How numbers became people

how numbers

The day I came back from the visit to the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück in Germany  I made with my students from the teacher training College in Holland University, I started writing down my experiences. I was quite proud of what I had written. Beautiful descriptions of our first impressions when we entered the camp terrain. The first thing we saw was the grand villas of the SS-officers and the camp guards, right in the luscious forest. It is hard to imagine that this had been a place of so much horror and pain. I wrote down how impressed we were to find in the exhibition space all the little presents that the women made for each other from scratch, little figurines carved out of tooth brush handles, messages of love written on pieces of paper bags, even embroidered handkerchiefs made from cloth and yarn which women secretly had taken from the workplace where they had to sew the uniforms of the German army.

I even found words to describe the crematorium, where we were allowed to come so close to the ovens, that we could touch the handles of the metal stretchers on which the women were pushed into the fire. The pain of the women forced to do this work of horror, the thoughts and fears of who-is-next still tangible in the room.

And then my computer crashed. And all my lustrous words, the horror wrapped in beauty, disappeared. Nowhere to be found again. And I couldn’t retrieve them, not on my computer and not in my head.

May it be so that there are no words to describe this; this side of humanity that is also part of us? May there be space within me to just feel and not understand, to not glaze over the utter inhumanity which the women in this place experienced, with my words. Are there ever any words to express the life lived by other people? Do I have the right to attempt this? The only truth I can express is the truth of my own life. The truth of my own heart. The truth of my own inner war between darkness and light.

Ultimately I am responsible for bringing peace instead of war. And every human being is grand in this mission. Because it is not in the great gestures and wars won that humanity persists, but in the choices made from moment to moment.

Victor Frankl, survivor of the camps, wrote in his book man’s search for meaning : “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

So, how can I choose peace in any circumstance? How can I try to understand a human being, so as to make choices wich give life to all of us? My friends, my enemies, my neighbors, my family? Not with my mind, not with my imagination, but with my heart. Empathy means em-pathos, which is something like: in-suffering, in-feeling. You try to recognize the feeling of the other person in yourself. How else is that possible then with love? Frankl again:

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of whom he could be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

Now it’s two weeks later, the day of celebration and remembering the end of the war in the Netherlands, the 5th of May. Last night I watched the commemoration ceremony on television. Thousands of people who treasure this day as an incentive to always choose peace over violence. Many young people, more than in the years before.

And in the two minutes of silence I thought of all the stories I had heard in Ravensbrück. And the numbers, the incredible numbers, received a face. Like one of my students said: ‘in Auschwitz I was horrified by the immensity of the destruction, here in Ravensbrück it is the human stories that leave scars in my heart’.

It would have been easy, and sometimes it was a relief when stories where such, because nuances can be confronting, to see history in black and white: those are the bad guys, these are the good guys. And how beautiful it was at the same time to see the eagerness of these young students to hear stories of goodness in the midst of the horror, to see humanity in the starving faces of the victims and in the empty faces of the people who had caused all this.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

― Viktor E. Frankl

Freedom is a human right, but is not to be taken for granted. It is to be treasured and it is to be chosen.

Eén keer vaker


Eén keer vaker kijken,
naar de foto aan de muur,
van mijn opa in het uniform,
strijdend voor mijn vrijheid,
ging hij dwars door het vuur.


Eén keer vaker strijden,
dan dat je werkelijk kon,
strijdend tot aan het einde,
omdat je met opgeven
de oorlog niet won.


Eén keer vaker liefhebben,
hen die ons zijn ontgaan,
opdat de herinnering blijft leven,
opdat we niet vergeten
wat zij voor ons hebben gedaan.


Eén keer vaker denken,
aan die verleden tijd,
die zelfs in het heden,
in de wereld om ons heen
voor altijd zichtbaar blijft.


Eén keer vaker…


Maureen de Witte

Geschreven en voorgelezen

Dodenherdenking Amsterdam

4 mei 2019



One time more


One time more looking

At the picture on the wall

My grandfather in uniform.

Fighting for my freedom

He went through the fire.


One time more struggling

While you couldn’t

Struggling to the end

Because you don’t win

Wars with quitting


One time more loving

Those that left us

So that the memory lives on

So that we don’t forget

What they have done for us.


One time more thinking

Of times gone by

That even in the present

In the world around us

Will be alive forever.


One time more….


Maureen de Witte

Written and read

Commemoration WW2 Amsterdam

4 mei 2019



Monique de Jong

One thought on “How numbers became people

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