A historian embarks on a pioneering archival journey to discover the first time that someone used the number
Eliezer Unger pictured with students in an undated photograph from the time he was a principle in a school in Montevideo, Uruguay. Photo Unger family
On January 21, 1944, about a year and a half before the end of World War II, a dramatic item was published on the front page of Haaretz. Under the headline “Six million Jewish victims,” it brought unusual testimony for the time about the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. “Six million – that’s the calculation made by two young men in a meeting with members of their party organizations in Palestine,” the report said.
“With pencil in hand they counted the number of victims in each country and reached an astonishing number – 6 million Jews were murdered and killed and died in Nazi-occupied countries in death camps, concentration camps, labor camps and the various ghettos,” the article said.
Despite its importance, the piece was published in a marginal spot on the page, between other items and adjacent to congratulatory messages and an ad for a hotel that offered “direct bus service to the Tiberias Hot Springs.” There was no byline nor was the identity of the two young men mentioned.
The item was discovered last year by historian Joel Rappel of Bar-Ilan University’s Institute of Holocaust Research. Rappel embarked on a pioneering archival journey in an attempt to discover the first time that someone used the number 6 million in regard to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, “the horrifying and familiar number that has long since become an icon,” he said. His discovery proves that even 75 years after the end of the Holocaust, it is still possible to reveal new details about a subject that has seemingly been researched from every possible angle.
“Like every Israeli who grew up in this country, I knew from a young age that the number 6 million is always mentioned in connection to the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust,” says Rappel, 73, who lives in Yavne. He is the son of Rabbi Prof. Dov Rappel, a Jewish educational philosophy researcher. After reading hundreds of books and articles about the Holocaust, and even perusing many documents that have never been published as part of his work as the director of the Elie Wiesel Archive at Boston University, Rappel realized that despite the research controversy regarding the precise number of victims, “in our consciousness the number remains 6 million.”
The website of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center states that “all the serious research confirms that the number of victims ranges between five and six million.” Various studies cited by Yad Vashem indicate different numbers based on population censuses from before and after the war, and on Nazi documents containing data about expulsions and extermination.
In the Yad Vashem database there are about 6.5 million listings of victims, but they include double entries – people who appear on more than one list. According to Yad Vashem’s estimates, once the double listings are removed, the database contains about 4.8 million names. The rest of the names have yet to be discovered, and may never be known.
Yet the question remained: Who was the first to mention the number 6 million, even before the historical studies were conducted and before the Pages of Testimony were collected by Yad Vashem. According to the remembrance center, the number was etched in people’s consciousness due to a statement by Adolf Eichmann, who served as an “expert” on Jewish affairs in the Nazi regime. In August 1944 he boasted about it to his colleagues, estimating the number of Jews murdered in the camps at 4 million, with 2 million others murdered by other methods. This testimony was revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, held in Germany immediately after the war
Rappel, who refuses to accept facts without checking their source, looked into it and found a different answer. It turns out that Eichmann was preceded by a Jewish Holocaust survivor, who early in 1944 reported the number 6 million. The man’s name, Eliezer Unger, is not familiar to the general public. Unger was a prominent activist in the Hashomer Hadati religious Zionist youth movement in Poland. At the height of the war, after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, he crossed the border to Slovakia and then through Hungary on his way to Palestine. When he left Europe he vowed “to shock the entire world, all of humanity and our brothers the Children of Israel in particular.”
A few months ago, Rappel found a formative document connected to Unger in the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. As he puts it, it was “a single document that brought about a major change in direction in the research.” It is the minutes of a meeting, under the headline “A statement by Eliezer Unger at a meeting of all the pioneering organizations, on January 19, 1944.” It turns out that two days after arriving in Palestine, when the Holocaust was still raging on European soil, Unger had difficult and painful things to say in the presence of the country’s Zionist leadership.
“Polish Jewry is extinct and no longer exists. Polish soil is a sacred grave of Polish and European Jewry. I could have brought you a sacred gift: a clod of earth from Polish soil suffused with the blood of a nation, which has died a martyr’s death,” was how Unger began. Later he mentioned the specific number, noting that other reports say that the number of murdered Jews was “only” 2 million.
“In early April 1943, on the clandestine radio, we heard about the outcry of Rabbi Stephen Wise [one of the leaders of U.S. Jewry] about 2 million Jews who were exterminated in Poland. We heard and were surprised: Didn’t the world know as yet that the number of the nation’s dead has already reached 6 million?” he said.
The front page of Haaretz from January 21, 1944. The "Six million" article is in the left column, above the announcements in outlined boxes.Haaretz archive
Several hours after his first speech, Unger also spoke at the convention of Hakibbutz Hameuhad kibbutz movement, which convened at Kibbutz Givat Brenner. There he cried out that “Six million martyrs are gone.” Two days later, his words made it to the front page of Haaretz.
Yes, a year and a half before the end of World War II – and before hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were murdered – it was a Jewish Zionist and not a Nazi officer who mentioned the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, which later became a symbol.
But his words did not make much of an impression. Rappel’s father, who knew Unger personally, told his son how Unger “went from one synagogue to another, mounted the dais, with and without permission, and cried out on behalf of the Jews who still remained alive in Europe.” In most of them, unfortunately, they didn’t want to hear his words and “threw him out of the synagogue – literally and physically,” says Rappel.
How did Unger know about the outcome of the Holocaust in real time, before the killing had ended? “At the time the number 6 million was the accepted number of European Jews,” says Rappel. He found reinforcement for his claim in other newspapers, where they warned of the fate of “6 million Jews,” even after Unger had spoken.
About 15 years later, during Eichmann’s trial, chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner said that “In the consciousness of the nation the number 6 million has become sanctified.” But he added: “It’s not so simple to prove that. We did not use this number in any official document, but it became sanctified.” Now, thanks to Rappel, historical research had added another layer for understanding the context for the number.
The “sanctified number” six millions can be found in many writings, amongst others The New York Times, from 1891. Max Nordau, cofounder with Theodor Herzl of the Zionist Organization, speaking at the 10th Zionist Congress in 1911, stated: “But the same righteous Governments, who are so nobly, industriously active to establish the eternal peace, are preparing, by their own confession, complete annihilation for six million people”. Self-fulfilling prophecy?