This week, as we do each year, we memorialize the 6 million of our brothers and sisters who perished in the Shoa (Holocaust). The number obscures the enormity of the tragedy that befell each person individually.
The number alone does not allow you to imagine what happened the moment the Germans invaded our towns and villages, when in effect the fate of our own people was already predetermined.
It does not tell you what happened the moment we were driven from our homes (the homes of our parents and the generations that came before them).
It does not illustrate for you the crowding of many families in one house in the ghetto, without food, water, sanitary facilities, in constant fear, isolation, denigration, everything to make you lose any self-image of yourself as a human being.
It does not convey to you our trembling at the sound of a motorcycle, truck or movement of military force; shunned by our former neighbors or worse, delivered to the Germans by them for some real or made-up grievances.
It does not relay to you experience of hearing, over and over again, the reports from escapees from neighboring towns, about the demise of their communities by machine gun and then by fire.
How does the number 6 million portray the agony of the mother who, during the selection before the destruction, refused to be separated from her children during the short ride to hell by fire, even though she was offered a chance to go with the able-bodied?
How, when we remember the 6 million, do we remember the horrors of those who were ripped out from their homes and forced to enter boxcars, which would take them on a ride of many days and nights to their final destinations, to the extermination camps and crematoria?
How can you, in your wildest imagination, picture the daily torment of those who, in the winter of 1944-45, were forced to march westward — starved, in scarce or worn clothing — with those unable to keep up shot and left by the wayside?
How do we bear witness to the stories of those hiding in bunkers, caves, forests and swamps, often betrayed by their neighbors?
Need I remind you that all these atrocities occurred in the heart of Europe, in one of the most “civilized” and “cultured” countries — the result of masses manipulated by a so-called “fuhrer” driven by wild ambition to rule the world?
I am reluctant to describe the present state of the world. If you are informed you know it all too well.
When you attend your Yom Hashoa commemoration, and when you hear the reference to the 6 million who were murdered, remember this: Murder in the first days of the war would have been a merciful means of execution for all those whose journeys to death I described to you above, and for all those whose stories defy description.
Six million murdered only begins to tell the story. We — the survivors — and you who hear us, are the ones who must tell the stories of the tormented journeys that preceded the murder of so many of our brothers and sisters.
(Moshe Baran is president of the Holocaust Survivors Association in Pittsburgh.)