Six million, a number which will forever be associated with the Shoah. It hits at the supreme enormity of the crime and the destruction of European Jewry. It is in truth an enormous, almost incomprehensible figure. It is more than the total population of Denmark. The total attendance at around 120 large filled football stadiums. A third of world Jewry, a half of Europe’s.
Its message has been transferred to common parlance: the Shoah is the systematic murder of six million Jews and most European citizens know that figure.
The power of that message and that enormity is contained in the number, but the number also depersonalises in a certain way the crime of the Holocaust.
The Nazis knew a great deal about numbers and about depersonalisation. They compiled detailed lists – country by country – of all Europe’s Jews. And when Jews came under their control and were led off to their deaths, they were tattooed with a number on their arms. Split from partners, children and families, stripped of clothes and possessions, their very names and identities were removed from them. Faces, names, stories replaced with a number. This was key to their depersonalisation and dehumanisation.
Mass murder was enabled because of depersonalisation – not only by the perpetrators, but also from those who stood and watched and did nothing, locally or internationally.
We believed that the sheer magnitude of the number of six million would ensure that it would never happen again.
In this, we were also blessed with the reality of the survivors to personalise, to individualise, to see in their eyes and from their personal testimonies the truth of the Shoah. Yet very soon, we hope not too soon, there will no longer be survivors.
It is now more than 70 years since the annihilation of six million of Europe’s Jews and in that time, many more massacres and crimes against humanity have taken place around the world. Today, we can even sit in the comfort of our homes and watch them taking place live on our televisions and smartphones. We can even empathise in real time by sending a heartfelt tweet or sharing a Facebook post. And yet we do not prevent the genocide or the next one.
As long as we do not know names, identities, loves, fears, careers, relationships and experiences – as long as we cannot put a name or a picture to them – we cannot save them. They are faceless, which is exactly what the killers intended.
Sharing the stories of real people will allow us to restore their identities. We will be able to know them by name, hope and suffer together with them.
Some of these people were blessed with an added ability to convey not only their own identities and individuality, but also that of many others – of fellow prisoners, perpetrators or of the righteous – through literature, art and music.
Their stories allows us to no longer only see the number 6,000,000 but the faces of real people.