By Mary O’KEEFE
January 27 is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“International Holocaust Remembrance Day [is] a time to remember the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the millions of other victims of Nazi persecution,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
As time moves on there are fewer Jewish witnesses to the Holocaust that occurred during WWII. According to a report released on Tuesday, there are an estimated 245,000 survivors of the Holocaust still alive globally.
The report was released by the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference, and according to the Global Demographic Report on Jewish Holocaust Survivors, 49% of survivors live in Israel, 18% in North America and 18% in Western Europe. At the time of the report publication, the median age of survivors was 86, but ages range from 77 years old to over 100 with birthdates that reach back as far as 1912.
This means the witnesses to history are an aging population that may no longer be able to share, like many have in the past, their story with an audience. One example is Joseph Alexander who turned 100 in November 2023. Alexander has been touring the world for many years telling his audiences the story of his survival and of those who did not survive. He has said in interviews with CVW that he speaks for those who cannot speak, and he always points out how important it is to tell the story of the Holocaust to as many people as he can. Alexander is still sharing his story.
The loss of the Holocaust survivors is not lost on Jason Moss, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. Each year Moss and his team organize “Every Person Has a Name,” a 25-hour Holocaust commemoration and vigil in recognition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The program begins at 7 p.m. on Jan. 27 and ends at 8 p.m. on Jan. 28. The first hour features local elected officials and other dignitaries, then at 8 p.m. volunteers begin their 24-hour vigil reading the names of the lives lost in the Holocaust.
The readers come from all walks of life, faiths and cultures.
“By bringing the community together, we remember that each person killed was someone who lived and whose life was cut short. They are not just part of the 6 million lives lost but had their own story and their own individual experience. While our readers and those who listen may not know the people they are reading the names for, they are remembered by saying their names aloud. With every passing day, survivors are dying and with them go their stories. My concern is that the memories will be dying as well,” Moss stated.
This event is important to show respect to those who died and to remind people of what happens when hate takes over, he said.
“I want people to experience reading the names of people and seeing where and when they were murdered. There is something that just rings out; you can’t describe it,” he said.
Moss is on-site the entire time and when he goes up to the readers to tell them they are finished, they often tell him it feels like they only started.
“People are so moved by the experience,” he said. “It impacts them at their core.”
Some are reading the names of their family members who were lost in the Holocaust, and that can be very powerful.
Moss said the reading has an added importance – not just because the witnesses are getting older and passing but because of increased antisemitism.
“Prior to Oct. 7 there was a rise in antisemitism, but after [that date] there has been an unprecedented rise,” he said.
According to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, a recent poll found a steep increase about antisemitism after Oct. 7.
On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorist fighters attacked Jewish communities along Israel’s southern fence with Gaza, thus starting a war with Israel. According to the Anti-Defamation League, between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, 2023, a total of 2,031 antisemitic incidents occurred in the U.S. , up from 465 incidents during the same period in 2022, representing a 337% increase year-over-year.
“[Antisemitism] has become so normalized,” Moss said.
He added this type of behavior should never be accepted, but people seem to feel more comfortable to spread this hate in chat rooms and via other online outlets.
“[Our] organization has been working hard with our local cities to denounce antisemitism and all forms of hate,” Moss said.
The organization started this outreach to cities in March 2023 – well before Oct. 7 – because even then they saw a rise in threats. They focused on cities to create a resolution that stands against hate speech for all, not just for Jewish people. They did this because Moss said there seems to be a lack of willingness to sit and listen to one another and to accept ideas from others. Glendale is one of the cities to pass the resolution.
“When we [listen to each other it creates] a far greater opportunity to learn and to be able to come to an understanding,” he added.
The “Every Person Has a Name” event is open to the public and volunteers are needed to read. For more information or to volunteer, please contact the Jewish Federation at (626) 445-0810 or email email@example.com.