The Holocaust is an inscrutable tragedy. The enormity is hard to grasp…..except if instead of focusing on the bigness of six million, we focus on the “small” searing death of one life.
That’s the message I learned from this year’s Yom Hashoah ceremonies at TanenbaumCHAT. It’s when we learn about one child, one boy, or one girl who was killed or sacrificed their life heroically or managed to survive, and we multiply that six million times, only then do we understand what six million means. It’s in the individual’s story that we overcome the malaise of numerical numbness and begin to feel something.
At TCW the students highlighted the lives of victims their own age. They shared the story of teenagers like Nina Wienstock who was just like any other girl. She enjoyed her life playing with friends and going to school until she was forced to leave her home in Krakow to flee to Lublin. Here is an excerpt from Nina’s diary:
In late summer 1939 Germany invaded Poland… My parents decided to move to Lublin, to aunt Escia and her family. I do not remember the preparations for our departure or the leaving except that my parents were full of foreboding at what was to come even though nobody, at that time, had enough imagination to think of the event that would eventually take place.
We all loved our home and I feel sure that no one wanted to think that we were leaving for good. All this to explain, that without any doubt the preparations were made in an atmosphere charged with fear, anxiety, and unhappiness. I could never bear to see people I loved being unhappy. And feeling helpless to cheer them up, as a child I withdrew into my daydreams and do not now remember.
I put this forward as a fact and not as a possibility, because I recall consciously doing this later, when I was older, and events were too overwhelming. But to return to our move, I remember arriving. It was early autumn and I was wearing a grey tweed coat trimmed with fur and a hat to match. This was a new outfit and I loved it. I think I was still trying to pretend that things were normal but the others did not join my game. We all stood in the large kitchen and for a while nobody said a word. I recall the unease so different to the usual excitements of our ordinary visits and my overwhelming wish to break that strain.”
At TCK, students told the stories of resistors. One was Abba Kovner who was part of a youth movement in the Vilna ghetto. In an impassioned speech that was met with cheers and applause from the residents,
Kovner urged the Ghetto inhabitants to rise up and fight. Here is an excerpt from his speech:
Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Out of the 80,000 Jews in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” only 20,000 are left….Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania are first in line. We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live at the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!”
Kovner and hundreds of ghetto fighters escaped through the city’s sewers and other outlets to the Rudniky forests where they joined the Soviet partisans in many combat missions. There, Kovner and his followers operated a partisan division comprised solely of Jews, and performed many heroic acts of sabotage. Kovner survived the war, made aliyah to Israel, joined the Givati Brigade to defend the newly formed state, testified at the trial of Adolph Eichman, and became an acclaimed writer.
It is the focus on one boy or one girl’s story that helps us fight the malaise of numerical numbness.
Six million Jews is a statistic, not to be minimized, but hard to comprehend. It explains nothing except how much death came in the years between September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945.
We understand the enormity of a tragedy when one life is at stake. Instead of saying that six million died, we should say that one person died six million times. That is how we avoid the numbness of big numbers.
The real horror of the Holocaust lies not only in the bigness but it its smallness.
The real horror of the Holocaust lies in the small, searing death of one person six million times.
And that one person was not a number. That person was a father or mother or brother or sister or son or daughter or grandmother or grandfather, husband or wife, many of whose names we here today carry.
And the death of each and every one of them alone would have been worthy of commemoration.