Ordinary People: Why looking beyond the numbers is essential to understanding the Holocaust
By Holly Edgar
The 27th January 2023 marks seventy-eight years since Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest extermination camp run by the Nazis, was liberated. That day is now known as Holocaust Memorial Day, a day dedicated to the millions of people persecuted and murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides such as those in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Darfur. Each year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chooses a theme to guide reflection. And the theme for 2023: Ordinary people.
Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. That is an unimaginable figure. There is a disconnect between that number and the gravity of the Holocaust. A number doesn’t have a name. A number doesn’t have a face or a family. A number isn’t a human being. In order to understand the Holocaust, we must look beyond the numbers. Each one of that six million represents a life; a story; an ordinary person denied their right to an ordinary life. That is what the Holocaust Memorial Trust aims to demonstrate with this year’s theme.
Zuzana Gruenberger was born on the 3rd March 1933 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia. She was the youngest of three children born to Hungarian-speaking Jewish parents. Her father was a tailor and had a workshop in their apartment. Her family called her Zuzi. In 1938 Hungarian troops claimed Kosice and introduced anti-Semitic laws. In 1941, one year after Zuzana started school, the Hungarians moved Jews living in Kosice to camps in other parts of Hungary. Her father and brother were taken away as slave labour. In 1944, Zuzana, her mother, and her sister Edit were put on trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Zuzana and her mother were gassed upon arrival. She was eleven years old.
Zuzana is more than a number.
I am an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust. I participated in the Lessons From Auschwitz project in 2018 along with 200 other students from Glasgow. The programme involved a day trip to Poland to visit Oświęcim, Auschwitz 1, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was an extraordinary opportunity to interact with history, and while it was an incredibly difficult experience, it was also invaluable. Through the Trust, I have also had the opportunity to meet several Holocaust survivors. Their stories demonstrate the real horrors of the Holocaust because they remember how their lives changed when the Nazis came to power. They had ordinary lives, and then their families were torn apart. To them the numbers have never been numbers - they are neighbours, friends, and family.
Betty Leiter Lauchheimer was born on 11th April 1893 in Aufhausen, Germany. She was one of fourteen children and her father was a successful cattle dealer. Aged twenty she married Max Lauchheimer, a local kosher butcher. They lived in a large house beside an orchard and had two children, Regina and Karl. In 1938, while Betty and Max were visiting their daughter, their house was attacked. Betty hid with her daughter and granddaughter as thugs smashed in the windows. Max and their son-in-law were arrested and held in Dachau concentration camp for three weeks. They both returned, but Max died shortly after. In 1941, the family moved back to Betty’s home where they hoped they would be safer. That autumn they received an order to report for “resettlement in the east”. Her son-in-law appealed to the Gestapo as a disabled WWI veteran, and while this saved him and Regina, he was not able to protect Betty. She was deported in early December to Riga, Latvia. Betty was then taken into the Rumba Forest and shot during a mass execution. She was fifty-one years old.
Betty is more than a number.
The Nazis destroyed much of the material evidence of their crimes in the final days of the war, but what remains is stored in Auschwitz 1. Prosthetic limbs, pairs of glasses, cups and plates. People brought their lives to the camp and most of them never left. The room filled with shoes and labelled suitcases was particularly powerful: numbers don’t wear shoes or neatly print their names on suitcases, but ordinary people do. But then I saw all those personal items, jumbled up together, stacked up to the ceiling without a care and seventy years abandoned, and it was just so overwhelming. Auschwitz 1 was terrible, but it was tiny in comparison to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Before the Lessons from Auschwitz trip I’d been trying to process the measurements in my head before we arrived, but the numbers couldn’t prepare me for actually being there. I stood on the trainline and squinted but I couldn’t see the edge of the camp. Just an endless barbed wire fence, and chimney after chimney after chimney. That was when the scale of the Holocaust truly hit me. I don’t know what to call it – despair, anger, or grief don’t go far enough – but I do know that it must never be allowed to happen again. At the end of the infamous trainline running through Birkenau lies the rubble from the gas chambers. There were five crematoria in Birkenau, of which Krema 2 was the largest. 1.3 million ordinary people were deported to the Auschwitz camps. Over one million ordinary people were murdered in the very gas chambers we stood barely two metres from. This was so far from ordinary, and the world had never felt darker.
Benjamin Fondane was born in Romania in 1898 and began to write poetry at the age of fourteen. He dropped out of law school and relocated to Paris in 1923, where he became a successful poet and playwright. He was drafted by the French Army in 1940 and captured by the Germans, but was released back to his wife and sister due to ill-health. In 1944, he and his sister were denounced as Jewish and sent to Drancy concentration camp. Benjamin had the chance to escape, but he refused to leave his sister behind. In May, they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered. He was forty-six years old.
Benjamin is more than a number.
In 1942 Fondane wrote a poem entitled “Préface en prose”, and his words, the words of an ordinary man, are displayed today at Holocaust memorial sites around the world.
“...A day will come, no doubt, when this poem will find itself before your eyes. It asks nothing! Forget it, forget it! It is nothing but a scream, that cannot fit in a perfect poem. Have I even time to finish it? But when you trample on this bunch of nettles that had been me, in another century, in a history that you will have cancelled, remember only that I was innocent and that, like all of you, mortals of this day, I had, I too had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy, an ordinary human face!”
I too am an ordinary person. I too have a family and a home and photographs that I treasure. I wear glasses and have brown hair. There was nothing abnormal about Zuzana, Betty, or Benjamin or any of the victims of the Holocaust that condemned them to death, other than the hate and ignorance of other ordinary people. This wasn’t a natural disaster. It was humans who caused the Holocaust, and it was humans that suffered because of it. By extension, it is our human duty to ensure it never happens again. Through the Lessons from Auschwitz project, I was able to talk to real, ordinary, incredible people who survived the Holocaust and other genocides. I was able to visit Oświęcim, an ordinary town, and learn about how an ordinary place became a site of mass murder. That extraordinary opportunity to interact with history is one I will always be grateful for, as I, an ordinary person, am now a witness. There was an aphorism from philosopher George Santayana on display in Auschwitz 1 which read, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” A witness will never forget. The aim of the “Lessons from Auschwitz” Project is to turn ordinary people into witnesses of the Holocaust, witnesses who can then go on to ensure that history is never forgotten. The most extraordinary thing we ordinary people can do is remember. We remember so that ordinary people never again lose their right to live a full and ordinary life, which is perhaps the most extraordinary right of all.