Those names alone should ring of horrific crimes to the least historically inclined.
Ravensbruck. Sachsenhausen. Natzweiler. Those too, although lesser known, ring of the same horror.
Perhaps the name Mengele brings it to mind. Or perhaps just Hitler.
Beginning with the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht, the pogroms against the Jews are widely recognized to have begun in November 1938. Before the Holocaust, upwards of 7.3 million Jews lived in occupied Europe. By the end of WWII, that number had been reduced by six million, or seventy-eight percent.
These are the macro facts that we know. But what of the microcosm, the individual impact, the few of those six million, that disappeared with little to remember them by but shreds of distant memory in the face of an efficient and ruthless machine?
What if there were six that were lost in the mists of time, but could be found again?
Daniel Mendelsohn writes of such a journey in his book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. At over five-hundred pages of intense self-reflection, family and eyewitness interviews, and detailed research, all while detailing the excruciating journey culminating in the book’s publication, it’s a fascinating but slow read. You want to read a book about the Holocaust? Any book on the subject will be fascinating and excruciating, draining but stimulating. This one makes you stop in your tracks.
There’s one passage that struck me though, after reading the eyewitness accounts, the accounts of survivors who were able to get specific details of family, friends, acquaintances, but often, when reaching the culmination of their story, when confronted with the memories of what happened, and how it happened, could no longer continue. One passage, detailing a conversation between two academics, both pursuing the story, one because of family, the other because of friendship. I repeat it here:
Ever since she and I had been in Vilnius together, and had visited the mass grave in the Ponar forest, with its hundred thousand Jews sleeping their unquiet sleep beneath the picnicking grounds, we had returned almost obsessively to the issue of local collaboration. . . . . Many people think of the Holocaust and think, Germans. Just recently . . . someone who had heard about my search for what happened . . . came up to me and said, Doesn’t it make you feel uncomfortable around Germans? . . . and then I laughed and shook my head and said, No, of course not; and then I added, And anyway, if I were the kind of person who thought that way, I’d be more afraid of – – – -than of Germans.
I inserted the “- – – -” in place of the nationality for a specific reason. You see, this wasn’t just a German crime. But, there’s another reason:
. . . there is the irrevocable fact of individual personality and individual will, the fact that someone will do x but not y, the decision to do this rather than that, to make distinctions . . . there is the thing that will make a person turn left rather than right . . . there is the thing that makes you decide one night, as you are carrying a package of food to the hidden Jewish girl whom you love, that it is dark enough that you don’t have to conceal the package under your coat; there is the impulse that cause the neighbor who sees the youth carrying the package to wonder, for the first time, why this boy comes every night to this street, that house . . .
There were choices made that impacted others. Some courageous, others horrific. Some were committed with intent. Other choices were made out of a sense of self-preservation, with little understanding of the ramifications. Other choices, seemingly entirely separate both in their cultural and moral implications, were made out of an innate sense of desperation, wanton anger, of vengeance at all costs.
Six million Jews died because of choices made.
Prior to that, between five and seven million Ukrainians were starved to death, because of choices made.
What choices did you make today? What choices will you make today?
What kind of impact will you have?
Choices have impact. Of those six of six million, details are still fleeting. But the book ends with one fact, assured, final in its definition, without doubt.
Ester Jäger . . . a forty-six year old mother of four . . . who was a good wife and fine homemaker, who very likely crocheted to pass the long winter nights . . . who once added a postscript to a desperate letter that made its way to New York, a postscript that somehow, somewhere got lost, which is why nothing of that woman’s thoughts survives today . . . whatever [she] suffered during the dreadful ending to that life, she suffered alone.
She suffered alone.
[They] suffered alone.
Some, still, suffer alone.
And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served [before], or the gods of the [people] in whose land you dwell.
But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.