Tuesday, April 23, 2013

6,000,000 to 1

My first recollection of hearing about the Nazi persecution of Jews is from Mrs. Palmer's Geography class in 5th or 6th grade. I have a "factual" mind, so whenever I come upon a topic, I begin to recall the "facts" I associate with it.

The first fact I associate with the Holocaust is "6,000,000".  I'm sure that figure is used liberally to instill a sense of awe and horror.  Frankly, I can't remember if it did or didn't.  At the risk of sounding cold, I'll just say that in this context, I only see it as a "fact".  And that bothers me...

It must have bothered others too.  Otherwise, the figure would have stood on its own merit and would have been so daunting, so troubling that there would have been no need for Holocaust memorials....and there are several throughout the great cities of the world.  I understand that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is the epicenter of remembrance and factual documentation of this epic crime against humanity.  Yet, there's something about the memorial in Berlin, "the scene of the crime", the place from which all the evil eminated that struck a particular chord in me.  My fascination mounted as I entered through the "stellae" and descended into subterranean eeriness.

Cool, dark, quiet....as you enter, you're keenly aware of the expectations of you, the interloper.  After passing the 21st century-required security screening, you come upon a long, low reception desk:  coat check, information, bookstore, giftshop, polylingual audio self-guided tour rental, and reminders everywhere of the reverence expected of guests.  NO POSTED REMINDERS...NOTHING OVERT, just a subtle sense of where you are, why you are here and how you should comport yourself.  Everywhere, docents stand quietly with hands behind their back, ready to intercede as needed.

The atmosphere is dark and heavy as you move from room to room, the first, a timeline of how the rise of Social Democracy (Nazi-ism) led to a commensurate pressurization of the Jewish population to "GET OUT"...with a clear sub-message of "OR ELSE".  Nazi policy lost all subtlety in 1939 when a program of emigration and deportation of German Jews was replaced by "Aktion Reinhardt", a pointed plan put in place to ISOLATE and EXTERMINATE all European Jews, not just German.  The new policy coincided with Germany's move from passivity and pacifist to "blitz krieg" and aggressor.  "Aktion Reinhardt" was a formalized plan to eliminate 11 million European Jews, Gypsies (Roman), and homosexuals (although curiously, only male homosexuals were targeted).  As we moved from year to year along the timeline, the "6,000,000" figure was at last replaced in my mind by 127 died in a lorry (tractor trailor) from exhaust fumes; 32,000 were stripped naked, marched into a ravine, forced to lie face-down, shot in the backs of their heads, then bulldozers pushed in the sides of the ravine on top of them at Baba Yar in the Soviet Union; 111,000 were exterminated at an "award-winning" pace at the newly-designed extermination camp at Treblinka; a "rising star" of Jewish eradication hand-drew a map of Europe that he divided into regions under his command, each with a casket symbol and number of deaths, one region marked "Juden frei" (Jew free).  How could anyone in Germany have remained "innocent" of the horrors occurring all around them?

A white "pathway" on the floor leads you from one heavy, concrete bunker-like room to the next.  After the timeline room, you pass into a "family" room where you learn about the "familial" scope of destruction.  No part of European semitism can claim that it was untouched by the Holocaust.  As the Germans advanced, one of the first orders of business was to round up Jews, "relocate" them to concentration camps, exploit the labor of the fit, and ultimately, KILL all of them.  The fact that ANY survived to the war's end is miraculous in light of the Nazi determination to annihilate.  Many of the families were prosperous and influential.  One had family films made during the early 1930s which were shown on their wall.  What family in the US could have afforded the luxury of family movies in the 1930s?

I was most touched by the next room where individual stories were told, stories of husbands, wives, lovers, and children.  The innocence of youth was not spared the horror of "Aktion Reinhardt".  Those children that were too young or unfit to serve the Reich were annihilated with the rest who "served no purpose".  Suddenly, my attention was totally consumed by a short type-written letter.

The letter was written by a 12 year-old girl to her father to say good-bye.  It was found by the invading Soviet forces toward the end of the war and compiled with other documentation as damning evidence against the regime of the Third Reich.  What remains of the letter is sentiment:  the original hand-written text is long destroyed and all we have for reference is the typed Cyrillic translation.  But for me, the sentiment of that letter is much more profound than the fact, "6,000,000".  The girl wrote that she knew she was to die and that she was afraid.  Likely no more than 4 or 5 sentences, the wording was the essence of an oxymoron.  It was at once factual, sentimental, woeful, uplifting, desperate, hopeful, death, life.

But in the end, a 12 year-old girl's good-bye to her father was the period at the end of a short sentence.  It was signed "Your daughter".

The sentiment of that letter was proof that essential human spirit can and will survive in the face of all evil.  It is a sentiment that we would do well to embrace in a world that seemingly darkens every day.

Somehow, the figure "6,000,000" never really struck a chord with me.  It certainly never resonated in me as much as the fate of ONE 12 year-old girl has.

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