History By Numbers By Laura Huffman

Stalin famously said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of ten million is a statistic.”

I knew going in that it would be nearly impossible to wrap my head around the numbers of those killed in the Holocaust. And yet I spent today, the morning at least, focusing on numbers. 

Our group of teachers-turned-students started the first full day of our experience abroad visiting the Polin Museum, which sits on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and tells the story of Jewish life in Poland over the last 1000 years. 

As our distinguished scholar Natalia Aleksium taught us about Natan Rapoport’s powerful memorial which stands outside the museum at the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto, the former reporter in me furiously took down notes and numbers. When was this erected? 1948. 

The front: Battle

The reverse: The March

Inside the museum we came full circle: from a time over 1000 years ago when there were no Jews in Poland, to a time when there were millions, to now when no one can give you a concrete number. One suggestion of how to improve Holocaust education we read about was to talk about Jewish life before and then again after. This museum understood the assignment. 

Throughout the room after room that told the story of Jewish life in Poland in a dazzlingly visceral way, I took more pictures and scribbled more notes  filled with yet more numbers and statistics. 

But as I sat at lunch, the moment that stayed with me was this one:

No numbers.

I am not Jewish. But I am a mother. Like Stella, I, too, gave birth to a son. The thought of another mother giving birth while in hiding in the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto, unable to nurse him, to protect and provide for her child – well, that gutted me. I could feel her despair. What does one do when everything is out of your control, and you’re just trying to survive?

1943 is also the year my own mother was born. What if her mother had been Stella Fidelseid? 

What if I gave birth not in a hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, but in a ghetto, or a more modern war zone, like Sudan or Ukraine? 

My pregnancy had complications; my doctor and hospital were prepared to help me with those. There was no one to help Stella. 

I, too, had difficulty nursing, but there was formula to fill in. Stella didn’t have that luxury. 

Yes, we are both mothers of sons, but from that point on, the similarities cease. 

My son is 17 and thriving. What about Stella’s own precious baby boy? Did he have a name? Did she survive? By some miracle, did he? 

Was it Dorothy Parker who once said that the problem with Americans is that we want a tragedy with a happy ending? 

Stella’s son did not survive. He died of hunger a few days later. 

I don’t know how anyone survives the death of a child. But Stella’s story is not of one death. Like so many of the precious few who survived the Holocaust, she suffered so many more: including her parents and her sister at the nearby death camp of Treblinka and her husband, a doctor who committed suicide at the camp at Madjanek. 

During the Warsaw uprising, she fled from burning bunker to burning bunker, hiding on roofs and under sheets of metal. In one of those bunkers, she welcomed her baby boy into the world, but was unable to keep him there. 

How does one attempt to survive so much loss? Her entire family – three generations, gone. 

But Stella did survive. She jumped through the ghetto wall, and was deported to Germany with other survivors. She saw the liberation of her own camp. 

She moved to Israel in 1950 and miraculously remarried, settling in Brazil, where she had a baby girl, Anett. Her life went on. She made a new family on a new continent on the other side of the world, living into the new century. She died in 2001, at the age of 82. 

I’ve been teaching for 23 years. Students reach out years later and tell me the stories I’ve shared in countless lectures over the years and how they’ve stayed with them. They may not remember the details, but they do remember the story. 

The death of one man is a tragedy. 

Later in the afternoon we visited the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw on Okopowa Street. We saw the individual gravestones of Polish Jews going back centuries. Further on, we saw the mass graves of some 100,000 souls who died in the ghetto; their families unable to bury them, to follow the Jewish law. Is Stella’s son here? 

How does one wrap their head around 100,000? Tomorrow we visit what is left of Treblinka, where Stella’s parents and sister died. On Wednesday, we will visit Majdanek, where she lost her husband. On Friday, Auschwitz. Each one charnel houses of mass murder. Numbers beyond our comprehension. Easy to reduce to statistics. But each of those souls whose lives were cut short was some father’s daughter or some mother’s son, like Stella’s. Throughout the day, I heard the lyrics of the song from the musical Hamilton in my head: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

I will, Stella. From one mother of a son to another, I will. 

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