Believing Six Million
by Paul Vincent
"... so many,
"I had not thought death had undone so many."
— T.S. Eliot
During my first visit to Treblinka, I was struck by the site's enormous population of flies. At the time of that visit, I had already spent several days in Poland; nowhere else had I noticed so many insects. Sitting on a bench and attempting to eat a sack lunch, I eventually became so disturbed-"were these flies the distant relatives of those that had feasted on the flesh of the Nazis' victims?"-that I could no longer eat. Some years later I visited Belzec, where I was emotionally overcome by the innocent discovery of a bone, while once again noticing the uncommon proliferation of flies.
Is it possible for the human mind to visualize six million? During the course of the Second World War, the Nazis murdered up to eleven million others: the physically and mentally handicapped, gypsies, Polish and Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, political prisoners, religious nonconformists, and male homosexuals. Six million Jews, seventeen million victims. The sheer magnitude is stupefying.
In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn writes:
[The] dreadful irony of Auschwitz, I realized as we walked through the famous roomsfull of human hair, of artificial limbs, of spectacles, of luggage destined to go nowhere, is that the extent of what it shows you is so gigantic that the corporate and anonymous, the sheer scope of the crime, are constantly, paradoxically asserted at the expense of any sense of individual life.
Sometimes, when teaching the Holocaust, I write the following number on the board: 6,000,001. When I askstudents what they notice, it is inevitably that final digit-the 1. Who was that single person? The most powerful studies of the Holocaust-powerful in how they grip our hearts and our imaginations-are those that introduce us to individuals. Yet, while the task is difficult, perhaps impossible, we must use our mental resources in an attempt to magnify "the 1" to six million-even if we do so one by one by one by one.
Recalling his first night at Auschwitz, the night that served as title for his Holocaust memoir, Elie Wiesel remembers both his naïveté and horror as children were being thrown into a burning pit. "I told [Father] that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it. . . 'Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us,' Shlomo Wiesel responded. 'Today anything is allowed. Anything is possible, even these crematories. . ..'"
Germany entered the era of the Third Reich the most highly educated country in the world. The number of PhDs inhigh position in Nazi Germany is astounding. Himmler eagerly assisted in the 1935 establishment of the Ahnenerbe
(the Ancestral Heritage Society), an organization that became an SS appendage two years later. This coddled department was staffed by an extraordinary number of distinguished academics. Of the organization's 46 department heads, 19 were professors with doctorates, another 19 held doctorates without professorial rank. But, of course, the topic is far larger than the Ahnenerbe. In June 1941, three of the four SS commanders leading the Einsatzgruppen
on their murderous foray into the Soviet Union held doctorates: Otto Ohlendorf, Otto Rasch (he held two doctorates), and Franz Walter Stahlecker. Among their deputy commanders were seven additional doctorates. Subsequent Einsatzgruppen leaders included an ex-pastor, a physician, and a professional opera singer. Because Himmler and Heydrich were determined that leadership positions in the SS were not for the riffraff, one finds individuals who, in another time and culture, might have been among the best and brightest of their generation. What we learn from this sad tale is that education alone will not prevent genocide.
Teaching genocide studies, I continue to embrace hope, but not the naïve hope of an Anne Frank writing, "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." Within months, Anne's suffering in the squalor of Bergen-Belsen must have done much to negate her innocent belief in the goodness of man.
In large measure, Holocaust and genocide studies serve as an attempt to find a way to live in the world after radical evil has happened, attempting to make that world better. One profound lesson that should be taken from the Holocaust is that evil occurs when people are "thoughtless" about the consequences of both their actions and their inaction; indeed, this is Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." Those engaged in genocide studies are committed to developing students who are "thoughtful" about the consequences of what they do or fail to do. And, in wrenching truth, we teach that sometimes we must believe the unbelievable.
In August 1943, Jan Karski visited Felix Frankfurter in America. After Karski explained to the Supreme Court justice in gruesome detail what was happening in the Warsaw ghetto and Belzec, Frankfurter got up from his chair, paced for a minute, then said: "Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say: I am unable to believe you." When the startled Polish ambassador, Jan Ciechanowski, asked Frankfurter how he could call Karski a liar, the justice responded, "Mr. Ambassador, I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference."
In the opening chapter of Night, Wiesel recalls a man called Moshe the Beadle. His story, too easily overlooked, is important. A poor man who spends much of his time working at the small town's Hasidic synagogue, Moshe the Beadle is uncommonly beloved by the townsfolk. But because he is a foreign Jew living in the town of Sighet, Moshe is eventually crammed into a cattle car by the Hungarian police and deported to Poland. Months pass without any word from or about Moshe or the other deportees. Life returns to normal and everyone feels reassured. It is 1943. Then one day Moshe the Beadle shows up and tells a terrible story about how the train, upon reaching Poland, is emptied by the Gestapo, who take all the Jews into a nearby forest in Galicia and, after forcing them to dig a mass grave, slaughter them all. Moshe, wounded but taken for dead, survives and makes his way back to Sighet. How do his former friends in Sighet respond to his story? They find it unfathomable and too terrible. People who had once cared deeply about Moshe now refuse to believe him-indeed, they refuse to listen to him.
"Poor fellow," they say. "He's gone mad."