Zak Kolar, 14, of Naperville, Ill., set up a database to enable fellow Jews… (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune )
Reporting from Chicago — Zak Kolar hails from a fortunate Jewish family of four whose ancestors never confronted the horrors of the Holocaust. But the teenager from Naperville, Ill., also is among the last generation to encounter World War II's witnesses as neighbors rather than statistics.
Seeking to ensure that the Jewish people don't forget the 6 million individual lives lost, Zak, 14, has launched a website and database dedicated to those who perished during the Holocaust.
He hopes the online roster of names and death dates will enable members of the Jewish community to select and pray for a martyr on the anniversary of his or her death, as prescribed by Jewish tradition for families in regard to their forebears.
Although electronic databases, memorial walls and literature have etched the names of many Holocaust victims into hearts and minds, Zak's initiative is one of the first efforts to inscribe victims' names into blessed memory, especially when in many cases there is no one left behind to carry out the sacred task of reciting kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer.
Jews around the world will gather at sundown Saturday to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day by praying for the 6 million Jewish dead all at once, but Zak spent the last few months marking the death anniversary, or yahrzeit, of each of the 6,272 victims whose names he has collected, reciting the kaddish, and murmuring each name to himself. "It gives more dignity and honor to be remembered as an individual person," he said.
Impressed by Zak's efforts, administrators of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie and of Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial, have invited him to augment his list with their own.
With his mop of curly blond locks, Zak stands out in any crowd. His father, Brad, said Zak's compassion also stood out at an early age. Standing in line for kindergarten, Zak grew upset when children began stomping on ants. He tearfully struggled to comprehend what the insects did to deserve a violent death.
Zak experienced the same struggle sitting in a Yizkor, or memorial, service last spring when the congregation began praying for Jews killed in the Holocaust.
"It occurred to me that in Judaism we don't really have an afterlife," he said. "It's important how much you're remembered after you die. I didn't think it was fair that we were remembering these 6 million as a whole."
Turning the pages of the prayer book he received to prepare for his bar mitzvah, Zak came across a poem by Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky. A stanza says:
Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents
Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and given by what we wear
He used the poem's title in creating the website: eachofushasaname.org.
About half of the more than 6,000 names in the database have dates of birth and death. Visitors to the site can register for reminders when particular death anniversaries approach.
The primary concern of today's Holocaust memorial curators is sustainability, preserving the legacy of victims for centuries, said Dorit Novak, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
There are few things more sustainable than an ancient religious ritual that is repeated year after year, she said.
Zak said he felt his greatest sadness Dec. 12, reciting the longest list of departed. It was his birthday.