An old man, stooped and shuffling slowly along, speaking so quietly I could barely hear and so rarely that, until I finally made out something he said, I wondered if he understood English. The other people in the store treated him with a respect not often seen in that context. I wondered who he was.
Then he turned to go sit down, and I saw the numbers tattooed on his forearm.
After he left, one of the store employees spoke to me about him. (I could tell that the employee felt it was an honor to have the old man in the store.) I learned that the old man was, as a boy, in line at the gas chamber, waiting his turn to die, when the American troops liberated the camp. I also learned that only about fifty or so survivors remain alive today, at least in the US.
A good friend of mine used to work in the office of a plastic surgeon. She told me that the German government will pay for the removal of the tattoo from any Holocaust survivor, and that it was rare for anyone to take them up on it. She asked one survivor why she didn’t have the tattoo removed: “Why would you want that reminder?” The woman said, “I don’t want to remember. I want the world to remember, so it will never happen again.”
I mentioned the number tattoo to a dear friend of mine afterward, and was saddened to find that she didn’t know what I was talking about. The more I explained it to her, the more heartsick I felt, too, and I realized that my perspective had changed. You see, before, I knew about the Holocaust, but now I’ve met it. Before, it was a history lesson; now, it’s real to me.
Perhaps it’s time to read Man’s Search for Meaning again.
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