It has been 50 years since the Nazi death camps were liberated, and Rabbi Yakov R. Hilsenrath is worried that time is running out to memorialize the unidentified Jews who died in them.
Only about half the 6 million Jews believed to have been killed in the Holocaust are listed by name in the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem. Now, the New Jersey rabbi is searching for information on the remaining 3 million before memories of families and friends fade.
“Every day, a little bit more of the knowledge dies,” said Hilsenrath, whose family fled the Nazis in Austria in 1939.
He has launched an effort to contact 4,500 North American synagogues in search of testimony about the unidentified death camp victims.
The rabbi, with the help of the Highland Park congregation he headed until retiring last year, has started the International Registry of the Names of Holocaust Victims.
Volunteers are sending letters to Conservative, Reform and Orthodox synagogues, urging rabbis and temple presidents to seek out people who could have valuable information for the registry.
The letters include a form from Yad Vashem that requests precise information about a victim, including a photo, name of family members, place of death and residence before World War II.
The Highland Park synagogue will forward completed forms to Yad Vashem, where officials will determine whether those listed are already recorded on museum archives. If not, their names will be added to the rolls of the dead.
Hilsenrath came up with the idea of a registry 15 years ago, when he visited Yad Vashem with his wife, Devorah, whose entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust. “We discovered that none of her family members was registered, testifying to the fact they were in the camps,” Hilsenrath said. “I inquired and learned there is no systematic program in place to register the victims.”
Hilsenrath had been planning the registry since then and hopes it expands into a worldwide effort. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, has agreed to serve as the registry’s honorary chairman.
Further information about the registry can be obtained by contacting the American Jerusalem Academy of Contemporary Judaic Studies at the Highland Park Conservative Temple, 201 S. 3rd Ave., Highland Park, N.J. 08904.