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6 million words that are really 1 sum up Holocaust’s deadly toll

JERUSALEM – There is no plot to speak of, 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 kind of 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 something of 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,’ ” Chernofsky 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 entirely original. More than a decade ago, eighth-graders in a small 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.

Now Gefen Publishing, a Jerusalem company, imagines this book, titled “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 here, that has so far documented the identities of 4.3 million Jewish victims. These fill the monumental “Book of Names,” 6½ feet tall and 46 feet in circumference, which was unveiled last summer at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“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 (buy 1,000 copies and it is $36 each). Since the book went on the market a few months ago, he said, 5,000 have been printed: One person purchased 100 to distribute to the offices of U.S. senators, and Jewish leaders in Australia and South Africa, Los Angeles and Denver, have bought batches for their communities.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, enlisted three donors to buy 1,000 each and is giving them away: He wants one in the Oval Office and, eventually, on every Passover Seder table.

“When he brought me this book I said, ‘Wow, wow, it makes it so real,’ ” said Foxman, himself a Holocaust survivor. “It’s haunting.”

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.”

An Orthodox Jew with nine grandchildren, Chernofsky is a numbers man, the kind of person who cannot climb stairs without counting them (41 up to his apartment). “Torah Tidbits,” the publication he has edited for two decades, always lists the number of sentences in the week’s Torah portion (118 in last week’s “Statutes”). He likes to play with calendars, and he is tickled that for the next three months, the Hebrew and English dates match: Feb. 1 is the first of Adar, April 30 the 30th of Nissan.

Greenfield, the publisher, said his goal was eventually to print 6 million copies of “And Every Single One Was Someone.” With each copy 2.76 inches wide, that would fill 261 miles of bookshelves – just shy of Israel’s 263-mile north-south span. (And that would net Chernofsky, at his contracted rate of $1.80 per book, $10.8 million.)

“Harry Potter, in seven volumes, used 1.1 million words,” noted Chernofsky, a devotee who has a Quidditch broom hanging in his office. “This has 6 million in it, so I outdid J.K. Rowling.”