Five Million Too Few

NO DOUBT it will be an impressive sight.

Six million pebbles will be encased in rectangular plexiglass columns, standing on a map of Eastern Europe and enclosed by barbed wire. The pebbles in each column will represent the number of Jews slaughtered in each East European country by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. The whole scene will be displayed during Brandeis University's Holocaust Rememberance Week, April 19 to 25, in an area between Brandeis' library and student center.

No doubt six million pebbles--three million sitting atop Poland alone--will be quite a sight. And that's the point, of course, said David Poskin, a Brandeis first-year student who is coordinating the display through the Brandeis Hillel. "It wasn't just six million that died," he explained in an interview. "It was six million people. It's more than a number."

Besides erecting the Holocaust memorial, Poskin said his group also hopes to collect six million pennies, from fundraisers and donations, to honor each of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The pennies, $60,000 worth, will then be donated to selected Holocaust-related charities.

Indeed, Poskin and the rest of the Brandeis organizers will make six million mean much more than a number to those participants in the Holocaust Remembrance Week. If six million is too large a figure for many to imagine, then the display and the penny drive will help people associate a six and six zeroes with the six million Jewish people swallowed in the flames of the Holocaust. In this case, assuming everything goes as planned (and Poskin is optimistic that everything will), the project will be a success.

EXCEPT for one thing. They've got the wrong number.

Poskin and friends are five million pebbles, pennies and people short of presenting the true heinousness of the Holocaust. Six million is the right number if you're talking about the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But it's not if you're referring to the total number of people slaughtered by the Nazis, 11 million. That's six million Jews--and five million gypsies, gays, political prisoners, handicapped people and Eastern Europeans.

With these facts and numbers in mind, then, the Brandeis Holocaust display and penny drive misses the mark. Why are Jewish lives more important than the lives of other Holocaust victims? Why should Jews alone be remembered by the Brandeis memorial while the other nameless, faceless victims are relegated to the numerical dustbin of history?

Certainly Jews bore the largest and probably most well-publicized brunt of Nazi genocide, but there was no monopoly on the suffering. Nor should there be monopolies on the remembering--by Jews alone--or on the remembered--of Jews alone.

The inclusion of the five million non-Jewish Holocaust victims in the Brandeis project would not have diminished its effectiveness. In fact, if Poskin's group is relying on the visual impact of six million pebbles to accomplish its goal, it seems that the sheer sight of 11 million pebbles would only hammer home even harder the horrors of the Holocaust. Simple arithmetic, right?

Poskin sees otherwise. "Eleven million doesn't click to people," he explained, "but six million does. When people understand six million, then you can talk more about the other victims."

But such a gradualist, spoon-fed approach to the number of Holocaust victims cannot enhance understanding of the human tragedy of the Holocaust. If the point is really to remember life, not numbers, why not remember all life? Eleven million will "click," just like six million, if it really stands for people, not Arabic numerals.

THERE will be events during Brandeis' Holocaust Rememberance Week to pay tribute to the Nazi's non-Jewish victims, according to Poskin. But the fact remains that the pebble display makes a powerful statement about the Holocaust, both in whom it memorializes and whom it does not.

Holocaust memorials have a double duty--to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, and in so doing, to keep society on guard against a future Holocaust. It is important and essential to keep alive the memories of six million Jews. But it's also important and essential to keep alive the memories of the conditions that spawned the Holocaust.

It's those conditions that claimed the lives of 11 million people. And it's all of those 11 million people that should be included in the Brandeis memorial.