This Filmmaker Dares to Question the Figure of 6 Million Jewish Victims in WWII
Published January 16, 2022
How did the devastating, albeit too round number of 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust become so profoundly embedded in our minds? In his new documentary Israeli filmmaker David Fisher dares to try and recount
David Fisher. 'There is pressure from the establishment and Holocaust survivors to preserve the symbols that have been set.'Credit: Hadas Parush
Six million. This number has been present in our lives now for over seven decades. It is always there hovering above us – an inseparable part of our historical memory, permanently weighing upon the collective subconscious of this place. How could it be otherwise, really? The Nazi death machine in World War II was so industrialized and focused and meticulously planned that it still defies comprehension, and maybe only such a vast and incomprehensible number like six million can echo it, can convey the very idea of it to the masses.
This number has become hallowed and seared into everyone’s consciousness, an iconic symbol of the Holocaust of the Jewish people. But who determined that this was really the number of Jews who were killed during the war? Who counted, and how? And what exactly ought to be counted here? Should the tally include all the Jews who died in Europe during the Holocaust? Should Jews who died a natural death be excluded from the count? When exactly did the Holocaust start and when did it end? And is it correct to only count the Jews who were killed during the war itself, or must one also include those killed from the time Hitler came to power? And what about those who died as a consequence of the war, but after it was over? Are they also included in the six million?
Several years ago, these questions began to nag David Fisher. Interviewed earlier this month on the balcony of his Tel Aviv home, the 65-year-old filmmaker says it all started with a visit to the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem a decade ago. When he noticed the institution’s logo, with six branches symbolizing the six million, he suddenly began to wonder about this number. When he asked someone on staff how they got to that number, he was told that it is not a precise figure. “But if we were to find out now that it’s five million – would we have to go and change our symbol? It’s going to stay the same, six million, forever,” the employee told him.
But when you watch Fisher’s new documentary, “The Round Number,” you understand that it’s not a matter of laziness, or due to the Israeli penchant for cutting corners. In the movie, which premiered at the last Jerusalem Film Festival and aired on HOT 8 this week, Fisher sets out to talk with a series of esteemed Holocaust scholars, to see how it was determined that six million Jews died in the Holocaust and how this number came to be so enshrined in our minds.
None of the scholars he spoke with was prepared to confirm the number. In fact, most of them are seen trying to distance themselves from it to some degree, and implying that, historically, it may not be that accurate. Ben-Gurion University historian Hanna Yablonka seems to be the only one who is ready to say so openly. “No historian today will tell you that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust,” the professor says in the film.
However, nearly all the scholars appearing in the documentary agree that this figure has become so identified with the memory of the Holocaust that it mustn’t be touched. And some do not try to hide their dismay at Fisher’s attempt to question it. “If you’re not careful, this film could become a tool in the hands of Holocaust deniers,” one of them scolds him. The importance of this number long ago exceeded the issue of historical accuracy, the experts tell him.. It long ago became one of the symbols most closely identified with the Holocaust, and it is very important that a symbol like that be preserved; it must be defended.
But Fisher is insistent. Having grown up as the child of Holocaust survivors, and after making a number of films related to World War II, he is not about to relent.
“In his diary, my father wrote that when he and his family arrived at Auschwitz, he and his father were sent to the ‘side of life’ and everyone else in the family was sent to their death. But his father vanished very soon afterward and he never saw him again,” Fisher tells Haaretz. “For all these years, we presumed that my grandfather was murdered there. But when I went to the Auschwitz archive, I didn’t find any record of him. He wasn’t in the ledgers of the dead, he wasn’t in the lists of the liberated. I searched other archives too – and found nothing. And then I thought: Maybe he wasn’t killed. Maybe he survived. Maybe he started another family after the war. And in that case – is he included in the count of the six million or not? And how many more cases like that are there?”
Fisher understood that the difficulty of determining the number of Jews killed in the war was not a unique case. “It’s not only in the Holocaust. In all the other genocides, there are no exact figures,” he says. “Like Omer Bartov (a professor of history) says in the film, one of the characteristics of genocide is that there are no exact numbers, because the killers did not think of their victims as human beings, they only wanted to kill them all. So in other places, too, where there have been genocides – like Armenia and Darfur – we don’t know an exact number [of victims]. By contrast, if you look, for example, at the casualties in all of Israel’s wars, you can see exactly how many there were. Because there is someone who counts, there is someone who cares, each one of them has a name.”
