02 July 2022

Six million people,
and who’s counting
when they live and die?

‘Six Million and One’ by David Fisher tells the story of a filmmaker and his siblings researching the experiences of their late father, who survived the Holocaust

Patrick Comerford

This blog has reached the monumental landmark of six million hits. The 6 million mark was passed earlier yesterday (1 July 2022), and it came as a pleasant surprise.

When I began blogging, it took until July 2012 to reach 0.5 million hits. This figure rose to 1 million by September 2013; 1.5 million in June 2014; 2 million in June 2015; 2.5 million in November 2016; 3 million by October 2016; 3.5 million by September 2018; 4 million on 19 November 2019; 4.5 million on 18 June 2020; 5 million on 27 March 2021; and 5.5 million on 28 October 2021.

This means that this blog is getting more than half a million hits in an eight-month period, somewhere about 60,000 a month, or up to 2,000 a day. In recent days these figures have been exceeded, with 8,144 hits yesterday (1 July 2022), 3,355 the day before (30 June 2022) and almost 4,000 already this afternoon.

With this latest landmark figure of 6 million hits, I might ask: what do 6 million people look like?

The Six Million Dollar Man is an American science fiction and action television series, running from 1973 to 1978, about a former astronaut, Colonel Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors. After a NASA test flight accident, Steve Austin is rebuilt with superhuman strength, speed and vision due to bionic implants. He is employed as a secret agent by OSI, a fictional US government office.

But what about six million real people, men, women and children?

What do they look like?

Where do they live?

Where are they born?

And … where do they die?

The population of Ireland exceeds 6 million: Republic of Ireland (5 million) Northern Ireland (1.9 million). Six million is the population of Turkmenistan, Singapore and Denmark, of Dallas-Forth Worth, Madrid, Nanjing, Shenyang, Xi’an and San Francisco-San José.

More than 6 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes. The number of disenfranchised individuals has increased dramatically along with the rise in criminal justice populations in recent decades, rising from an estimated 1.17 million in 1976 to 6.1 million today.

Yet, with all these figures, and all these statistics, I cannot associated the figure 6 million with anything other than the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

Behind each number, there is a person with a family, a life that has lived through hell and had ended up killed without having done anything, except to be born with the parents they had, born into one religion. All the people who came back from concentration camps said that one of the most horrible thing was the incomprehension, the injustice. They did not know why they were there.

The Nazis were dehumanising the Jews, identifying each one with a number tattooed on their arms as is done with animals, transforming people into numbers. How do we reverse the process and transform numbers back into people?

The Nazis killed methodically, in a scientific way. They asked engineers to find ways to kill people in the quickest and the cheapest way possible. They killed them rationally. But this rationality increases the horror, and is specific to the Shoah.

There is a point where one can no longer represent the horror of the meaning of the number six million.

‘Counting to Six Million,’ by Richard Michelson

Sleep faster, my son says. He’s poking
at my eyelids, pulling at the pillows, the helicopter
hum of anticipation rising in his throat as I reach out
and spin him onto the bed. I want to set my heels
once more in the soft underbelly of his childhood,

airlift him from danger, from disease, from all his fears,
which are maybe not even his fears at all, but only mine.
Yet now as he hovers above me, my body splayed out
like my father’s before me, my every breath is less a prayer
than a love letter torn open in desperation.

Remember, I say, when we counted to six million,
a visualization of tragedy, one half hour a day
for two years, and that, for the tribe only; it would take
another whole year for the gypsies, the Catholics, the gays,
the foreigners, the Negroes, the artists, the philosophers, etc.

You were barely six at the time, your mother wondering
what the hell I was thinking, and even now I can’t fathom
why I didn’t just hold you close—
It would have taken only a moment—
And say whatever it was that I really wanted to say.

III. I’m watching Batman reruns when the telephone rings.
Holy Charoset, I yell at the kitchen wall, call back later.
Maybe I threw some raisins, I don’t remember.
We’re already married, your mother and I,
but at the time, don’t ask, I was living alone.

And so I’m laughing, mostly from boredom, but still, laughing,
while my father lay dying, gasping for breath in some dirty gutter,
gunned down for a half-empty briefcase, a gefilte fish sandwich,
and a New York Post which the next day would have
his picture on the twenty-eighth page; one more dead Jew.

You burst into the room, fifth grade facts burning your tongue
like Moses’ coal. 100 people die every minute, you tell me
as I turn down the TV; and then, gleefully: 50 since I’ve been
in this room, and now 75 and now
… O my little census bureau,
my prince of darkness, my prophet of numbers, riddle me this:

how many grains of sand before you can call it a desert? And where were you the day Kennedy was shot? CNN, interrupting,
asks. My grandmother clicks her tongue like she’s chopping onions
in the old country. Poor boy, she says, pointing.
And there’s John-John again, waving that little flag, still saluting.

And who will remember my father when I am gone? And
how many have died since his death? And what’s one more.
or one less. And what do I know of my father’s father?
I’m waiting outside, engine humming, as my son,
eighteen, registers. And now he’s shouting,
running towards me, arms pumping above his head.
He’s Moses the moment before spying the golden calf.
He’s his great grandfather crawling underground to freedom.
He’s my father flying medical supplies, surviving the crash.
My mother must have held him close. You’re home, she cries, safe.

Vietnam, I say, or Sarajevo. Afghanistan, my son answers, or Iraq.
My father would have said Germany. He could have said Japan.
Nobody says anonymously. Nobody says Gotham.
Korea, my cousin says, or Kosovo. My great grandfather
says South Africa. His great grandfather says Spain.

Somebody says Egypt now; somebody, Egypt then.
Nobody says suddenly. Nobody says Brooklyn. I’m counting
myself to sleep, when my wife hears a sound at the door. Careful,
she whispers. We’re alone, in an empty house; my every breath
reminding me I’m older than my father, on the day of his death.

There are more people breathing this very moment, my son insists,
than have ever died. He’s home from college, so I don’t double-check.
He’s driven a long way to surprise me on my birthday. Are you sure
you can’t stay, I ask, holding him close. He looks full of hope;
a woman I’ve never seen before at his side. Welcome home,

I tell my wife. She’s just turned twenty-four. I’m childless,
fatherless. It’s the day of the funeral; Nineteen years until
the twin towers. Three thousand since Moses murdered
the overseer. But that’s not what I’m thinking. One, two, three,
she says, guiding me inside. How could we not fall back in love?

Richard Michelson, ‘Counting to Six Million’ from Battles & Lullabies. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Michelson.

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
2 July 2022 (Psalm 129)

‘Let them be like the grass on the housetops that withers before it grows up’ (Psalm 129: 6) … rooftop gardens in Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 129:

Psalm 129 is the tenth in a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות‎ (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 128. It is sometimes known by its opening words in Latin, Saepe expugnaverunt me.

Many scholars say these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals. Others say they were sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Mishnah notes the correspondence between the 15 songs and the 15 steps between the men’s court and the women’s courtyards in the Temple. A Talmudic legend says King David composed or sang the 15 songs to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple.

One view says the Levites first sang the Songs of Ascent at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple during the night of 15 Tishri 959 BCE. Another study suggests they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Others suggest they may originally have been songs sung by the exiles returning from Babylon, ascending to Jerusalem or individual poems later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.

These psalms are cheerful and hopeful, and they place an emphasis on Zion. They were suited for being sung because of their poetic style and the sentiments they express. They are brief, almost like epigrams, and they are marked by the use of a keyword or repeated phrase that serves as a rung on which the poem ascends to its final theme.

Psalm 129 may date from the post-exilic period, after the year 539 BCE. It was probably a pilgrimage song, sung as people walked to Jerusalem for a major festival.

This is a short psalm eight verses. It is probable that this psalm was composed during a time of trouble, of war, or of persecution. But it is not known why is was included among the ‘Songs of Ascent.’

Psalm 129 depicts the distress of the people in exile. Verses 6-8 may be a lament for the downfall of their present adversaries. It contains no appeal to God for salvation or thanksgiving for an ameliorated situation.

Verses 6-8 depict the transience of the peoples exilic existence. The psalmist likens the people to the roof-top grass that withers rapidly. The rooftop grass evokes the poverty and the landlessness of the people that compel them to utilise their rooftops to grow crops that yield so little that there is almost nothing to harvest.

This situation stands in contrast to the divine blessing of the agriculture in the Land of Israel. The psalmist seeks to convey the harsh reality of the exile. He juxtaposes this situation against the much awaited future and against the abundant Divine blessing of the past.

‘Those who plough ploughed on my back; they made their furrows long’ (Psalm 129: 3) … a sculpture in Kanturk, Co Cork, of Thady Kelleher (1935-2004), World and All-Ireland Ploughing Champion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 129 (NRSVA):

A Song of Ascents.

1 ‘Often have they attacked me from my youth’
—let Israel now say—
2 ‘often have they attacked me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.
3 Those who plough ploughed on my back;
they made their furrows long.’
4 The Lord is righteous;
he has cut the cords of the wicked.
5 May all who hate Zion
be put to shame and turned back.
6 Let them be like the grass on the housetops
that withers before it grows up,
7 with which reapers do not fill their hands
or binders of sheaves their arms,
8 while those who pass by do not say,
‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord!’

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) has been ‘Ethics and Leadership.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Andy Flannagan, Executive Director of Christians in Politics.

Saturday 2 July 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the grace and honesty to disagree well. May we respect and love each other, starting conversations from a place of care and consideration.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org