Looking past the number of the Holocaust

Over six million lives were taken in the Holocaust, every one of those lives an individual with their own thoughts, feeling and hopes for their future which were cut tragically short. In place of the lives and opportunities these people could have had, we are instead left with their stories, potentially some of the most important stories to share, so that we can keep the promise of ‘never again’.

Looking at the Holocaust, you can choose to focus either on quantitative or qualitative facts. To put the Holocaust into numbers, while the precise start date for the Holocaust is disputed, over 100 Jews were murdered in Kristallnacht in 1938, before the war had even started, with those people being guilty of no crime except being Jewish and not fitting Hitler’s image of the Aryan ideal. After Hitler had decided on ‘the final solution’, over 500,000 Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen throughout the German occupation of the Soviet Union. When looking at the combined impact of events like these and the other components of the Holocaust such as death camps, 6,000,000 Jews were murdered. This was over a third of Jews at the time and the Jewish population has still not recovered to the pre-war numbers by some counts.

However, it would be wrong to take the lives of millions and synthesise all of the individual people into one homogenous mass when every single person had their own experience of the trauma. Looking at such a deeply personal event as the Holocaust so broadly would be to erase the personal impact- it is important to look at the victims of the Holocaust as the people that they were, not as just a small part of a larger number.

Zigi Shipper, for example, if you just view him as a number, is one out of 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland in 1939, facing the threat of Nazi invasion. Looking at him like that, you miss the real ups and downs of the fascinating life he has led. Zigi was born in Poland and lived with his grandparents after his parents divorced, with the whole group being moved into a ghetto when the Nazis invaded. After his grandfather died from malnutrition, he was selected to be placed in a lorry likely going to a concentration camp. He ran but was eventually taken to a camp when the ghetto was liquidated. He was first sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was separated from his family, and then sent to various other camps, at one point contracting typhus but being forced to keep marching or be killed. Upon liberation, Zigi discovered a letter from his mother who he had not seen since childhood and moved to England to reunite with her. There is no denying that Zigi is so much more than just one out of 3.5 million.

However, even this analysis doesn’t quite grasp the reality of those involved in the Holocaust, because it is essential to remember that these people are more than just the Holocaust. Zigi may have faced all of that trauma, but it is important also to think of him as a son to his parents, the father of his child, and the grandfather to his grandchildren. Everyone tied to the Holocaust is a real person with dimensions past just the context of the Holocaust.

The importance of stories like this lies not in their tragedy, but in the warning they carry and the lessons to be learnt. It is important to not only mourn the losses of the Holocaust but also learn from them.

In the UK, 1 in 20 people do not believe the Holocaust even happened, showing rising levels of ignorance and disregard for the lived experiences of people like Zigi. Over in the US, a man was wearing a pro-Holocaust hoodie at the Washington protest, signalling the rise in antisemitism. In China, Uyghur Muslims are being forced into ‘re-education’ camps and being subjected to horrors like forced sterilisation. Therefore, there is no denying that people are failing to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust.

It is through the lens of history that we can come to understand why greater education on the Holocaust is needed and why it is important to look at the Holocaust from a human perspective. The Holocaust is much more than just a timeline of events and numbers, and if we look at it as such, it is all too easy to miss things like the emotional cost of the genocide or how truly in humane it was. Additionally, looking at the Holocaust without acknowledging the emotional aspect makes it too easy to dismiss the rising danger of a repeat of the horrors, allowing the rise of neo-Nazism in the west and ignoring the Uyghur Muslim camps in China.

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