An estimated two and a half million Jews were killed in the republics of the former Soviet Union during the Holocaust, over 40 percent of the total. Yet Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Museum, presently has less than half a million of their names in its database.
That’s why the museum has launched the Shoah Victims Names Recovery Project in the FSU. In late March, Boris Maftsir, manager of the project, held a series of meetings in the Russian-speaking Jewish communities of New York and Chicago to solicit evidence of lost loved ones to Yad Vashem.
“Many people who lost loved ones in the Holocaust are unaware that there is presently no record anywhere of the existence of those people,” says Maftsir who expects to reach out
to American-born Jews as well. “Many American Jews, whose families may have left the Pale of Settlement decades before the Holocaust, may nevertheless have evidence of relatives later murdered by the Nazis on the territory of the FSU.”
A Page of Testimony for each lost relative is available at www.yadvashem.org. Maftsir launched the Names Recovery Project last year in Ukraine and Belarus, where he has signed up scores of local Jews as volunteers in the recovery of names of Holocaust victims. The project has already been pressed into high gear in the Russian-speaking community in Israel as well.
Maftsir is a native of Latvia, who was jailed by the Soviet regime in the late 1960s for "Zionist activity," but was allowed to leave for Israel in 1971. A documentary filmmaker who is known for his films on the late mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, and on Gesher, a Russian-speaking theater in Haifa, Maftsir also served as director general of the Ministry of Absorption and head of the Jewish Agency’s operations in Russia.
Maftsir said more names of Holocaust victims killed in the FSU have been lost than those of others in Europe because “mass liquidations began immediately upon the entrance of German forces into the Soviet Union in June 1941, and were quick and massive. The Germans didn’t preserve the names of their victims; only the number killed. The Soviet Army eventually drove the Germans out, but the Soviet government did not acknowledge that the Nazis had undertaken a special campaign to murder Jews and did nothing to document the names of the victims.” After the collapse of Soviet power in the 1990’s, such an effort was possible, but complicated by the exodus of nearly three-quarters of Soviet Jews from the FSU.
Maftsir is working with Jewish genealogical Internet forums, survivors’ organizations and landsmanschaft societies. In Israel volunteers are going door to door in housing projects heavily inhabited by Russian-speaking immigrants and are working closely with organizations of World War II veterans from the Soviet Army.
Yad Vashem has already collected and documented 30,000 new names of former Soviet Holocaust victims since the project began six months ago.