“Everyone Has a Name” – Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

On Yom Hashoah we keep those who perished in the Holocaust alive by giving meaning and significance to their names.

From the time I was 12 years old, I wore two, and then three different stainless steel bracelets on my wrist – for over 37 years: a Vietnam Prisoner of War bracelet for an American Soldier who went missing in action on June 18, 1968, a Soviet Jewry Prisoner of Conscience bracelet , and then later an AIDS bracelet. My arm would clang wherever I would go. People would ask me about the bracelets and it would provide an opportunity to educate and speak about the different causes. I have always been a social activist, and the bracelets on my arm were just one vehicle for educating about causes that were important to me.

People would say: “The US got out of Vietnam in 1972 – why don’t you take the bracelet off?” I would reply, “This is my way of remembering this person – Sgt. James Ravencraft – who was taken prisoner and then killed.” I have a pencil-rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

I was able to meet one of the families who was on one of my Soviet “Prisoner of Conscience” bracelets. In fact, I helped make a connection between a young cancer patient at whose Bar Mitzvah I officiated while I was doing an Internship in Hospital Chaplaincy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital. He was twinned with a young family I visited while I went to the Former Soviet Union in 1989. I facilitated the Bar Mitzvah “twinning” with these two families. What a powerful and moving moment! I was also able to assist with the Russian family’s relocation to Washington, DC.

I now keep these bracelets in a special box in my home as a remembrance. They symbolize something very important and special for me that is critical for us to consider as a community, especially as we approach Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day which began last evening.

For me, my bracelets symbolize not just my deep and abiding connection to social justice and social action. They also symbolize the importance of the power and importance of memory and the importance of the name.

As a people, our Jewish community places great emphasis on the power of the name. In fact we make lists and lists of names. The Torah records lists of names, we compile our own lists of names every Yom Kippur on Yizkor, we list names of donors and benefactors. Why do we find names so significant and powerful?

Perhaps these questions can be answered if we think of other long lists of names and their significance: on Yom Hashoah we reflect on all those who were killed in the Holocaust. In some communities, we read aloud the names of those family members from that particular community who perished during the Nazi regime.

List of names on a Holocaust Memorial
List of names on a Holocaust Memorial

Some might ask – why read all of those names? The name is so powerful because it survives. We don’t necessarily know the people whose names are listed in the long lists in the Torah, or on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, or on the walls of the many Holocaust memorials or any of the hundreds of places where other such lists exist. We don’t know these people but we do know their names. A name which gives them a place in history, a name which gives them an enduring legacy.

The events of the Holocaust are given meaning only by remembering the individuals who died during that time. We gather as a community, we remember the names of those who died and we affirm their lives by how we choose to lead our lives. So, names, indeed, are very powerful.

A midrash tells us about the significance of our names: “All people have 3 names,” the midrash says, “one which their parents give to them, one that others call them, and one which they acquire themselves. And the one they acquire themselves in most important of all.”

The name our parents give us is our special connection to the past, it takes an empty space and fills it with life, life that has been handed to us by those who came before. The name our parents give us tells us that we were not born into a vacuum, but are part of a rich chain of tradition.

So how do we honour those who came before us and those who perished during the Holocaust? By giving our names – and their names meaning through our actions and aspirations and the way we fulfill them. By the deeds we perform, by the way we live our lives and by our connection to God.

Everyone Has a Name: a Poem for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day

“Everyone has a name”

Poem by the Israeli poet Zelda
[translated from Hebrew]

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.