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Inconceivable Numbers; Individual Stories

I have been thinking a lot recently about the connection between counting and recounting. A few weeks ago, I wrote here: “Like counting, storytelling involves placing things in sequence. Unlike counting, however, storytelling injects the sequence with meaning.” When it comes to commemorating those murdered in the Holocaust, the numbers make it hard for us to find any kind of meaning. The numbers are inconceivable: 6 million Jews, 1.5 million children, 1.1 million at Auschwitz, and on and on. Astronomical numbers. We can barely imagine them, let alone make sense of them. This problem has inspired all kinds of creative – and sometime controversial – attempts to represent through art the number of murdered. See for example these attempts to represent through buttons or soda-can ring-pulls the number of those killed in the Holocaust. Personally, I prefer to reverse the direction of sense-making. Rather than trying to make the number of murdered more concrete, I seek meaning in the individual stories out of which the astronomical numbers are made. It is precisely in the small details of personal stories that I begin to grasp, and gradually digest the immensity of the disaster. This year, when the siren sounds on Holocaust Memorial Day, and I stand to attention, I will be focusing on the small numbers, without which I would not be here today: The number of kilometers between Antwerp and Dunkirk; the number of hours between my grandfather hearing that the Germans were advancing rapidly towards the coast and the departure of the last boat to Britain; the amount of cash in my grandfather’s pocket, which sufficed to convince the boat’s captain to take his young family aboard. All those small numbers, without which, my grandparents, and my uncle Joseph, would have been added to the numbers we struggle to conceive.

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