Naming the Dead

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The site of the Ebensee concentration camp today

Several weeks ago I visited the site of the Ebensee concentration camp, part of the network of forced labor camps managed from the more notorious Mauthausen camp. In less than two years of operation, which ended when American troops liberated the camp, 8,412 known inmates were murdered or died in the course of digging tunnels into the nearby mountains to shield armaments production from Allied bombing.

Today little remains of the site. Walking through what has become a leafy neighborhood of single family dwellings nestled peacefully in a scenic alpine valley on a sunny morning, it’s hard to imagine the suffering the camp’s inmates once experienced—the present feels far from the past, even when standing upon the very place where the bones of those who perished rest—if one can say such a thing about the remains of the victims of such gross injustice. In fact, it would be easy to imagine that nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened here at all. But for those who venture off the beaten path and follow the signs to a parking lot that might fit ten vehicles in a pinch, a memorial reminds us that something did.

German distinguishes between different types of memorials or monuments. There are of course the heroic monuments meant to honor great leaders or turning points in history. But this one is a Mahnmal which shares a root with mahnen, a verb that does have a sense of recalling something to mind, but it’s not the word you use when you simply want to jog someone’s memory. You use it when you also want to urge, admonish or warn, in this case that an event should not be allowed to occur again.

Although the disregard for human life that brought the inmates here in the first place coupled with the chaos of war and the passage of time very nearly erased them from history, the victims’ names remain etched into glass, and historical research continues to identify about 300 still anonymous victims.

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Names of the victims by year: Just four are known for 1943; those from 1944 take up just over twenty panels at about fifty names per panel; most died in the last six months of the war in 1945. Here we see the transition from 1944 to 1945.

A brief text from Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek urges visitors to “see with the eyes of the dead” (my own translation):

How can one grasp a memory which one cannot remember, not having experienced it oneself? It was others, many others, who experienced it, most of whom are dead. We must grope our way along the unsecured traces of the dead, taking care that they do not slip from our hands or tear like spiderwebs.

A name is just a starting point for seeing through the eyes of the dead, of course, but a crucial one that I imagine most Mormons would appreciate given the extensive resources dedicated to taking the names of deceased individuals, one at a time, through the series of ordinances performed in the temple. Naming the deceased is the first step of restoring a human being’s individuality and dignity, and in the Mormon context an indispensable means of linking generations and achieving salvation. In a General Conference talk from a while back, Elder Bednar shared the feelings of a young man called to teach a family history class who began to see through the eyes of the dead:

Jaren reported that as he learned more about family history, he realized “that these were not just names but real people. I became more and more excited about taking the names to the temple.”

There are of course many examples outside the church of people engaged in similar work. The Documentation Centre of Austria Resistance, for example, maintains a database of “information concerning the fates of more than 63,800 Austrian Jews who fell victim to the Holocaust.” While the information available varies, it helps restore the humanity of the individual victims, such as this 8 year old girl:

Elfriede Frischmann (born on 10 November 1933) lived until 1939 with her parents, Geza and Ella Frischmann, in Franziskanergasse in St. Pölten. Then the family moved to Vienna, and lived at Dorotheergasse 6/13 in the first district. On 26 January 1942 they were deported to Riga, and murdered shortly afterwards.

Closer to home, the New York Times has been doing some outstanding work telling the stories of the unknown or forgotten dead:

No tombstones name the dead in the 101-acre potter’s field that holds Leola Dickerson, who worked as one family’s housekeeper for 50 years, beloved by three generations for her fried chicken and her kindness. She buried her husband as he had wished, in a family plot back in Alabama. But when she died at 88 in a New York hospital in 2008, she was the ward of a court-appointed guardian who let her house go into foreclosure and her body go unclaimed at the morgue.

In addition, this article tells the story of a murder victim whose “body has lain in a grave marked only by a number on a metal plate” for more than 45 years:

An investigation by The New York Times, using public records and data from those old arrest reports, has solved the mystery. In doing so, the investigation yielded a remarkable life story in reverse, from the woods where the woman died to the streets of Harlem […].

It is a life of surprising breadth for its length — no more than 30 years. A woman born into rural poverty made her way to New York City alone, finding a new identity along the way and embracing a bisexuality that, in that day, was more likely to be kept hidden.

Limousines, guns, stolen cars, heroin: She operated on the turf of men who would become the neighborhood’s drug titans a few years later, while at the same time regularly pausing for trips to sit and chat with members of her large family, fellow migrants to the north in search of opportunity.

This is the story of the woman in that cemetery plot, before she became a number.

