Arts, Column

COLUMN: Six Million Lives: Holocaust Art

Six million. The number six is easy enough to comprehend-I can count to six on my fingers. A million-not so easy to imagine, and yet we toss the word around every day. “I have a million things to do.” There are a million books I want to read.” Not in a million years.” It’s a word that loses significance quite easily, becoming a general term that is used when we refuse to or simply cannot quantify something. But add a number in front of that word-six million, for example-and suddenly everything changes. You’re imposing countability on an immeasurable quantity, and the mind is pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, six million is just a really big number. On the other, it forces you to consider exactly what that number means.

Rabbi Phil Chernofsky, educational director of the OU Israel Center, recently published a book called And Every Single One Was Someone. The book weighs 7.3 pounds, contains 1,250 pages, and uses a 5.5-sized font. It only contains a single word, printed six million times: Jew.

In a recent New York Times article, “Holocaust Told in One Word, Six Million Times,” Chernofsky is quoted describing the motivations for printing such a book: “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. 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.”

The book, described as “more art than literature” by the author of the same article, appears to be a reminder of the six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, asking us to confront the idea of “six million” and what that means when it comes to human lives. Chernofsky also has a goal to print six million copies of the book, further emphasizing the symbolic value of his art. Such a book may have educational value, or serve as a thought-provoking piece of art, but some Jewish leaders have responded with doubt and negativity. As the article goes on to explain, Holocaust memorials and museums, such as Yad Vashem in Israel, have dedicated efforts to recovering the names and personal details of the victims, but this book could instead appear to disregard the personal identities of the Jews. They are not even afforded names, as expected of characters in a book. The title of the book suggests that this was not the intention, but I can’t help but wonder what exactly someone would think when sitting down to “read” Chernofsky’s book.

I say “read” because I imagine that one would not actually be reading the words and processing them-if you know what the next word is going to be, the experience is reduced to flipping through pages, as blurs of small text pass through your fingers. Would this seemingly never-ending book create an emotional response, or have a numbing effect? Even though there are six million “Jews” in the textual sense, can we really imagine each of those tiny words as a human being? Does this make it any easier to imagine the magnitude of such a tragedy, or does it further complicate our understanding?

I can’t answer any of these questions, mainly because each human being will have a different reaction to such a piece of art. I personally struggle with visualization, so I can’t speak definitely of how I would respond to Chernofsky’s book unless I were holding it in my hands, and looking at the words with my own eyes. The point of such a book is not just to make a statement-it’s to keep people talking. It’s a reason why we continue to memorialize the victims, and why remembrance is not something restricted to history lessons. Holocaust art-whether in literature, film, or exhibits-is not just a means to keep us from forgetting. It allows us to understand why we’re remembering in the first place, and how we can connect beyond a religious or cultural standpoint-as human beings.

Six million. Six million people, six million words, six million deaths. We’ll never remember all of their names, or all of their stories. But we can keep them in our minds, and in our hearts, and keep finding ways to join the individual members of the six million into our collective conscience-and truly live the practice of re-membering.


January 29, 2014