Is “Six Million” Accurate? How Many Camps, Ghettos, Mass Shootings?

     I grew up quietly thinking that six million might be a low number. After all, I knew, the killers’ efficiency was such that the three million Polish Jews who lived in 1939 were 3,000 in 1945. Granted, the S.S. was particularly effective in neighboring Poland, but, I thought, if Nazis eliminated 99% of Polish Jewry in six years — and no serious historian disputes that — could we have accepted and then become wedded to numbers from other German-occupied nations that were simply low, that didn’t reflect the reality?


     History’s slippery —


     When generations of well-read, well-meaning, educated people early on take in numbers said by so many to be accurate, and with a continual drumbeat for decades, particularly when those numbers attach to the attempted destruction of a people, the numbers themselves become as tenacious as Jew-hunters and adhere as conventional wisdom in ways that tend to defy challenge. Depending on the direction of the attempted evidence-driven recalculations, moral authority can attach to the original numbers and moral outrage to any proposed revision.


     It turns out, now, that the chroniclers and researchers of the Final Solution may have, from the earliest post-war years, dramatically miscalculated; generations after ours may well throw over our six million for an even more awful reality. That’s the conclusion of recent research by scholars at the United States Holocaust Museum. There may well have been, they report, over 42,500 S.S.-run camps and ghettos during the twelve-years of the Third Reich’s Thousand-Year reign.


     Lead researchers Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean compiled the thousands of sites in a multi-volume effort published by the Holocaust Museum. Every volume contains catalogs of thousands of sites, providing a more comprehensive history of the “living and working conditions, activities of the Jewish councils, Jewish responses to persecution, demographic changes, and details of the liquidation of the ghettos.” Maps of the sites are included.


     These sites, the researchers say, imprisoned, enslaved, and/or murdered between fifteen and twenty million Jews.


     To be sure, these scholars are not the first to have suggested that the numbers ‘history’ settled on before many of us were born and then reinforced in us as children, learning them as secular articles of faith, may have been low. Still, this new body of research appears, to date, to be the most detailed and comprehensive making the claim.


     If there were, as now seems possible, at least 42,500 sites, the destruction of European Jewry would then appear to have come far closer than we’d realized to Hitler’s goal of making Europe Judenrein.


     A reason I love reading history, love having taught history and the literature emerging from it, love writing about both, is precisely because History’s this slippery. It’s an eel. If you can comfortably live with the idea that ambiguity can at any time intrude into what has been seen as settled, as undisputed, you’re a richer person for it, we’re a richer culture for it, your lithe and resilient intellect and heart.




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