PEABODY — Jean Wall was 14 when the Nazis tore her from her family in Poland and sent her to the Parschnitz concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. She survived three years of starvation, cold, and forced labor, but lost her mother, her father, and a brother during the Holocaust.
“When the war ended, we learned the horrible truth . . . that we no longer had parents,” Wall said. “My family ended up in Auschwitz, which was a place of no return.”
The Nazis murdered an estimated 6 million Jews in death camps during the Holocaust, many of whom remain unnamed and lost to history. Now Wall, 87, and other Holocaust survivors at the Aviv Centers for Living in Peabody have joined the international Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project to identify all who were lost and honor their memory.
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday, seniors at Aviv will add to the list of 4.2 million victims identified since the project began in 1955, according to Cynthia Wroclawski, manager for the project at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
Leadership at Aviv wanted to get involved in the Names Recovery Project immediately, before it was too late, according to Liz Polay-Wettengel, director of marketing and communications at the 22-acre campus in Peabody.
“We have seven Holocaust survivors that live with us today,” she said. “A year ago, we had 15. It’s really important to get the information because these people are dying. The only way is to talk about it, and bring them together.”
Wroclawski said many survivors think they’ve already told their story, but they can help identify people beyond their immediate family, such as cousins, neighbors, or friends. They ask survivors to fill out pages of testimony, including information about names, family connections, and hometowns.
“There’s a big myth out there that the Germans were meticulous about their records, but they weren’t,” Wroclawski said. “Their goal was to wipe out every Jew and not leave a trace. The Remembrance Authority is here to perpetuate the names of all the Jews who were murdered just for the fact of being Jewish.”
Because the database is still incomplete, the Israel-based program has reached out to Holocaust survivors around the world to help identify every name. Wroclawski said Boston has a large population of Holocaust survivors, which led researchers to the elderly community at Aviv Centers.
Hannah Rottenberg, 88, is another Aviv resident who survived the Holocaust, and has a difficult time talking about her experiences. Through tears, she told of how she escaped on foot — alone — from a concentration camp in Poland when she was a young teen and crossed the border into Russia. She hid with a family in Stalingrad, now Volgograd.
Rottenberg plans to fill out her own pages of testimony for the Names Recovery Project, for her parents and three sisters who perished in the death camps.
“Unfortunately, I was very young and the war started. I lost my family. I lost everyone, but I survived,” she said. “It’s hard, but life helps you to overcome.”
Wall, amazingly, was reunited with the other survivor from her immediate family after the concentration camps were liberated in 1945.
“My brother was also in a concentration camp and he learned there was a women’s camp many miles away,” she said. “When the war ended, he started walking and walking for days to reach my camp. He wasn’t sure if I was alive or there, but he found me. So I had somebody and he had somebody; we had each other . . . a very small part of a family.”
She and her brother registered to immigrate to America, and while they waited, Wall met her future husband, Carl, the brother of a woman she knew from her internment at Parschnitz. Wall said she and her husband made a life for themselves in Connecticut and New York, raised three children, and didn’t dwell on the bitterness. Carl died a few months ago, and Wall said it was important to share her story today, for both of them.
“I do this to tell people what human beings can do to others,” Wall said. “That has to be known for the future. Just because we believe a little differently, we worship differently, they killed all my family.
“You cannot exist if you carry the hate and injustice within you, no matter how difficult it is.”For more information about the project, visit yadvashem.org/yv/en/remembrance/names. Cara Hogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.