“In Eternal memory to the men, women and children of Yaltushkow who perished at the hands of the Nazis in the summer of 1942”
These words are inscribed over an archway leading to graves of the Yaltushkower Landsmanshaft Benevolent Society, located in a vast city of the dead in Queens, N.Y. This is where my father-in-law and mother-in-law are buried with others who came to the United States before war swept the rest away.
My husband’s father met regularly with transplanted Yaltushkowers. As with so many other immigrants, he bonded most closely with those from his own part of Ukraine. His father and one sister had gone on to the golden land before World War I, which trapped the rest of the family in Europe until they could be reunited.
According to family lore, his mother wanted to stay in Ukraine, but battles among White Czarist troops, Reds and Cossacks thrown in for good measure, made life unbearable. Finally, mother and the rest of the children came to America in 1920.
As well they did. Jews who stayed “home,” perhaps because no one was in America to support them, or they felt they could ride out the civil war, or who knows why, died in the 1942 massacre, their names lost. Their only memorial is the arch in the cemetery.
After the war, someone went back to the site of Yaltushkow to see if anyone had survived. None had. For the family, only one picture remains of a cousin with her husband and child, who stayed in the USSR and vanished with the rest in 1942.
My husband remembers hushed conversations in his kitchen after the war, the sound of weeping. Only later would he learn why the adults cried.
Remembrance ceremonies around Yom Hashoah remind us that those who stayed “home” were the ones who paid the greatest price. All we are left with are stories those who survived can tell us.
Every year a unique cadre of survivors who contain the history of those years of darkness is diminished by death. Soon, only accounts that have been preserved through oral histories, recorded interviews, books and personal memoirs, will be all that remain for coming generations. Each one is a precious and irreplaceable repository.
Recalling someone who has died, we say, “May their name be for a blessing.”
So many Jews died with their entire families in the Holocaust that their names were lost completely. Where names of those murdered millions remain, we are brought closer to them. By reciting their names, we maintain a memory of those who were consumed.
A poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, The Synagogue in Florence, includes some of those names we ourselves saw inscribed on the memorial wall:
“Tender spring in the courtyards
A tree blossoming, four girls playing
Between two lessons of the sacred language
In front of a memorial wall
Made of marble: Levi, Sonino, Cassuto
In straight lines, as in a newspaper
Or in the scrolls of the Torah.
The tree stands there in memory of nothing
But of this spring.
A rivederci, our father
Buona notte, our king…”
Even more devastating than the synagogue in Florence, if there are comparable moments of pain, may be the Pinchas shul in Prague. Its entire interior is covered with the names of the dead, so that one is wrapped in their names as in a tallit.
In these places, one is far from the concentration camps. In a camp, one breathes anonymous death; in a name, we may picture someone’s life.
The Vietnam war memorial in Washington, D.C., the memorial in New York for those killed in the destruction of Sept. 11 – by naming those who died in those conflagrations, we are closer to them. So it is with the memorials in Florence and Prague, and others like them: at least their names will not be forgotten, but be a blessing for us.