Nazis Boasted About Six Million Holocaust Victims. But It Was a Jew Who First Cited That Figure

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.

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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.