It took me a while to find this photo of tattooed numbers on the underside of an arm. I apologize for the poor resolution. It’s an image I remember well from my childhood. Many of the adults in my world had one of these, always in blue — the mark of having been an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp. And, because I wasn’t born until 1946, the mark of a survivor.
My father had left a brother and sister behind in what is now Belarus when he immigrated to the United States in 1921. They both got married and had children, so I had two uncles, two aunts and six first cousins, as well as other relatives, who were killed in 1942 and 1943, before I was born. Some were simply shot. Some were taken to concentration camps and gassed. Two of those cousins were 8 years old when they died.
I was 11 when my father died, so I never got to talk with him about the relatives he had lost. That just wasn’t something talked about in the 1950s, especially for a child. But I knew what the serial numbers meant on the arms of our friends and neighbors, and I wondered to myself what they had to do to survive. Just a couple of years ago, I was able to learn a lot more about the relatives in Belarus whom I never met, but when I was a child, asking questions was just not done.
One of my earliest memories was my parents taking me with them, when I was 4 or 5, on a drive from our row house in Philadelphia to another neighborhood to meet a couple my parents had sponsored. They explained that concentration camp survivors living in displaced persons camps in Europe needed a sponsor to get into the United States, and they had sponsored this couple, Regina and Beryl. I don’t know what sponsorship entailed. It probably was not a matter of money. Maybe it was just a hand and advice about getting settled. I don’t believe that either Regina or Beryl had any relatives at all left, and they never had children.
They used their reparations money to buy a corner home in my neighborhood with a small store on the ground floor. It was just two blocks from the local elementary school, so they opened a candy store, where I often stopped as I walked to and from school. In addition to the tattooed serial numbers both of them bore on their arms, Beryl’s gold teeth stood out prominently in the front of his mouth. I’ll never know how he lost his teeth.
In my late teens, I worked side by side with another tattooed concentration camp survivor in a Jewish delicatessen, and it was there that I met my first serious girl friend, who had been born in a displaced persons camp.
It should be obvious why I mention all of this now. Once again, hundreds of thousands of refugees, some in displaced persons camps, yearn for a home. They live in fear and hope, while much of the world reacts to them with fear and hate.
Two New Testament stories come to mind: the Good Samaritan and the Least of These.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine