Yad Vashem project races against time to ID Shoah victims

There’s a sense of urgency in Bobbi Bornstein’s voice when she talks about Yad Vashem’s Shoah Names Recovery Project, an ongoing effort to identify the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Since April, Bornstein has taken on the daunting task of finding people living on the Peninsula — Holocaust survivors included — who have stories about Holocaust victims to share.

She then pairs them with volunteers who enter their information into Yad Vashem’s database, a combination of millions of pages of scanned Holocaust-era documents and detailed information about individual victims.

Efforts to network worldwide with agencies like Jewish Family and Children’s Services have resulted in the identification of just over 3 million Jews. Still, only 2,000 names have been submitted from the United States.

“We must collect the other 3 million before [the survivors] pass on,” said Bornstein, the volunteer coordinator for the Peninsula branch of JFCS. “Time is running out because they are getting older and frailer.”

Spearheading the project in San Francisco is Rachel Kesselman, JFCS’ director of volunteer services. She currently has nine volunteers recording data. Seven others work in Marin, and six on the Peninsula.

To garner interest in the project and increase volunteer participation, Bornstein recently held an informational meeting at Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto. Four attendees took database forms to complete with their families.

Once a volunteer is recruited, he or she is matched with a survivor based on their geographical proximity. Volunteers usually meet survivors at their homes to conduct the interviews.

Volunteers learn how to search for names in Yad Vashem’s database and how to ask questions to often-emotional survivors. Role playing, a DVD presentation and lessons in confidentiality round out the training.

In addition to the victim’s name, each form has a place for specific details such as their date of birth, place of death and spouse’s name. Photos, birth and death certificates, and other forms of documentation also are welcome.

“It’s our duty to recover not just names, but identities of each Jewish person who has perished,” Bornstein said. “Each one of them deserves a memorial and some kind of closure.”

Last summer, college and high school students took the survivors’ lists of names and searched Yad Vashem’s central database to ensure no entries were duplicated.

“It’s really amazing how some of our survivors have such clarity,” Kesselman said. “The stories can be pretty emotional. For the volunteers, it’s a profound experience because they are listening to a piece of history.”

Bornstein recalled that one woman approached her with a small manila envelope, saying she wanted her grandparents to be in the database. Bornstein learned the woman was in her 70s from Germany and survived Kristallnacht when she was 8 years old.

“It’s just unbelievable that she wanted to have her grandparents memorialized,” said Bornstein, reflecting on the woman’s age.

Stories like those encourage Bornstein to continue searching for living links to victims of the Holocaust. She’s also motivated by the idea that with every new name, the lists read on Yom HaShoah — a day of Holocaust remembrance — become longer.

“There are still millions of names that are unidentified,” Bornstein said. “We are now rushing to get this done as quickly as we can. I have survivors in their 90s, and that’s what keeps me motivated. It trickles down to the volunteers, and they realize the urgency with this.”

To volunteer with Yad Vashem’s Shoah Names Recovery Project, contact Rachel Kesselman at (415) 449-1288 or [email protected]