On Facing Yom HaShoah
Just around this time last year, I was visiting Yad VaShem. It was my second time at the museum and first time visiting so close to Yom HaShoah, which added another somber note to an already doleful experience. Out of all the images from the first visit—and there are many—the one that continues to haunt me is the Hall of Names at the far end of the museum. I stood inside this large, echoing conical structure, looking up. Hung on the walls, ascending to a point so high I had to crane my neck to see them all, were pictures of victims. After inquiring, I learned that there are about 600 photos in the hall. So many photos, yet they only account for one-ten-thousandth of the total number of Jews murdered, a statistic so horrifying that it was easier to put it out of my mind than to dwell on it for too long.
Almost a year later, I sat down and spoke with BJ member, filmmaker, and enthralling storyteller Myriam Abramowicz about The Reading of the Names that she spearheaded two decades ago. As a new employee at BJ, I was unaware of what takes place in our community during Yom HaShoah. The Reading of the Names Myriam described to me seemed as important as it was daunting—hour after hour of Name after Name, lost in a manner so horrific I still find it difficult to contemplate. As I listened to Myriam speak, the stark truth began to reveal itself: I didn’t know if I had the strength to listen to those Names. With the images, stories and feelings that these particular Names call to mind, I wondered how anyone could.
The idea for The Reading of the Names started when Myriam happened upon a reading emanating from a lecture hall at Vassar College. After working through the concept with Roly, Myriam started the process of gathering Names, which involved coordination (pre-Internet, mind you) with sources throughout Europe. This sounded like a task I couldn’t hope to achieve—and that’s assuming I could work up the emotional reserve necessary to look at a single sheet filled with the Names of those murdered, and then ask for another one.
As I listened to Myriam detail this process, I thought about how I resisted coming face to face with the horror depicted at Yad VaShem and thought: How can anybody be strong enough to face this? Thankfully, Myriam and many others appreciate one very crucial truth—it is painful to say the Names, although to not say them would lead to something far more painful.
If the Upper West Side Jewish community can come together and read those Names and undertake the necessity of their preservation and what they represent—no matter how painful an image that may be— isn’t it the least I could do to make my voice a part of it? This time, I see a catharsis in the sharing of our pain, something that people like Myriam thankfully realized a long time ago. Now I’ll say a Name out loud and accept everything that comes with it, and not bury it, and not fear it. This time, I’ll speak—because even more devastating than the thought of talking about it is the thought that the conversation could end.