What does a number mean? The 12 million of the Holocaust, 6 million of them Jews . . . the 3 million at Auschwitz alone . . . Is it possible to understand?

On a foggy morning at Birkenau, the Auschwitz annex where the ovens were, you stand in deep grass at a long-abandoned railway siding, and suddenly you realize this was the place where the trains stopped, where the people were lined up and marched off to the shacks or beyond that row of poplars to the showers.

It is not a good place to stand. Some force compels you to move away from there. And then you look past the barbed wire to the shacks, which the Nazis burned in the last days. Each shack had two brick chimneys and housed 1,100 slaves in a space designed for about 20. The average life span was one month, but the population never flagged. It grew steadily, and at the war's end yet another major expansion was on the drawing boards.

You look at those pairs of fire-blackened chimneys, and there are dozens of them. And the fog lifts a little, and you see it is not dozens but hundreds and hundreds, and more hundreds behind them, in all directions, covering the great plain to the horizon. And you do the arithmetic. And maybe, for a minute or two, you almost grasp it.

Scholars say that Western literature, founded on the individual tragic figures of Greek and Christian tradition, simply is not equipped to cope with the tragedy of an entire people. But the Jews themselves, inheritors of a thousand years of hatred, pogroms and persecution, have learned a way to write about these things.

It is a tradition of short tales, parables perhaps, anecdotes with an upbeat ending, an ancient tradition beginning with the Midrash of the scriptures and brought to a high art by the Hasidim, those eastern Europeans who in the 18th century changed the whole value system of the Jewish community. Instead of concentrating entirely on Talmudic scholarship, they added a note of optimism and gentleness, a sanctification of daily life. They valued their leaders not only for their scholarship but for their human graces.

Hasidic tales, first published in 1814, witty and ironic and homely, say much with little. Like Japanese brush paintings and haiku, they suggest. Perhaps this oblique approach is the only way to comprehend the incomprehensible.

There is now a new book of Hasidic stories: "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust," by Yaffa Eliach, a Judaic scholar at Brooklyn College who herself is a Holocaust survivor. Quite simply, it may come as close as we ever will to understanding those numbers.

Listen:

Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties. Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law. During his morning walk it was the rabbi's custom to greet every man, woman and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial "Good morning." Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.

Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Muller, a Polish German. "Good morning, Herr Muller!" the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields. "Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!" would come the response with a good-natured smile.

Then the war began. The rabbi's strolls stopped abruptly. Herr Muller donned an SS uniform and disappeared from the fields. The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry. He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.

One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood on line with hundreds of other Jews awaiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death. Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton. "Right! Left, left left!" The voice in the distance drew nearer. Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton and steely voice who played God and decided who should live and who should die. He lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:

"Good morning, Herr Muller!"

"Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!" responded a human voice beneath the SS cap adorned with skull and bones. "What are you doing here?" A faint smile appeared on the rabbi's lips. The baton moved to the right--to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.

The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, "This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man."

There are 89 of these true stories in the book. Eliach interviewed over 1,200 people over a period of years, checking the authenticity of details even to the point of touring the camps with President Carter's Holocaust Commission, of which she is a member.

"I learned to listen as a child," she said on a visit here. "We were hidden in a cave, in total darkness for two years, and I learned to listen well."

Her well-to-do family, the Sonensons, had lived near Vilna for some 900 years, and her childhood memories are of pleasant, sunny days picking mushrooms and walking in the forest. For Eliach the war happened in one hour: The town's Jews were rounded up for export. She and her family escaped, but at the cost of her baby brother's life, for he was accidentally smothered as they tried to prevent his crying out.

They lived in a cave under a pigsty, she and a brother and their parents. Her mother taught her Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Polish in the dark. They were liberated by the Russians in 1944, but as soon as they returned to their village they were attacked in a pogrom and her mother and brother were killed, her father taken to Siberia by the KGB.

"Those pogroms were common in Poland then, there were hundreds of such incidents just after the war. Jews would come back from the camps to pick up the wreckage of their lives, and the Poles killed them. When we came back we found Poles living in our home, wearing our clothes," she said.

She moved to Israel, then to this country in 1954, picking up a master's at Brooklyn College and her doctorate at CCNY. She never gave up hoping for her father, who she suspected had been released along with millions of others after Stalin's death ("they wrote on the camp walls with their own blood, 'Long Live Malenkov!' ") and allowed to live in exile in eastern Russia.

"My father always said he would never give his address, never leave an address for the angel of death. I sent letters addressed to him in every Siberian village I could think of. After two years one of them got through, and he came away from Russia."

He still lives in Israel. It was disorienting for him to see his 7-year-old daughter now married and a mother. He has no number on his house, no address.

My father suffered a mild heart attack in Israel. Some time later I was informed of his illness. By then, my father had recovered and was back home from the hospital. Angry that I had not been notified by telephone or cable, I demanded an explanation.

"It is very simple, my child," my father said. "The day that I had my heart attack was the happiest day of my life. As you so well know, I am a veteran of Hitler's ghettoes, Stalin's camps and Arab wars. I have witnessed so much death and suffering and survived it all. At times I wondered if I had a heart at all. This heart attack reassured me that I indeed have one. For how can a man without a heart have a heart attack?"

The stories are tales of hope, even on the march to the ovens. There is an element of the miraculous in some of them. One man tells of coming before the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele in a selection at Auschwitz. As a 13-year-old, his chances of being selected to live were small. His mother had already been taken off to be killed. But the man behind him in line told him to say he was 16, and when Mengele asked, "What is your occupation, boy?" the man behind spoke up:

"Your honor, he is my apprentice. The two of us are among the world's greatest mosaic artists."

Mengele gave them both life. All the months that the youth stayed at Auschwitz, he never could find the old man. "Suddenly it occurred to him," Eliach writes, "that he would never find him, for the old man must have been Elijah the Prophet who was sent by his mother's prayers to save him, a mother's last prayers to save her only beloved son."

The young man survived. He is the stage and film director Jack Garfein.

There are stories about the family Halberstam, which produced 15 generations of rabbis before turning to Hasidism and much later moving to New York and Washington.

There is a tale about a young Polish priest who advised a Catholic friend not to baptize the Jewish refugee orphan she had been entrusted with, but to let him remain a Jew, as his parents had asked. The priest, it turns out, was Karol Wojtyla of Krako'w, Pope John Paul II.

"I have heard so many amazing things," said Eliach. "When I was speaking in San Francisco once, a man came up to me and said he had been a Hasid in Vienna and that during the war he was walking toward the Jewish section when a stranger came up behind him and warned him not to cross the bridge into the ghetto because the Nazis were taking people off to Dachau.

"It was only when he heard me tell about these stories that he realized the stranger hadn't come from the bridge area but had come up from behind and therefore couldn't have known of the roundup. He thought it might have been Elijah."

The power of the Hasidic tale, as this book proves, is that in its modest homeliness it somehow can cope with the worst that can happen to a people and help them prevail.

From the Rabbi of Klausenburg, Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam:

The biggest miracle of all is the one that we, the survivors of the Holocaust, after all that we witnessed and lived through, still believe and have faith in the Almighty God, may His name be blessed. This, my friends, is the miracle of miracles, the greatest miracle ever to have taken place.