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.
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.”