Another article sheds light on the life and times of “an ordinary man who left this world without anyone in particular noticing,” his body decomposing for days before paramedics jimmied the door and declared him dead:

In discovering a death, you find a life story and perhaps meaning. Could anything in the map of George Bell’s existence have explained his lonely end? Possibly not. But it was true that George Bell died carrying some secrets. Secrets about how he lived and secrets about who mattered most to him. Those secrets would bring sorrow. At the same time, they would deliver rewards. Death does that. It closes doors but also opens them.

Another man’s body decomposed for over a month before it was noticed, but at least in this case wheels were set into motion to grant this veteran of the Vietnam War a dignified end:

At the cemetery, Pete Jepson, one of the Patriot Guard Riders, hopped off his Harley-Davidson and directed his riders to form a ceremonial walkway through which the coffins were guided to an alcove in a serene stand of pines.

Rifle shots sounded out and a bugler played taps. An honor guard — active service members in dress uniforms — conducted the ritual folding of the American flags taken off the coffins.

“These men are unsung heroes, but for whatever reason, they died alone,” Mr. Jepson said. “And that’s why we’re here.”

It’s obviously impossible to keep track of all of those who have gone before, but I’m grateful for the effort that has gone into recovering the names and stories of those who can no longer speak for themselves. We can’t bring them back, but we can learn about them and maybe even from them. I think this was the intent behind a tweet that precipitated this post:

We could do worse in honoring the dead than to speak their names. Ameliorating the tragic circumstances that surround far too many deaths requires more, of course, but it’s a start and may even help us grant the living the dignity they are due.

Comments

  1. I have long felt that the saying aloud of the name of the dead in the temple was actually the most important part of any ceremony. There is power in a name, and in calling it out beyond the grave.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Agreed, Tracy.

    Thanks for this, Peter. It’s sobering, yet important.

  3. Tracy M: it helps if you try to pronounce it correctly, though. :)

    Thank you, Peter.

  4. While assisting youth in our ward with temple baptisms, I’ve frequently come across names 400 years old. I’ve even remarked, out loud, that there’s a distinct possibility that while standing there in the water, I could be the first person in 200 years or more to say that person’s name out loud. And behind each name there were milestones like a birth, first steps, a mother nursing a child late at night, growing up, falling in love, entering a trade, taking up arms, planting, harvesting, wearing new shoes, burying loved ones, and in turn being buried. So many stories lost until we have the chance to sit down at that great and final family reunion, to remember and to tell, to find out how the stories ended, and how they continue.

  5. This is really wonderful, Peter. Thank you.

  6. This is beautiful. It only takes two generations before events and names are lost. Even our own family members. However we keep the names that is our link to their aliveness. Great post.

  7. Haunting, Peter. Thank you.

    I don’t know why I have been driven to find the names of the 100-120 Armenian Latter-day Saints who died in the Genocide a century ago. Today a friend sent me a photo of a display in a BYU building that features one of my Armenians, a survivor, and a fragment of her story as I’ve told it in various places. The display gives only her first name — Yeranic. She’s Yeranic Gedikian — but it’s a start. To see her name where it can be spoken again, to see her assume her long-dormant place in our church-family history and memory — well, it matters.

  8. jaxjensen says:

    Wonderful… thanks for writing and sharing this.

  9. Thank you, all.

    To see her name where it can be spoken again, to see her assume her long-dormant place in our church-family history and memory — well, it matters.

    Indeed. You’ve done yeoman’s work in this regard.

    And behind each name there were milestones like a birth, first steps, a mother nursing a child late at night, growing up, falling in love, entering a trade, taking up arms, planting, harvesting, wearing new shoes, burying loved ones, and in turn being buried.

    Exactly. While looking at the names at the memorial I thought about all the thought that went into just naming our child, to say nothing of the rest of life’s events, and I’m sure it wasn’t much different for Artur, Piotr, Leon and all the rest.

  10. That’s amazing, Ardis!

  11. P. Harbon says:

    I live just a twenty minute drive from Mauthausen in Austria, I have been a number of times, every time we have visitors from abroad it’s on the list of places to see. Irony of Mauthausen is the beautiful countryside surrounding such a tragic site of human suffering. Despite the number of times I go there it doesn’t become any less chilling.
    I totally agree with your thoughts, good article.

  12. Last year we went to St. Petersburg and visited the cemetery where the hundreds of thousands of Russians who died of starvation were buried. I was overwhelmed by sadness to think of all the children watched by their parents as they slowly died, of all the parents watched by their children. Of all the futures closed and emptied here. I had a very hard time not to have animus against the Germans for this atrocity.

  13. There were no names, just hundreds of acres of long mounds of mass graves.