Is Six Million Accurate?

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 Jews who lived in Poland in 1939 had been reduced to 3,000 by 1945. Granted, the S.S. was particularly effective in 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 too low, that didn’t reflect the reality?

History’s slippery.

When generations of well-read, well-meaning  people accept numbers said to be accurate by so many chroniclers over so many decades—particularly when those numbers are attached to the attempted destruction of a people and their history—the numbers themselves become as tenacious as Jew-hunters and adhere to our consciousness in ways that tend to defy challenge. Depending on the direction of the attempted recalculations (even if evidence driven), moral authority can attach to the original numbers and moral outrage to proposed revisions.

It now turns out that the chroniclers and researchers of the Final Solution may have, from the earliest post-war years, dramatically miscalculated the numbers; generations after ours may well renounce our six million in favor of an even more awful reality. That’s the conclusion of recent research by scholars at the United States Holocaust Museum. Lead researchers Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean compiled statistics on S.S.-run camps and ghettos in a multi-volume effort published by the museum. Every volume contains catalogs thousands of sites, providing a more comprehensive history than was ever available before 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.

There may well have been, they report, over 42,500 S.S.-run camps and ghettos during the twelve years of the Third Reich. 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 and as adults—may have been low. till, this new body of research appears to be the most detailed and comprehensive verification of this claim to date. If there were, as now seems quite 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 Jew-free.

A reason I love reading history, loved teaching history and the literature emerging from it, love writing about both, is precisely because history is this slippery.

It’s an eel.

If you can comfortably live with the idea that ambiguity might intrude at any time into what has been seen as settled, as undisputed, I think you’re a richer person for it, and we’re a richer culture for your lithe and resilient intellect and heart.

Mazal Tov.

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