In “Numbered,” the new documentary by Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai, a journalist and Holocaust survivor named Ruth Bondy describes how in the early days of the Jewish state, sabras condescendingly stared at the serialized number the Nazis had tattooed on her forearm at Auschwitz.
“The popular opinion at that time was … that only the cruel survived, those willing to tread over bodies. So I decided to remove [the number],” she says.
When a doctor sliced off her tattoo at a Haifa hospital, Bondy recalls, “He mumbled something about the number as a mark of honor. But to me it was no mark of honor.”
Daniel Chanoch, meanwhile, insists that he doesn’t see his tattoo as a shameful scar, but rather as a “medal” of his survival of Auschwitz, Dachau and Mauthausen. He loves the summertime, when he can wear short sleeves and everyone can see the tattoo.
“I’m a celebrity,” he says.
Chanoch and Bondy are among more than a dozen elderly Israelis who tell their stories in “Numbered,” which premiered in July at the Jerusalem Film Festival and explores the experiences of survivors who were tattooed in
Auschwitz and Birkenau, the only camps to employ the practice.
The film opens as each survivor holds up his or her arm and recites the number, often in German, the language the SS officers used in the camps. Some, like Leo Luster, only reluctantly display their tattoo: “It was like I was no longer human,” he says of receiving the number. Another survivor attempts to erase the pain of her number and the loss of her family by compulsively shopping for clothes; still others recount the searing physical pain of the tattooing process.
The documentary also reveals a startling trend that has developed over the past few years: the phenomenon of survivors’ children and grandchildren tattooing themselves with a loved one’s number to honor their legacy and to remind younger generations about the Holocaust.
In the film, we meet Hanna Rabinovitz, a middle-aged woman who says she made the decision to tattoo herself as her beloved father lay dying in the hospital not long ago — even though she suspects he would have disapproved. She says she visited a tattoo parlor as soon as his -shivah had ended: “I just wanted his number etched on me,” she explains.
Then there is Abramo Nacson — a former dockworker whose job in Auschwitz was to pull gold teeth from corpses — who was appalled to learn that his grandson, Ayal Gelles, a computer programmer in his 20s, tattooed himself several years ago. For three years, Nacson refused to look at Gelles’ tattoo, but he finally did so during the documentary shoot, when he embraced his grandson and asked, “Did you do it so that people will never forget the Holocaust?” “It’s so that I won’t forget,” Gelles replied.
The idea for “Numbered” began when Doron, a physician in her early 30s, encountered an 83-year-old survivor complaining of chest pain at an emergency room in Safed several years ago.
Doron’s own grandmother had been interned in Auschwitz but did not have a tattoo; nor did she speak of her experiences in the camp. Doron herself had been turned off by the horrific images of the Holocaust she had been shown at school from the age of 5.
“The focus was on commemorating the sense of being victimized because we were Jewish,” she said during a phone call from a friend’s house near her home in Tel Aviv. “And for a long time I wanted nothing to do with these stories.”
The change came, in earnest, on that morning in the emergency room in Safed, when Doron’s elderly patient displayed her tattoo and asked, “Do you know what this is?” The woman went on to talk about her experiences for an hour.
“I listened with empathy,” Doron recalled, “but I was also shocked because I had never been that close to a tattoo in my life. I knew the symbol, but as a physician I had to take her pulse and draw blood from that arm. I was mesmerized, because it was like the ashes from Auschwitz were still engraved not only in her flesh but also in her soul. And I wondered, what was her relationship to the number and what do people make of it? Did she eat ice cream with that arm? Had anyone ever kissed the number? And when she looked at it, did she feel that it was the mark of Cain or it was like a superhero insignia?”
Doron promptly contacted her friend, Sinai, an award-winning photojournalist who works in Israel and the West Bank for Getty Images, to ask if he would like to track down and take pictures of some of the tattooed survivors still alive in Israel.
“At first we thought we might do a book,” Sinai, 34, said in a phone interview from his Tel Aviv home. But Sinai had just received a new Canon EOS 5D camera that was able to shoot both still photographs and moving pictures, so he suggested that he and Doron film the survivors as well.
Both Doron and Sinai, who was born in Tehran and has no survivors in his family, said they were “shocked” to discover that a couple of dozen descendants of survivors in Israel had inscribed themselves with a relative’s number; after screenings, Doron said, “The mainstream reaction was that people were horrified and said this trivializes the memory of the Holocaust.” The New York Times ran a front-page story on the tattooing phenomenon last year, spotlighting “Numbered” as part of the piece.
In an e-mail, the esteemed Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, weighed in on tattooing as a form of commemoration. “This would not be my first, second or third choice,” he said. “It is a brazen form of remembrance and a deep and indelible form of identification.”
Doron disagrees with the criticism she has received from some viewers about the tattooing trend.
“The way we truly diminish Holocaust remembrance is by not providing elderly survivors with enough funding to live well,” she said. “Another way is when we only discuss how Jews have been victimized. But the private gesture of tattooing a number on your arm to keep the story alive is touching in a very personal way.”
“Numbered” will screen at the Israel Film Festival on April 27, 5 p.m., at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. On April 28, noon, it will screen at an event for Holocaust survivors and their descendants at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, as a fundraising event for survivors in need.