Readings: One Book, Six Million Jews

The new this-should-be-talked-about book is a big one—1,250 pages of 6 million words —yet, it’s a quick read. All 6 million words are the same one word, only printed 6 million times. The author, Phil Chernofsky, tells the New York Times that each word —Jew—symbolizes how the Nazis viewed their victims during the Holocaust, not as individuals, not as people, “but just a mass we have to exterminate.” Yes, Chernofsky admits. it’s a gimmick, but its goal, he says, is to make you think when you look carefully at the page: “That Jew could be you,” your brother, uncle, aunt. The word makes you wonder who this particular Jew really was, “what did he want to do when he grew up?” In short he wants the reader to see the universal in the particular.

Some Holocaust educators are not pleased. They have spent millions of dollars over the years building memorials and museums that identify the victims by name, give them faces and real histories, which they believe are much more likely to stir the imagination, the memory and understanding. So far they have identified 4.3 million victims now named at the monument in Auschwitz.

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Is this book a good idea? To some the Nazi death camps were a uniquely Jewish experience. To other nations and religions the death camps were a shared tragedy. Though the vast majority of the victims were Jewish, other faiths have both their anonymous lost thousands and individual martyr-saints who died alongside the Jews.  Terese Pencak Schwartz in “The Holocaust: Non-Jewish Victims,” recounts that of the 11 million killed, 6 million were Polish citizens. Three million were Polish Jews and another 3 million were Christians. The remaining were from 7 other countries, including France and Germany.

If this book repeating one word millions of times is a good idea, should its concept be repeated? Though millions of Catholics and other religions died in concentration camps, many died because they harbored Jews, and it was not always necessarily their specific Catholic identity that condemned them. With that in mind, perhaps the best criterion on how we remember and celebrate our war dead might be whether it will contribute to world peace.

There is nothing more powerful in the Old Testament than Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. He forgives and embraces the very family members who sold him into slavery. Joseph anticipates the parables in Luke on loving one’s enemy and the stranger.

The more a religious group—this goes for Catholics as well as Jews—focuses on its own sufferings the more remote it becomes, from both the rest of its culture and the rest of the world. Both the Christian and Jewish religions will survive and thrive to the extent that they are open to and understand one another, respect the rights of their neighbors and work for peace and justice, particularly in the Middle East. And somewhere along the line, as the citizens of South Africa learned, to achieve peace requires that we forgive our enemies.

Read Peter Beinart’s “The American Jewish Cocoon” in The New York Review of Books. Addressing his fellow Jews, he lists the many incidents where Jews and Palestinians in both the United States and the Middle East have failed to learn the truth about one another. He concludes, “By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we were a stateless people, living at the mercy of others. And by recognizing the way statelessness threatens Palestinians dignity, we ensure that statehood doesn’t rob us of our own.”

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Chris Pramuk
3 years 9 months ago
Thank you Fr. Schroth for this brave and provocative piece, provocative in the way the biblical call to forgiveness provokes and interrupts. How we remember the dead – and affirm the living – through the written and spoken word, seems to me the heartbeat of your piece. Your appeal to Joseph, who spoke a “living word” of forgiveness to his brothers, is especially moving. The alternative kind of speech – “never forget, never forgive” – drives the drumbeat of war ad nauseam. Whether the word “Jew” written (and read) millions of times can be a healing word, a word of life, or is a provocation for resentment and revenge will depend, it seems, on the disposition in which the reader contemplates the text. This I think is the challenge Fr. Schroth puts before us, whether the “text” be a literal book, or the book of life itself in present-day Israel, Egypt, or the United States. “The more a religious group—this goes for Catholics as well as Jews—focuses on its own sufferings the more remote it becomes, from both the rest of its culture and the rest of the world.” The same danger - a form of solipsism, rooted not just in differences but in historical trauma - obtains in so much of our racial and political discourse. Who really wants to take the much more demanding road and admit that “the Other,” the object of our fear and scorn, "could be you"? To love, to forgive, to feel empathy, even (especially) while seeking justice, requires enormous spiritual discipline (think Dr. King, Gandhi). Were I the object of systematic violence or racism on the scale these forces still churn through the world, I don't know if I could find the resources to remember rightly. From a Christian point of view, I feel resurrection faith is pivotal: that one feels and believes (hopes!) the dead are not gone forever, but still with us, and calling us (like Joseph, like Jesus) to reconciliation. Their words of life endure in our acts of peacemaking. Fr. Schroth, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film (or book) “The Book Thief,” and its treatment of language, memory, and the written word, by comparison (or by contrast) with Chernofsky’s book. My own thoughts here. http://www.hopesingssobeautiful.org/index.php/2014/01/30/the-terrible-beauty-and-power-of-language/
Kevin McGrath
3 years 9 months ago
It should never be forgotten that there was another people who were systematically murdered in the Holocaust. Like the Jews, the Gypsies of Europe were the target of genocide. And while antisemitism is rightly recognised as an abomination in the wake of the holocaust, persecution of Gypsies and revilement in mainstream papers continues to this day, and is even increasing.

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