Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz in 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz in 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

I say their names. Every night. Not just on Yom HaShoah.

I’ve developed an unusual habit each night at bedtime. I read about victims of the Holocaust, I say their names aloud and in my mind, I tell them that they are remembered. This is my very small and personal act of rebellion against time: I refuse to forget.

Each day, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum lists the names, ages, occupations and the available photographs of those who happened to be born that particular month and day who were imprisoned in Auschwitz.

Recently, while on vacation, my husband asked me what I was doing. I told him that almost every night — for five minutes (or surprisingly longer) — I look at a prisoner’s photo and say their name to myself. I remember them.

It’s my way of ensuring that these souls are not forgotten. People remember them, and not just on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is on April 28 this year.

I’m not alone in my unusual habit, as you can see in comments from those remembering on the Auschwitz Memorial Facebook and Twitter feeds.

This helps me feel that I am doing something positive in their memory. And it educates me in very small but very powerful doses — partly because of the Nazis’ obsession with record-keeping and partly from the professional as well as volunteer archivists.

Though most of the victims are Jews, some are Polish non-Jews, others are Sinti or Soviet POWs (with the latter two groups apparently deemed not even worthy of the bizarre identity photos of those who made it past the initial selection of left or right; an agonizing death upon arrival or slower and likely even more agonizing death through starvation and torture). There is even an occasional German.

From these photos, you can learn a great deal. Was the person terrified or defiant or had they already endured starvation and beatings?

Often you learn a bit about the Jewish victim’s family: a photo of where they lived, their ages, occupation, how they were captured or betrayed, and what eventually happened to them. Since most Jewish children were murdered upon arrival in the deviously disguised gas chambers, there are no mugshots of them. Instead, the Auschwitz Memorial posts achingly beautiful baby and school photos.

In this day and age of “universalism” and “relativism,” it is particularly important to learn about the singularly unique horror that was the Holocaust. It wasn’t a simple case of murdering all Jews. It was the intentional humiliation and torturous death of everyone considered by the Nazis to be a Jew.

Why were Jews — who arrived at extermination camps wearing leather shoes — issued wooden clogs when non-Jewish prisoners were not?

The reason was diabolical: The Nazis’ intent was to inflict even more pain and suffering on their Jewish prisoners while starving them to death. Forcing Jewish prisoners to march for hours (and without purpose) in wooden clogs would create painful blisters. These blisters would lead to infection and death, even if the intentional starvation did not. No act of degradation was too insignificant to inflict on the Jews.

When I was in elementary school, someone asked me, “Do you know why Jews are so smart? Because they were all in concentration camps!” As a young kid, I thought maybe it was some sort of compliment about Jews being smart, but as I tried to figure it out, it didn’t feel like a compliment.

Words matter. Auschwitz was not a “concentration” camp. It was an extermination camp.

In today’s world, there is much we can do to help other man-made horrors. We can protest, donate, volunteer. For those who were murdered in the Shoah, we need to remember. And we need to educate.

This is one of the many reasons I am proud to be a member of Hadassah. Through educational programs and grassroots advocacy, we mobilized communities across the country in support of the Never Again Education Act (tinyurl.com/hadassah-naea), which became law in 2020.

It is critical that not only Jews learn about the Holocaust — but that others do as well.

Yes, the Holocaust was grotesquely unique. But there are universal ethical lessons to be learned and the dangers that come with silence and complacency. But simultaneously, we should be wary of comparisons that dilute the particularity of the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of uniquely horrific man-made tragedies. Our country is just beginning to fully grapple with slavery and institutionalized racism.

And it is equally important that we learn about those evils.

But when we begin to try to view the Holocaust through those lenses, we risk distorting the true nature of the Shoah through relativism (no, the Holocaust was not “white on white” oppression, which some students are being taught).

It’s not a competition.

So as for me, I will continue to learn and I will continue to spend a few moments remembering those who suffered in Auschwitz. Most of whom were Jews. But for the grace of God, any could have been me. I will remember the non-Jews who suffered, as well. I will say their names. I urge you to do so, too.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Anastasia Torres-Gil
Anastasia Torres-Gil

Anastasia Torres-Gil is a former Assistant District Attorney for Santa Cruz County, served as the Santa Clara County District Attorney's first Hate Crimes Unit Coordinator and is a national board member of Hadassah. She is the creator of the pro-Israel comic strip “Zionist Pugs.”