“One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
Welcome to my first blog!
Several years ago I set out to republish Odd Nansen’s World War II concentration camp diary, From Day to Day. The effort, though not without its share of ups and downs, has been one of the most interesting and satisfying endeavors I have ever embarked on.
Nansen’s diary is many things:
- A unique historical record;
- An acute psychological portrait of a deeply humanistic individual;
- A window into the world of the Holocaust.
After five years of intensive study in only one small aspect of the concentration camp experience, I’m still not sure I comprehend either the Holocaust in particular, or the Nazi’s treatment of countless camp prisoners in general; perhaps, as some say, it is simply incomprehensible.
One thing I have learned, however, is that the only way to get even the slightest handle on the matter is to reduce it to its smallest level—the individual.
Which brings me to Stalin’s quote. Stalin, who knew a thing or two about mass murder, understood that at some level statistics are without meaning; they benumb, they mislead the senses, not enhance them. What is the difference between 1 million and 1 billion? Another zero, a different letter? How does one comprehend “X” being one thousand times larger/greater/longer than “Y” in any inquiry, let alone when dealing with human lives?
To understand suffering, one death is sufficient, for each person has parents, loved ones, siblings perhaps, friends, those on whom he/she depended, or who depended on him/her. Their loss affects so many; their survival enhances so many.
As I noted earlier, Nansen’s diary is many things, but at one level it is an attempt to give a face, and personal story, or at least some recognition, to each individual he encountered, to bestow some dignity on them, notwithstanding their condition. For example, on the morning of Thursday, October 21, 1943, newly arrived at Sachsenhausen, Nansen describes morning roll call, which he likens to “a giant anthill that has been stirred with a stick”; where one encounters “abuse, kicks, and even blows” in the all-important struggle not to be late to one’s assigned place. Along the way to his spot that morning, Nansen stumbled over a “little Ukrainian.” Nansen doesn’t curse, he doesn’t kick, rather he describes what he witnessed: “[the Ukrainian] muttered something down there in the depths—looked up with a dirty, melancholy face, a beseeching pair of blue eyes—and then he vanished in the throng.”
We’ll never know the Ukrainian’s name, nor his fate (although one can guess), but at least he was, even for the briefest of seconds, something more than just a statistic.
Nansen’s ability to record life in the camps was limited, of course, by the very nature of a camp such as Sachsenhausen; in the above example Nansen has only enough time to absorb the image before he and the Ukrainian were separated in the maelstrom. Moreover, Nansen was writing a diary, busy recording events, impressions, and feelings as they occurred. We readers, on the other hand, have the luxury of pursuing each “backstory” (if there is one) to see where they lead.
Through my research on Nansen’s diary I have learned the backstory of many individuals; some that Nansen met, some whose story he recorded, as well as some he knew nothing about, but whose life was nevertheless intertwined in some way with his. And of course I have learned so much more about Nansen as well.
My aim in this blog is to share with you some of these stories, of tragedy, of death, but also of survival and inspiration.
(Of course, I plan to talk of many other things as well. I hope in any event that you enjoy, engage and learn, as I have learned, and still am learning, of this fascinating man, the terrifying world he endured for forty months, and much else besides.)