‘Book of Names’ listing all known Holocaust victims put on display at United Nations

Yad Vashem installation marking Holocaust remembrance day contains personal information of 4.8 million people killed by Nazis, blank pages symbolizing another 1.2 million

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

A woman looks through the Book of Names at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
A woman looks through the Book of Names at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

UNITED NATIONS — The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum has set up a display commemorating each known victim of the genocide at the United Nations in New York, reaffirming the world body’s commitment to remembering the Holocaust on the annual day of remembrance as antisemitism climbs in the US and abroad.

The display, called “The Book of Names,” contains 4.8 million names of the 6 million dead that Yad Vashem researchers have identified, and blank pages symbolizing the victims’ names that have not yet been recovered.

“When I saw the book I was overwhelmed because the book reports that they lived and they breathed and they dreamed and they were murdered,” said Bronia Brandman, an Auschwitz survivor from Poland who located her family’s names in the pages.

“The book documents that they lived, that they were real human beings,” she said.

The display stands over two meters tall (six feet) and is over eight meters long (26 feet). The names are arranged alphabetically and are printed on the heavy sheets with basic information about the victims including their year of birth, hometown and place of death.

A strip of yellow light runs the length of the display on the inside, illuminating the names from within.

The exhibit was set up at the entrance to the UN’s world headquarters in Manhattan this week ahead of the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday. The book will be officially presented on Thursday at an event with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan and Israel’s UN envoy, Gilad Erdan.

Holocaust survivor Bronia Brandman at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The UN General Assembly will hold a commemoration ceremony on Friday.

“This important exhibition is a call to remembrance: to remember each child, woman and man who perished in the Holocaust as a human being with a name and a future that was stolen away,” Guterres said in a statement. “It is a call to action: to always be vigilant and never stay silent when human rights and human dignity are under threat.”

Yad Vashem started to catalog the names of Holocaust victims in the 1950s, said Dr. Alexander Avram, the director of the Jerusalem museum’s Hall of Names and its central database of victims’ names.

Avram, who accompanied the display to New York, said Yad Vashem contacted the UN about hosting the display. The two organizations have also partnered in the past. The book is set up just inside the entrance to the UN’s headquarters in a prominent location visible to everyone entering.

The Book of Names at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Yad Vashem has an online database with all the victims’ names, but the book provides something tangible, allowing people to find the names of their family members in its pages, or better grasp the immensity of the loss. The physical monument complements and completes the online database, Avram said. There is an earlier iteration of the book at the Auschwitz museum.

“People need something concrete that they can touch,” Avram said. “I think it’s a human tradition.” He compared the book to gravestones or the Vietnam memorial, but noted that the scale of the Holocaust made a similar monument impossible.

Avram said recovering new names is becoming increasingly difficult as witnesses die and researchers exhaust available research material, but the Yad Vashem team is scouring new sources of information for new names. One source is recorded witness testimony, which is far more labor-intensive to pore through than lists used for record keeping.

Yad Vashem recovered around 40,000 new names last year from around 14,000 pages of testimony, and hopes to reach 5 million in the next few years, but the findings will significantly slow after that, Avram said. The names of children are especially hard to find because they were not often recorded by name when they died along with family, he said.

“We’ll never have all the names because there’s no documentation. The Nazis weren’t interested in documenting their crimes,” Avram said. “Each new name we commemorate is a small victory against the Nazis. We’re extracting them from oblivion.”

Robert Skinner, the UN’s chief of partnerships and global engagement in the department of global communication, said the display was part of the UN’s mandate to commemorate the Holocaust and that it was especially important amid rising antisemitism and hate speech.

“The United Nations was formed out of the ashes of the Holocaust and World War II, so we stand strong with continuing to tell the story,” Skinner said. “We just want to make sure that we’re reminding the world of the horrors of the Holocaust and continuing to combat antisemitism and all forms of hate in today’s world and going forward.”

The Book of Names at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“It’s a good time to keep reminding people that it can never happen again and we at the UN take our mandate to deliver that message very seriously,” Skinner said.

The UN and Guterres have regularly spoken out against antisemitism, but have also come under fire for the prejudice at the world body in the past year after two investigators into Israel made antisemitic statements. Both remain in their positions and have not faced repercussions from the UN.

US Congress members on Monday called for the removal of one of the investigators, Francesca Albanese, for past comments espousing antisemitic tropes about Jewish power and greed and for harsh, one-sided criticism of Israel.

Critics have also said the UN’s lopsided focus on Israel at the General Assembly in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva is evidence of antisemitism. The General Assembly condemned Israel more than all other countries combined last year.

The Book of Names at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Brandman, the Auschwitz survivor, grew up less than 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Auschwitz.

Her parents and brother were killed in the camp and Brandman and her three sisters were confined in a ghetto before being shipped to Auschwitz.

She and her family knew what was going on at the camp when they were deported there, unlike many victims, who did not understand the site was a death camp until their final moments.

Brandman, now 92, was marked for death by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele upon arrival, but managed to sneak across to another line of those who would not be immediately sent to the gas chambers. She had to leave two of her sisters behind, though. Her remaining sister died of typhus in the camp, leaving Brandman wracked with guilt and grief.

She moved to New York after the war and struggled to speak about the genocide for decades but eventually became a volunteer and educator. She met US President Joe Biden last year to tell her story.

“There’s huge pain that will never leave me,” she said, but she expressed gratitude for the Book of Names and efforts to remember the Holocaust.

“Seeing the names of my close ones, my neighbors, my friends,” she said, “I’m extremely grateful for the documentation that my parents and my family lived.”

She said she fears today’s climate and rising antisemitism, warning that the Holocaust also began with incendiary rhetoric. She lives in Brooklyn’s Boro Park, which sees regular attacks on Jews, who are targeted in hate crimes far more than any other group in New York City. Surveys have also found widespread ignorance about the Holocaust in the US and other countries.

“Words are dangerous,” Brandman said. “The public doesn’t even begin to know what happened.”

The Book of Names will remain at the UN and open to the public until February 17, and will then be put on display at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

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