What’s in a Name?

When people are returned to the historical record, they regain their humanity.

Jean-Marie Lustiger, a French cardinal of Jewish heritage, visits Auschwitz, 23 June 1983 © Jean-Claude Francolon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.

Auschwitz Memorial is a Twitter feed I was introduced to by the novelist and critic Linda Grant, which is run by staff at the Auschwitz Museum. Each entry – and at least one is posted daily – starts with a date, usually that of the person’s birth: ‘9 April 1938: Jewish twin girls Annette and Paulette Sklarz were born in Metz.’ ‘3 May 1938: A Czech Jewish boy, Ivan Fink, was born in Brandys nad Labem.’ ‘3 May 1930: A Dutch Jewish girl, Meriam Kok, was born in Amsterdam.’ These are followed by another date, that of their death at Auschwitz or another Nazi concentration camp. The entries are always accompanied by a photograph: sometimes they are the all too familiar official images taken by the camp authorities of people in the characteristic striped uniform or, more frequently, they are photographs of people living another life pre-war. 

The images of children are, understandably, the most affecting. Some of them were born in 1943, or 1942: toddlers soon to face a barely imaginable fate, many of them from the transports at Drancy on the outskirts of Paris. But all have a brief biography, the adult entries usually mentioning their trade – furrier, clerk, barber, tailor – which leaves much for the reader to imagine. And all look straight at the camera. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then it is never more true than in these photographs. 

The task that Auschwitz Memorial has set itself will take many years to achieve, such was the scale of the murder. But it will return those forgotten back to the historical record, which is the opposite of what the Nazis wished: to reduce a people to mere numbers. 

It was Stalin who said that the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic. By recovering the names and faces of ‘statistics’ we are able to restore their humanity. This can also be applied to the Atlantic slave trade, the genocide in the Belgian Congo, to Stalin and Mao’s murderous regimes and to today’s Uighurs and Yazidi. A name returns a semblance of humanity to those who have endured the inhuman and from whom our gaze should never turn away.