Grasping the unimaginable

Grasping the unimaginable

We thought we understood the extent of the Holocaust. We’ve read the books, seen the films, visited the museums. Most importantly, we’ve heard the stories told by now-aging relatives and friends, whose singular brushes with horror gave us a sense of the awful whole.

Now comes news from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that forces us again to adjust our understanding of the scope of the genocide. When researchers began in 2000 the essential task of documenting the Nazis’ deadly infrastructure, they expected to find perhaps 7,000 death camps, concentration camps, and ghettos. But according to a report in The New York Times, the numbers grew beyond imagining: “30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, ‘Germanizing’ prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.”

In all, according to the researchers, Germany established some 42,500 ghettos and camps in an archipelago that extended across Europe, and especially Germany and Poland.

The numbers force a reassessment of the Nazis’ relentlessness in exploiting, torturing, and murdering not only Jews, but Gypsies, gays, dissidents, the disabled, and other groups. It also focuses new scrutiny on average people and their awareness of and responsibility for crimes occurring just nearby.

Finally, the new research demands that we try, yet again, to wrap our minds around the unimaginable. Ironically, it is not the sheer numbers that help us do this, but the individual stories left by the victims and told by the survivors and their rescuers. Such stories are currently on view at the Gaelen Gallery West on the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. “From Memory to History,” an exhibit by the federation’s Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, documents the experiences of Holocaust survivors and liberators in the local community. If the scope of the Shoa seems too large to grasp, the exhibit helps us understand the powerful human stories behind the grotesque numbers.

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