent a lifetime knowing that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and the enormity of that number can sometimes overshadow the human devastation. Reading the names reminds me that individual people were killed and families torn apart. And, my children are reminded that ‘Never Again’ means we must always remain vigilant against antisemitism and be strong allies supporting anyone who is discriminated against.”
“I am continually deeply touched to be an active participant in this essential and so important event acknowledging, naming and remembering our Jewish ancestors blatantly murdered because of hatred and antisemitism during the Holocaust,” said Heather E. Halperin, MSW,LCSW, retired faculty, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
Moss concluded, “It’s a day to remind people that the Jewish people are here to stay and that the Holocaust is what happens when hate goes unchecked.”
If you are interested in being a name reader, a few spots are left. Sign up at www.jewishsgpv.org.