Art or gimmick? The Holocaust told in 1 word, 6 million times
While many Jewish leaders in the United States have embraced the book, some Holocaust educators consider it a gimmick.
The New York Times
JERUSALEM — There is no plot, and the characters are woefully undeveloped. On the up side, it can be a quick read, especially considering its 1,250 pages.
The book, more art than literature, consists of the single word “Jew,” in tiny type, printed 6 million times to signify the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. It is meant as a coffee-table monument of memory, a conversation starter and thought provoker.
“When you look at this at a distance, you can’t tell whether it’s upside-down or right-side-up, you can’t tell what’s here; it looks like a pattern,” said Phil Chernofsky, the author, though that term may be a stretch. “That’s how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.
“Now get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a ‘Jew,’ ” he continued. “That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and aunts and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state where you look at one word, ‘Jew,’ you look at one Jew, you focus on it and then your mind starts to go because who is he, where did he live, what did he want to do when he grew up?”
The concept is not original. More than a decade ago, eighth-graders in a Tennessee town set out to collect 6 million paper clips, as chronicled in a 2004 documentary. The anonymity of victims and the scale of the destruction is also expressed in the seemingly endless piles of shoes and eyeglasses on exhibit at former death camps in Eastern Europe.
Gefen Publishing, a Jerusalem company, imagines this book, “And Every Single One Was Someone,” making a similar statement in every church and synagogue, school and library.
While many Jewish leaders in the United States have embraced the book, some Holocaust educators consider it a gimmick. It takes the opposite tack of a multimillion-dollar effort over many years by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, that has documented the identities of 4.3 million Jewish victims. These fill the monumental “Book of Names,” 6 ½ -feet-tall and 46-feet in circumference, which was unveiled last summer at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
“We have no doubt that this is the right way to deal with the issue,” said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director. “We understand that human life, human beings, individuals are at the center of our research and education. This is the reason we are investing so much in trying to retrieve every single human being, his name, and details about his life.”
Shalev declined to address the new book directly, but said dismissively: “Every year we have 6,000 books published about the Shoah,” using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.
The book’s backers do not deny its gimmickry — Chernofsky used the Yiddish word “shtick” — but see it as a powerful one.
“Almost everyone who looks at the book cannot stop flipping the pages,” said Ilan Greenfield, Gefen’s chief executive. “Even after they’ve looked at 10 pages and they know they’re only going to see the same word, they keep flipping.”
The Gefen catalog lists the book for $60, but Greenfield said individual copies would probably sell for closer to $90. Greenfield said his goal was eventually to print 6 million copies of “And Every Single One Was Someone.”
The idea dates back decades to a Queens middle school in New York, where Chernofsky taught math, science and Jewish studies and, one year, was put in charge of the bulletin board for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I gave them blank paper and I said, no talking for the next 30 minutes — that was a pleasure,” recalled Chernofsky, 65, who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Israel 32 years ago. “I said, ‘I want you to write the word Jew as many times as you can, no margins, just pack them in, just take another paper and another paper until I say stop.’
“We added up the whole class,” he added. “It was 40,000 — nothing.”
As for the book, each page has 40 columns of 120 lines — 4,800 “Jews.” The font is Minion; the size, 5.5 point. The book weighs 7.3 pounds.
“Harry Potter, in seven volumes, used 1.1 million words,” noted Chernofsky, a devotee who has a Quidditch broom hanging in his office at the Orthodox Union, where he is the educational director. “This has 6 million in it, so I outdid J.K. Rowling.”