Fisher says that when he embarked on his quest, he had no illusions that he would find another figure that would represent the real number of Holocaust victims. “I wasn’t trying to do a count myself and I didn’t seek out people who were involved in the counting. But I was surprised to discover that there is a fairly well-known British scholar, Gerald Reitlinger, who says the number of Jewish Holocaust victims was 4.2 million. And that one of the biggest scholars, Raul Hilberg, says 5.1 million. In recent years, Father Patrick Desbois (a French Catholic priest), who took it upon himself to uncover mass killing pits in the former Soviet Union in which Jews were murdered, found that more than a million people were killed that way. That’s a number that should ostensibly be added to the six million – in other words, perhaps one should say there were more than seven million murdered. So I was curious where this number six million came from, and how it became so fixed and so sanctified that people warn you to leave it alone.”
A scene from 'The Round Number.' 'As the years go by, researchers get closer to the truth.'Credit: Claudio Steinberg/HOT
While working on the documentary, Fisher says he was surprised to find out that there are no absolute definitions or answers to many things, such as to the question of precisely when the Holocaust occurred: “Even though it is a historic event, there are as many answers as there are scholars. Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer said to me, ‘In the hallways of Yad Vashem, we stand and shout at each other. Don’t go thinking that we agree on everything, that we’re unanimous.’”
One of the most interesting moments in the film is your encounter with the Hebrew University professor, when he tells you that the matter of the figure of six million is “totally unimportant,” that the questions you’re asking him are “trivial” and that what matters is that the Holocaust is the most extreme instance of genocide that ever was.
“I knew that what he would tell me that, so it was important to me to go to him.”
Hearing things like that from someone who’s considered the preeminent Holocaust scholar today – that didn’t discourage you?
Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer said to me, ‘In the hallways of Yad Vashem, we stand and shout at each other.Credit: Mikael Sjberg/Government offic
“On the contrary. When I’m told don’t touch, I touch. When I’m told it’s not important, I understand that for me it’s the most important. To me, touching on this number is an attempt to touch the establishment. The number six million has become an institution, and I wanted to stick a pin in it to try to understand where this number came from. Bauer says something there that is true in itself: ‘If you find out that it’s five million and not six million, so what? Does that make the Nazis any less bad?’ The uniqueness of the Holocaust is that Nazi Germany decided it wished to eliminate all the Jews. But ultimately, history is written by people who want to be accurate.”
Scholars appearing in your movie also warn you that unpacking this number could provide ammunition for Holocaust deniers.
“Yes, there are still some people who think that. Some people I consulted with about screening the movie around the world told me that it’s okay to show it in Israel but not abroad. But as I see it, the Holocaust deniers exhausted their arguments in David Irving’s famous trial against Deborah Lipstadt. The verdict in this trial said that Holocaust denial has no validity. Bauer said to me, ‘When a Holocaust denier wants a comment, I know that he looks up at the sky, sees the moon and says that it’s cheese. So what is there for us to talk about?’ And all the knowledge that has been amassed through research by now really does mean that Holocaust denial is meaningless – except to their audience, which doesn’t care at all about the truth.
“I said to Bauer: Give me one question that I mustn’t ask; tell me where the red line is that I must not cross. But he said, ‘There is no such thing. If you’re motivated by a genuine desire to know – ask anything, because that’s the only way we can learn about what was and what will be.’ Until a few years ago, you couldn’t ask a Holocaust survivor how they survived, because who knows what they had to do in order to survive. There were subjects that were taboo, that you couldn’t touch, such as women who sold their bodies to survive, and Jews who were kapos. But lately everything is really starting to be opened up to research and questions.”
Will you not show the movie abroad then?
Adolf Eichmann's trial, from 'The Round Number.'Credit: HOT
“Quite the contrary. I want to screen it in the lion’s den, in places where I’m most liable to be told that I shouldn’t.”
Including before Holocaust deniers who might say the film supports their claim that the number six million is highly exaggerated?
“Yes, screening the film to Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis is my way of dealing with them. In the movie, I ratify the number six million, I don’t question it. Not in the usual sense of numerical accuracy, but in the sense of the magnitude of the crime against humanity that occurred. If I were to go to Holocaust deniers today, I would tell them, for example, that it’s true that in 1945 it was known that four million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz, and 50 years later it was known that ‘only’ a million and a half people were killed there, out of whom one million were Jews. When I heard about this discovery, I asked myself: How is it possible, then, that the six million number was not reduced accordingly? It bothered me. But now that I know the answer is not statistical and that it is not taken into account in the calculation, as is explained in the film – I get it.”
