Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest
Six million. The number of the Holocaust. The systematic extermination of six million, six million lives vanished with the crack of a gun, the hiss of a gas canister, or the silence of the bitter cold. Six million stories interrupted in the middle, six million shallow or nonexistent graves, six million names vanishing into smoke. The figure is cited in every documentary, every encyclopedia entry, every third grader’s report and high school student’s seminar discussion. The Holocaust is always thought of in terms of the breathtaking horror of quantity. While statistics are vital to understanding the scope of the events of the Holocaust, focusing on numbers alone can and does often fail to remind people of the humanity of each of the six million that died.
Understanding the six-million figure itself is not an easy task. Various groups have assembled visual representations with the goal of rendering comprehensible the sheer volume of deaths. One group, comprised of students at Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tennessee, dealt with their trouble conceptualizing six million by collecting six million paper clips. The students chose the paper clip as their representative object because paper clips were worn during World War II by Norwegians who were protesting Nazi policies. After a slow start, their project succeeded in collecting far more than the six million paper clips they had initially wanted.
Looking at a memorial of paper clips is, in one sense, an unquestionably effective way to help one realize the scope of the Holocaust, instantly communicating the staggering magnitude of the death toll. Yet when remembrances focus solely on the quantity of deaths, it is easy to once again reduce each victim to a number. Each of the six million victims of the Holocaust was not only a death but a life extinguished. While they still drew breath, they had families, careers, friends, and hopes. The true tragedy of the Holocaust lies in the ends of each of these individual lives, not in the death of six million.
Throughout Germany, a new type of memorial is being created to commemorate the individual lives lost in the Holocaust. They are markedly unlike most memorials, which attempt to commemorate large groups of Holocaust victims in one place and focus on the volume of deaths. Instead, they effectively call to mind the individuality of those that perished. Called stolpersteine or “Stumble Stones,” they each bear a single name. Alongside the name are listed the person’s birthdate, deathdate, and location of death, the typical features of any Holocaust memorial which lists personal details of the victims.
What is unusual, though, is that the Stumble Stones are not clustered. They are not a memorial to many. Rather, each one is created in memory of an individual and is embedded in the street or sidewalk outside of the home or office where that person once lived. Scattered along the streets, they are more likely to be stumbled across than visited. In the words of the artist who creates the Stumble Stones, Gunter Demnig, “Six million is an incomprehensible figure. But to carve the name of a single person on a single marker is to say, ‘Look, this individual lived—lived right here at this actual address. He or she looked out this window or stepped out that door every day. This was someone just like you or me. Not just an anonymous victim of history.’”
Stumble Stones are a memorial that returns to Holocaust victims something which was taken from them by the Nazis: their individuality. In concentration camps, Jews were branded with numbers, their identities stamped out and replaced with a label of “Jew” and a series of digits stamped into their flesh. By calling attention to individuals and their names and homes, loves and lives, Demnig’s memorial gives back something fundamental to the memories of those that died.
Just over two years ago, on January 22, 2010, a small town in Germany called Bad Kissingen installed and dedicated twenty Stumble Stones. Two of these stones have great personal meaning to me. One is engraved with the name of my grandfather’s uncle, my great-great-uncle Leopold, and the second bears the name of this wife. Neither stone shows a death date. We do not know where or when they died.
Leopold was born on February 25, 1889 in Werthiem, Germany. He had two siblings, a sister named Regina and a brother named Felix (my great-grandfather). He and Felix both fought in the First World War on behalf of Germany. In the course of his duties, Leopold sustained a wound to his arm, permanently losing use of the limb. Germany awarded him several medals for his service and injuries, one of which was the Iron Cross. After the war, he married Irene Hofmann and moved to Bad Kissingen to take over her family’s clothing store. On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, Leopold was arrested. When he was released about a week later, it was only because of his bad arm. Within days, he and Irene were forced to sell their store. They endured the ever-mounting terrors of life in Nazi Germany for several years before being moved to a city called Würzburg in 1942. From there they were deported to the ghetto Izbica, which was located in the Lublin district of Poland. That is the last we know of them for certain. It’s possible that they survived long enough in the ghetto to die in a death camp, probably Sobibor or Belzec. However, without his identity card (left behind in the rush of deportation) and with a useless arm, it is unlikely Leopold survived for any great length of time in Izbica.
To me, the most tragic part of his story is that when Leopold realized he was being deported, he brought with him his war medals. He believed that they would protect him, proof that he was a loyal German who had served for his country. This was not the case. The medals were confiscated from him somewhere on his journey.
We now own those war medals. They are, to me, a small memorial to one individual who was lost in the Holocaust, a tribute to the identity and the humanity of my great-great-uncle. Halfway across the planet, another memorial is anchored in the streets of Germany. It waits to be stumbled upon by some passerby who may stop and read the name carved into the ground and think about who my great-uncle was before he became simply a number, one of the six million.