148127. The number stood out in faded but indelible green ink in sharp contrast to the otherwise pale skin on my father’s arm. Of course, I had no idea what this number actually meant, nor what it stood for. My father didn’t want me to know. He tried to hide it, pulling his sleeve down. When I discovered it, my innocent fingers trailing over the green ink, he said, “I’ll tell you when you are older.” I remember thinking that if I were ever to become lost from my father, or vice versa, I would always be able to find him with this number. I was just four years old.
In time, I learned that this number was not a way for me to find my father, but that something very, very bad had caused this number to be etched into the skin of my father’s arm. I learned that my father was tattooed when he arrived, barely alive, at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland as a young boy in then Nazi-occupied Poland. I learned that my father lost his entire family save one brother. I learned that my father was beaten for stealing a potato, and that was why his back was crooked and he was hunched over. “I can’t tell you everything,” he would say in his heavy Polish accent. “Not until you are old enough.”
When I finally became “old enough” in my father’s estimation, my father told me all that he could. Of course, this was an ongoing process – he told me in bits and pieces as he also had the day-to-day dad responsibilities like getting me to school, helping me with homework, shopping for food. Things, that he said, took his mind off his past. For him, being a father was a form of therapy. For a few brief moments in time, he didn’t have to think about the Holocaust. Of course, it was extremely painful for me to hear the details of the gruesome acts committed against him – the physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the starvation, the beatings, the brutality. This was a time when human beings lost all sense of humanity. They were no longer humans but had become sick, twisted, demonic and sadistic monsters.
Fast forward almost half a decade. “Mom,” my 12-year-old son says, “we never would have made it during the Holocaust.” “Why?” I ask. “Papa had only thin clothes on, like pajamas, in temperatures far lower than what we are experiencing here, and I can barely stay outside for five minutes. I don’t know how he was able to survive.”
For the survivors and their descendants, the Holocaust is like a recording on a continual loop in the backdrop of our lives. It is ever-present, and it colors every aspect of our lives. We cannot escape it. Like the tattoos on the prisoners of the concentration camps, the Holocaust left its indelible imprint on the survivors, their descendants, and on the moral consciousness of the world.
To this day, when I see a group of children, care-free and happy as children are meant to be, I cannot help but think of the 1.5 million children who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Many were taken into the woods and gunned down, starved or beaten to death, or tossed like garbage into large pits and left for dead. Those poor, beautiful children who were so brutally murdered and who didn’t have the opportunity to live out their lives. The images haunt me, my son and I can only imagine how they haunt my father.
“It is impossible to tell you everything,” my father would say. “We could talk from now until the end of our mutual existences, and still, I would not be able to tell you everything. There just isn’t enough time.”
This year, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – a day in which we remember those 6 million Jews and 11 million non-Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust – we are painfully aware of the constraints of time. The survivor community is aging. Many can no longer bear witness due to advanced age and fading memory. There will soon come a day when the last living survivor of the Holocaust leaves this earth, and we will live in a world without a single soul who lived to tell. This is why it is so vitally, acutely and thoroughly important that we, the descendants of survivors, bear witness for those who can no longer do so. We have a moral duty to recount the eyewitness testimonies and accounts of our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins, our family members. We must tell the world what happened. We must not ever let this chapter in history be erased by Holocaust revisionists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other disbelievers. It is for all of these reasons that the world must remember and reflect on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and every day, and declare vociferously NEVER, EVER AGAIN.
Julie Ross is a lawyer living in the Boston area with her husband, son and three dogs.