Photographs by Uriel Sinai Text by Dana Doron

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Numbered - Life with a Number from Auschwitz

Text © Dana Doron
"Back in the 70's, I remember my sister and I went into a bank in the U.S., and the girl at the counter said, 'Oh, you tattooed numbers on your arms. Yours ends with a 4, hers with a 5. THAT'S COOL!!!". Vera Rosenzweig, Auschwitz prisoner number A2074, recounts her tale without much sadness. "We told her, 'That's right, it's cool. It's from a lifetime ago. It's cool'". She smiles and adds, "That's just life. It goes on".

Auschwitz prisoners, both Jewish or non-Jewish, were tattooed with serial numbers, first on their chests and then their left arms. An estimated 400,000 numbers were tattooed in Auschwitz and its sub-camps; only some several thousand survivors are still alive today.  They live among people who were not in the Holocaust, among many who, by now, know nothing about it. Yet shaving in the morning, or having ice-cream in the park at summer, their trauma is there for them – and for the world to see. Time is evident in their features, but also in their stories.

The tattoo, given by the Nazis to erase the prisoner's identity decades ago, has long since lost that original meaning, and gained a life of its own. New interpretations were poured into it. Some survivors say they enjoy exposing their arm next to Germans, to see them squirm when they notice the number. Others say it is a personal medal, not a scar.

Zoka Levy, Auschwitz prisoner number A11998, is one of them. When you knock on her door, you can hear her talking to someone, saying "Sasha, I'll be right back, just going to see who it is. You can stay in the bedroom". If she trusts you, Zoka will share her secret. Sasha is not a person – it's her cat, "but I gave it a man's name. Why should strangers at my door, like the guy who delivers my groceries, know that this frail elderly woman is living alone?".

Zoka was 16 when she was taken to Auschwitz. "For many years after the war, I couldn't bear to be alone in the house. I saw all the faces of the SS officers that hurt me on the walls, I could hear them taunting me. I knew I wasn't crazy, but I was afraid of losing it, so I made sure my husband or a friend was always near. Sometimes I even left the toilet door open out of fear". At 85, she is more than happy to announce that she kicked the habit of needing people around her ages ago. "In Israel I became a social worker and dealt with people in harsh circumstances. My husband was my best friend but since he died I've been living alone. I never went to therapy though, it's a personal triumph".

If fear is not an issue anymore, as Zoka says, where do the memories go? "My arm is a monument. I am often asked why I don't get rid of the tattoo. I tell those who ask me, 'why should I? It's not mine to be ashamed of. The people who branded me as they do cattle should be ashamed, and others should see it so they don't forget'.

An old Jewish joke claims, "if you put 2 Jews in the same room, they will form 3 rivaling political parties". Survivors' perspectives on their tattoos prove to be diversified indeed. Ruth Bondy, born in Prague to a large Jewish family, chose to have her number removed. "I lost my Father in Dachau and my Mother in Theresienstadt. Four of us came back from the Holocaust - My Grandma, my cousin, my sister and me. 25 were wiped out. Statistically speaking, we were a lucky family - after all, someone survived to tell its story".

In Birkenau she was assigned the number 72430. "Here in Israel, the Jews asked me, 'what did you do to stay alive?'. I could see the suspicion in their eyes - was she a whore? was she a Kapo (a Jewish prisoner assigned by the Nazis to managerial jobs in the camps). After a year of this, I chose to get the number removed surgically. I'm not sentimental about this scar. I don't regret it. I needed my life back.  Besides, what's in a number? Compared to the countless people killed, lost, exterminated. A number is just a number. I don't need it to remember the Holocaust".

NUMBERED is a documentary project dedicated to the last bearers of Auschwitz tattoos, the youngest of which are in their early 80's.