The human mind is good with abstractions. They say that, really, the largest number we can visualize and comprehend is not much greater than one thousand. After that, everything becomes more abstract- the mind fills in the blanks and leaves us with some sort of conjecture of quantity. Try to imagine a container of one thousand of anything sitting in front of you, and can you? Actually see a thousand, every one? Things start to seem less concrete even after five hundred, let alone one thousand. Or one million. Or six million.
What does six million look like?
We can’t see it. The numbers are simply too big for us.
There was a middle school in Whitwell, Tenessee. They wanted to see. They collected six million paper clips- over six million- and they put each one of those six million paperclips into an old German transport car that stands in a pretty little garden, and when they were done it was the Children’s Holocaust Memorial. When they were done, that one railcar represented eleven million. Six million for the Jews who were killed. And five million for the others who were treated the same.
But paper clips are just paper clips, right? They show us what eleven million is. But not who the eleven million are. Looking at the memorial and at the paper clips, it’s easy to be moved by the sheer quantity. Even more so when you take those eleven million paper clips and try to be still more concrete. Even more so when you look at eleven million paper clips and try to make your brain see eleven million individuals, eleven million distinct personalities.
Here are some people who became paper clips in Whitwell’s Holocaust Memorial:
Gregory Shehtman was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1934. In 1941, he was murdered in a ravine in Babi Yar. He was seven years old.
Gert Kaiser was born in 1936. He and his parents, Grete and Rudolf Kaiser, were deported in November of 1941, and never came back. Gert was five years old.
Moshe Manela and Bluma Citron lived with their daughter, Guta, in Kielce, Poland. All three were murdered at the concentration camp in Treblinka in 1942. Moshe was 34 and his wife 33; their daughter was five years old.
I’ve never been to the Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Tennessee. I haven’t seen the eleven million paper clips and I haven’t felt the eleven million lives.
There is another memorial, one that brought me to understand, at the YadVashemHolocaustMuseum in Jerusalem. They have a Hall of Names there, a giant cone-shaped dome that rises up to the ceiling, with pictures and documents and names inside, of over half the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. And I stood underneath it, a little eleven-year old kid her first time out of the country, and looked up. And I felt small.
But I was small. I looked at the pictures and the documents and I knew they represented more than just names.
But I couldn’t see it.
The cone represented over three million people, but brought me no closer to understanding the magnitude of that number. The things I felt standing in the Hall of Names were merely surface deep.
But the Yad Vashem has another memorial. It’s hidden away underground, which is a shame, because it’s beautiful. And sad, and powerful. And it doesn’t represent eleven million, or six million, or three million. This memorial is for the children.
They were one and a half million. And you can see it.
They use candles. I don’t know how many; it’s impossible to tell, because they also use mirrors. You walk down this hall, and there are mirrors on all sides of you. And there is absolutely no light except for the candles, reflected over and over again in every mirror on every side. And in the reflections of reflections, and in the reflections of reflections of reflections.
And you walk down the hallway and look at the reflections of reflections of reflections, and the candles upon candles upon candles, and each one is a child, like you, and you get lost in the maze, and you just keep moving forward. And all the while, a recording plays in the background, and it tells you the children’s names, their countries, their ages. And so you look around and see the candles and the mirrors and you think that you might truly understand one and a half million. The endless expanse of candles shows you what the number looks like; the names echoing throughout the hall keep everything grounded, so that instead of walking through a night sky with one and a half million stars you’re walking through a crowd of one and a half million people who used to be.
And then you break free from the crowd and you’re suddenly back in light, above ground, and you stand waiting for your eyes to adjust and for your mind to break away, too, and come back to you.
And then you go to the bathroom, and you cry.
Because one and a half million is big. It’s breathtaking. Overwhelming.
And maybe one and a half million is something you’d rather not have understood just yet.
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School