Visitors to Auschwitz and other Holocaust memorials are often moved to tears by the shoes, or other homely items of the victims. Perhaps because of advance preparation, such things don’t move me as much. What has tightened my throat and brought tears to my eyes are the things which took me by surprise: At the Museum of Terror in Budapest, the focus was on the persecution that was absorbed by Hungarians in general by the Germans and the Soviets. In most exhibits, the Jews were neither excluded nor singled out. But in one film, a man was speaking about the horrors taking place in his neighborhood, to his friends and own family and suddenly bursts into tears “Why did they have to do that to the Jews? They took them away and killed them.” The word “Jews” was not an abstraction to this man. The word conjured up memories of actual individuals he had known and cared about.
Speaking with an elderly man in Romania, I asked where the synagogue had been. He couldn’t remember exactly, only that it had been on a side street. He remembered that a few Jews had come back after the war, but sold the synagogue because there were not enough of them. They left for parts unknown. It was bad for everyone, he thought. People wondered whether their families would be taken and killed. More of the Jews were killed, he believed. This struck me as a little distant and unsympathetic. In the West, we regard the Holocaust as one of the pivotal events of the 20th C, debating whether anything can be compared to it. We can afford to do that because we have some distance. To those up close, there is plenty to compare it to: the death of your own wife or son at the same hands. Seeing through this gentile's eyes made the Jewish loss suddenly larger, not smaller. I had now more fully understood the fear and loss of losing a tenth of one’s family to cruel men. From there I could better understand the loss of nine-tenths, which had been unreal before that.
When reading about the Ukrainian soldiers who were given the duty of executing many Jews -- how it was considered a bad job, a difficult job, a draining job, I held the soldiers’ difficulty of no account. They were victimizing, not victims. But in one account a man who had killed several hundred had a sudden apprehension of the next victim, a child, as a real human being, and it shattered him. Reading the story made the single child real for me as well. One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic