I recently attended a screening of the documentary ‘Numbered’ at an event held by Durham Jewish Society to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th of January. This day represents the anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The documentary interviewed survivors asking how their tattooed number had affected their identity and lives after the Holocaust.
Although designed as a tool to dehumanise and anonymise, the diversity of emotions these tattoos inspired in individuals was striking. Some viewed their number as a badge of honour, others as a testament to their suffering. To my surprise, a few even expressed thinly veiled shame or guilt. Ruth Bondy, who went onto become a journalist after the holocaust described how she had her number surgically removed because she felt that in the aftermath of the genocide the popular opinion was “similar to Darwin’s theory that only the cruellest survived”. Similarly, Menachem Sholowicz described how he stopped wearing short sleeve tops to evade prying eyes and unwelcome questions.
In contrast, Zoka Levy rebutted the suggestion that she might want to get her tattoo removed asserting “why should I be the one who is ashamed of it? It is those who did this to me who should be ashamed”. With a smile she recalled how she had held her arm outstretched so the tattoo would be concealed on the inner side. Her logic? A faith that one day she would be free, and she wanted the mark to be discreet. Others like the indomitable David Chanoch declared with a cheeky grin “I have number, I am a celeb!”
The ongoing impact of the holocaust on the children of survivors was also arresting. The documentary shows Hanna Rabinovitz getting her father’s number tattooed on her ankle following his death. This phenomenon known as ‘second generation trauma’ has also been discussed in the recent BBC documentary ‘The Last Survivors’ which showed the insidious effect of genocide on the relationships of survivors.
Aside from the obvious pain and suffering, the documentary was filled with the remarkable hope and contentment which many survivors conveyed in their testimonies of life after the holocaust. The documentary shows three strangers who had met in the queue to Auschwitz with consecutive numbers, remarkably reunited. Sisters, couples, parents and children. Relationships lost and newly made. Tattoos faded and indistinct, but indelibly marked onto the consciousness of survivors became the codes to safes and padlocks on suitcases. The horrifying seeping into the banal rituals of everyday life. The message of the documentary being that life after genocide goes on and even flourishes.
As the last generation with privilege of hearing first-hand accounts directly from survivors it is important that we spread their message. Personal stories make history tangible by giving life and identity to incomprehensible and unconscionable statistics. 400,000 numbers were tattooed in Auschwitz and a total of 6 million died in the Holocaust.
“With time, my tattoo has become a part of my body.
I do not display and do not hide it.
I show it unwillingly to those who ask out of curiosity,
readily and with anger to those who say they are incredulous.
Often, young people ask me why I don’t have it erased.
This surprises me: Why should I?
There are not many of us in the world to bear this witness.”