I wish that I didn’t have to write this. I wish I could just sit at home on this peaceful Tuesday evening in January, and watch Parks and Recreation and laugh at Amy Poehler’s brilliance. But 70 years ago today the Red Army liberated a place called Auschwitz, and so I have to write.
I’ve spent the past two months reading William Shirer’s 1500 page definitive history of Nazi Germany: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s eerie to me that today I reached the chapter entitled The New Order, in which life in the Third Reich, life for the POW’s, the conquered peoples, and most of all the Jews is described in words that are too utterly horrific to bear. I have read a lot and I have never read anything so awful and evil and perverse in my life.
History books are important, necessary, informative, and often wildly interesting. But there is something troubling about all their numbers. On page after page I read numbers that are overwhelming and incomprehensible to me:
“In Lithuania, alone, the map showed, 136,421 Jews had been slain.” (Shirer, 1254)
“Some 55,000 more Jews were exterminated in White Russia by July 1…” (Shirer, 1254)
“Mauthausen listed 35,318 deaths from January 1939 to April 1945…” (Shirer, 1259)
“Hoess himself in his affidavit gave an estimate of 2,500,000 victims executed and exterminated by gassing and burning…” (Shirer, 1267)
I don’t know what to do with numbers like this. They are too big. Too unfathomable. Too broad. What does it mean for six million people to be exterminated? What does it mean to massacre 30,000 people in a day, or gas 6,000 in an afternoon? How can I let the weight of these numbers into my heart? How can these numbers mean something to me?
Throughout the course of reading this book, I have had Elie Wiesel’s Night beside my bed, to remind me that the numbers are real—to remind me what the numbers mean. The numbers I read aren’t statistics or facts or information—they’re people. And to kill one person is a great evil. To lose one loved one brings almost unbearable pain.
Wiesel keeps me from getting lost in the numbers—because when my eyes begin to glaze over, I come back to his story:
“Men to the left! Women to the right!”
Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her.” (Wiesel, 29)
These words make me cry. I cannot imagine six million, but I can imagine a family of six. I can feel that, and I can weep for them, and weep for what, God forgive me, I cannot comprehend.