A few years ago, on Yom Hashoah, my brother posted the number that had been tattooed on my grandfather’s forearm. He had been “catalogued” in Auschwitz before being sent to a work camp called Blachenheimer. When I first saw his post a few things ran through my mind. One was how I had known him for over 37 years (he was approximately 96 when he died) and yet while I had seen that number at least a million times, I had never paid attention to the actual numbers, and two, was that it never occurred to me to write them down somewhere.
My brother did.
At first I thought it was a weird thing to do – to copy down the number, but after I thought about it for a while, I’m glad he did. Now that my grandfather is no longer alive I’m glad that someone in my family thought it important enough to write it down.
The idea of branding humans, reducing them to a number instead of the complicated beings they are, complete with physical differences, unique personalities and individual emotional makeup was just the beginning of the Nazi plan to eradicate the Jewish people. Shaving their heads and stripping their clothes was just the physical removal of their individuality. But taking away their names and replacing them with a number was their attempt to strip them of what made them who they were.
But for more than five long years my grandfather had no name as far as the Nazis were concerned. He was 184652.
It’s time everyone got to know the man behind the number.
Thankfully my Zaida survived the Holocaust and married the girl he was in love with before the war, also a Holocaust survivor. He emigrated to Canada and had two children. He worked for a mattress company for many many years and was the Gabbai (caretaker) of his small shul. He was a fun grandfather, too. We would spend Sunday afternoons picking wild strawberries from his backyard, and he taught me all the Yiddish I know (which isn’t much…). He helped me open a savings account and taught me about interest rates and what would be the best account for my meager savings. While I was in college, we bought lottery tickets together once a week fantasizing about what we would do with our winnings. He would take me to his small single-car garage and I’d watch him upholster new couches for my mom. I loved the way he would shine with pride when he would show me how he still fit into the same pants from twenty years ago – and they were the SAME pants. And how he’d demonstrate his expertise on the rowing machine that he’d use every night while he watched the news. He’d tell me how he preferred stale bread because you had to chew it longer and therefore ate less – hence his ability to fit into those twenty year old pants. And I loved how he treated my grandmother. She’d scold him and he’d tease her and then he’d end up laughing so hard his false teeth would clatter in his mouth. And my grandmother would roll her eyes at him, exasperated. I loved the way he cared about others, the way he listened. He always said a smart person was one who listened more and talked less. I loved the way he’d pronounce the word ‘knife’ sounding out the k instead of leaving it silent. And when I’d correct him, he’d laugh and say ‘then why is it there?’
To them, he was known as 184652, but to me, he was Zaida. He was a great man, father, husband, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather.