Walk into one of the pastel colored ice cream stores on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem and you may be greeted by a young woman who is very different from the laconic teenager you would expect to serve you a tasty treat. In fact, the dissonance is jarring. For on the pretty smooth-skinned arm extending the soothing delight in your choice of flavors, is tattooed a number.
A number beginning with the letter A. A number throwing the observer abruptly into the hell that was Auschwitz. A number that hurtles you from the sunny streets of vibrant Jerusalem into the frozen death-land of Poland. A number that cuts you down from the pose of a confident member of a true democracy into a reality of supreme domination by inhumanity. A number that strips away the protection granting your right to live by the band of Jewish brothers called the Israel Defense Forces. A number that hurls you back in time to a seemingly everlasting stage in our history when there was no State of Israel. A number signifying the greatest physical threat to the Jewish people. A number which causes supreme existential angst – then and now.
The bearer of the number, a vibrant young Israeli woman, when queried, will “happily” explain the meaning of this phenomenon. In fact, that is exactly the reason she chose to commit the number on her grandfather’s arm to her own – so that you should ask. (Perhaps this act was modeled in extremis after the many strange actions taken annually on the Seder Night, as explained by the Sages – “so that the children will ask”.)
Not only does the young bearer of the number carry on the memory of the Holocaust of our people implemented by the bestial Nazis on a personal level – she has chosen to serve as an ongoing physical manifestation of the Nazi depravity to all those she encounters throughout her life.
By thrusting the “A” number in your face as she hands over your carefree choice of a delicious indulgence, she causes you to remember. She causes you to question her action, which is actually an examination of the Shoah itself. She inspires you to speak up. She torments you enough so that you are impelled to share that torment. So that on a random sunny day in Jerusalem the entire world will be reminded of what so-called human beings are capable and actually did to her grandfather.
Even a mental picture of an Israeli teenager choosing to engrave the blue number on an arm shatters the foundations of one’s security of being. Is this deliberate disfigurement of her beautiful youthful body a worthy manifestation of her deep love and identification with her grandfather? After all, the grandfather granted her life. But words cannot describe the “anti-life” wrought by that very number. Is this act a physical continuation of what the Nazis wrought – transforming Jews into numbers and ashes? Or, is the exposure of this number on a strong arm in the State of Israel two generations after the Holocaust actually an act of triumph against the Nazis and their helpers? Is the A number an abhorrent desecration or a living, victorious memorial?