Reading names in Westerbork (30-Jan-2015)

Last Monday I went to Westerbork to participate in the “Reading the 102.000 Names” project. Since then, people have asked me, “How was it?”
As much as I would like to give a short answer to that question, I can’t. 

I was fortunate I did not go alone. I was with my friend and former refugee child Mirjam. Maria and John, who also volunteered to read, joined us in the long two and a half drive up there. Some of us even felt like we were going on a school trip, mainly because we had sandwiches and juice boxes that we took for lunch. We talked about the names we would be reading: there are some unusual ones that we did not really know how to pronounce. 

At Westerbork we were treated like VIPs because Mirjam often talks at the camp and knows everyone. As a survivor of Westerbork, Auschwitz and many other camps she is rightfully treated with the utmost respect. Mirjam read the names of her sister and brother-in-law. That was hard for her. However the automated prompter did not allow you time to stop and ponder. You had to get a hold of yourself and read on because you wanted to read ALL the names. It’s the least we can do to honour their memory.

I read my 141 names in ten minutes. Just before I had to start reading I thought I would not be able to do it because I thought I would only cry. But I have known for five years that I would be reading here. So I went up there and just started. It is long, 10 minutes. Very long. Ten minutes can last an eternity.

I was fortunate I did not have to read any names of people who are a part of my research. I do not think I could have controlled my emotions. It was hard enough to read the name of a child who died at the age of four.  

This name reading project is so big: 102.000 names read by 700 readers in 160 hours. The readers came from all over the country, often spending long hours to get there. The people who prepared this project must have put in many, many hours to prepare everything to the last little detail. There were many volunteers working around the clock. The names of all the people who were killed in the Holocaust and who do not have a grave were mentioned. Their names were also carried by loudspeakers over the ground of the former transit camp.

But at the same time the project is so small. To read someone’s name and age out loud only once every five years is not much. 

And while it is fitting that it happens on the spot where most of the people were taken from, it also struck me that this is happening at the former “Appelplatz”, where these names were called out before (for roll call), but in a different context and in a different tone.

But please do not think that I doubt the value of this project! Nor do I have suggestions about how it could be done differently. I understand that this cannot be done all the time. Or even on a yearly basis. I know that we have to find a balance between remembering the victims, learning lessons from the past and living our lives in the present, trying to make the world a better place.

Five years from now I hope to have finished my research on the refugee children. But – assuming the reading of the names will be organised again in 2020 – I would certainly like to contribute to the reading of the names again.