Yad Vashem hopes to have collected the names of the overwhelming majority of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust within the next three years, Yad Vashem chief archivist Dr. Haim Gertner told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
He cited a wealth of documentation that has become available since archives in former Soviet bloc nations began to grant access to Israeli researchers.
“We hope in the coming three years to come close to six million,” Gertner told the Post.
“Millions of Jews were murdered, and most of them in Central and Eastern Europe, but unfortunately more than half of the names of the Jews who were murdered [there] are still unknown. The Nazis didn’t only want to destroy the Jews but also to erase the ability to know what happened to them.”
Gertner said that in 2004, Yad Vashem had approximately 2.7 million names. Now it has 4.2 million. The archivist called the 1.6 million increase “huge.”
“We now know half of the names of the victims of Poland. Before we knew much less,” he explained. “We know today a third of the names from Russia and the Ukraine.”
The museum “has signed more than 40 agreements all over the former Soviet Union” over the past five or six years, he said, adding that it has begun intensive research efforts archives and national archives” all over Eastern and Central Europe.
“When we speak about what happened, there is a special need to know the names of the victims and information about the victims,” he said. Some 1.8 million of whose names are still unknown but Gertner indicated that they are likely to be found in archives such as the Latvian National Archive in Riga, which was opened to Yad Vashem researchers in 2009.
One of the central figures in Yad Vashem’s efforts to uncover the fate of Latvia’s Jews is Bella Nocham, the purchasing manager of the museum’s archives and an immigrant from Riga.
Yad Vashem has been trying since almost immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain to gain access to the Riga archives, Nocham said during an interview in her Jerusalem office.
“Everything is connected to the price,” she said, explaining that officials in Riga relented only after Latvia was hit by an economic downturn and Yad Vashem received donations from the Genesis Foundation and the Claims Conference.
“Genesis gave us the money to get in there. They didn’t have enough staff either. Now they need money because the economy is down. They opened the gates,” she said.
Nocham found a wealth of information in her old country.
“It’s possible to find all the files on every Jewish family,” she said, noting that she was even able to find information on members of her own. “I know Riga and Latvian Jews and it was easy for me to take out of the documents some private stories.”
Among the facts that she uncovered was of the existence of an uncle she had not previously known about, who had died of starvation at the age of two.
Gertner said that Nocham’s work is “a good example” of the type of work necessary to complete the listing of all of the Nazis’ victims.
“We are copying documents from a lot of collections. One, for example, are copies of all the passports that the Jews in Riga had to fill out. It means that you have a passport with the names of family members, an address; you have a photo,” he said.
These passports, which he termed “very important,” were dated from the beginning of the war. “You can reconstruct the whole list of Jews in Riga,” even if you “don’t know of that who was murdered” yet.
From other documents, such as the records of building superintendents, Gertner added, you can “reconstruct the entire Jewish population of the ghetto.”
There were 90,000 Jews in Latvia before the war, out of whom 70,000 were murdered, he said. By copying all of the documents from the Riga archives, he hopes it will be possible to “fill up” most of the gaps in the historical record.
Most of the difficulty in ascertaining the names of the remaining six million, the archivist said, was caused by the tendency in the Soviet Union to refer to those killed in the war as Soviet citizens and not refer specifically to Jews as such in records or on monuments to the war’s victims.
“In the former Soviet Union, it’s very hard to locate or to know if a collection in an archive is connected to our issue, because you would never find the words ‘Jew’ or ‘Holocaust’ there,” he said.