‘Closer to the truth’
David Fisher has been directing documentaries for three decades, and many center around the theme of the Holocaust. “Both my parents lived life as victims. To me it’s not six million, but six million and two,” he says in “The Round Number.”
American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.Credit: Richard Vogel / AP
In one of his better-known films, “Love Inventory” (2000), he recruited his brothers to help him uncover a family secret that was buried for years (The film won an Ophir Prize and was named to Best Documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival). In another of his films, “Six Million and One” (2011), he again got his brothers – attorney Ronel Fisher and musician Amnon Fisher – to join him on a journey inspired by their father’s Holocaust diary, which was discovered after his death.
The subject of this latest cinematic effort made raising funds challenging. Fisher relates that when he approached European networks such as BBC and Arte, they wouldn’t touch the subject for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism or of cheapening the Holocaust. Even the fact that American documentary director Errol Morris came on board as one of the producers (Fisher had met Morris a few years previously, when he was studying at Yale) was not enough to overcome their resistance. When Israeli film funds also declined to support the project, Fisher had to add his own money to the support he received from HOT 8.
Fisher was undaunted, determined to find answers to the questions gnawing at him. While working on “The Round Number,” he says he learned that, among scholars, the estimate of the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust is constantly changing.
“Right after the war, it was said that 580,000 Jews were killed in Majdanek (concentration camp in Poland). A year or two later, it went down to 360,000, and a few years after that to 160,000, and in the most recent study, the number of Jews murdered there was found to be 58,000. As the years go by, researchers get closer to the truth,” he explains. “While I was researching the subject, I found out that the establishment is very resistant to changes, and it takes time until the official numbers are altered. In the early 1990s, for instance, when the new number of those murdered at Auschwitz came out – a million and a half, of them 1.1 million Jews – there were experts who came out against the ones who came up with this number and said they were antisemitic. It took time for this number to be accepted.”
Another person Fisher interviewed was historian Dr. Avraham Milgram, an expert in contemporary Jewry, whom he says is the only one at Yad Vashem who’s studied the issue of numbers intensely over the years. “He told me that by posing my question, I am placing myself between history and memory,” Fisher says. “He explained that if he were to tell the present generation that it’s not six million but a smaller number, that would harm the memory of the Holocaust, and he is not willing to do that. However, in his academic work as a scholar, he will give the accurate number. In other words, for the sake of preserving the memory of the Holocaust, whether justified or not – and I think it’s not – he and other scholars are not prepared, at least right now, to touch the six million number, because there is pressure from the establishment and Holocaust survivors to preserve the symbols that have been set.”
In other words, scholars have known for years that six million is not an accurate number, but no one says so, so as not to damage the symbol.
“Yes, and they won’t say so either.”
So where did the figure of six million actually come from? Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Dan Michman notes in Fisher’s documentary that, two months after the war, Vilna Ghetto leader Abba Kovner gave a speech to the Jewish Brigade in Italy in which he said, “Gentlemen, we lost six million of our brethren.” Also mentioned in the film is the fact that, as early as 1944, Eliezer Ungar, a leader of the Hashomer Hadati movement, said at a convention of the Religious Kibbutz Movement that “six million of our brethren have been murdered in the war”; that quote appeared in a newspaper report the next day.
Fisher: “I got that this number was meant to give expression to the number of Jews who lived in the countries that were occupied by the Nazis, but I never understood how it came about. But then I went back further and discovered that in 1936, Chaim Weizmann, later the president of Israel, stood before the Zionist Congress and warned about economic danger posed to six million Jews. And then I came across an investigation conducted by Holocaust deniers that contained examples from early 20th-century newspapers in which the number six million was cited in the context of appeals for aid for the European Jewish community during various times of crises, such as after World War I. On the other hand, the population [of Jews in Europe] grew between the end of World War I and the start of World War II, so how did the number remain six million? Why didn’t it grow too?”
“The Round Number” paints a picture that shows that history is not mathematics, and that more than a few political and other considerations affect the way our memory of it is shaped.
“The movie doesn’t provide all the answers,” Fisher explains, “but it does signal to viewers that if something has become set in stone – we should still question it, because that is the only way we can go on learning. After screenings of the film, a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘How did I never think about this before?’ That’s what happens when something is such a clear symbol. One of the things this film talks about is how history is written, how a number becomes a symbol and becomes permanently set. As anthropologist Dr. Carol Kidron says in the film: Holocaust scholars aren’t interested in finding exact numbers, because as long as the number is round, the research will be alive, and that serves the scholarly establishment.”
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