Sonia's Second Life
By Helen Schary Motro - August 23, 2001
47386 . Those were the blue numbers I saw across my cousin Sonia's forearm the countless times I sat in her kitchen beside my cousins, eating her jam-filled cookies or watching her slice bread and spread on a thick layer of honey for us children. 47386. It wasn't unnatural for us, that number. It was a given of our lives, as our families joined each other at seashore and lakeside vacations, and celebrated every holiday together.
This summer, in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I saw a whole wall of photographs picturing 72 arms disfigured with blue tattooed numbers. There were no faces, no torsos, just the mute testimony of branded arms covering an entire wall. The arms were elderly - skin slack, some wrinkled, some mottled. But the clear blue numbers, half a century old, stood out sharp and clear. The photos were taken in 1991 at a gathering of concentration-camp survivors in Los Angeles.
74428 was one of the numbers. 63202 was another. And a third - 47386. My cousin Sonia's arm was not plump as it had been when she baked her delicious cookies for us, but her fingers were still shapely, and she still wore her ring.
Long before we heard the term "survivorâ" let alone "children of survivorsâ" we knew that Sonia had lost two young children in Auschwitz. Her boy and girl born after the war - my cousins - were their living replacements. A framed picture of the brother and sister they never knew stood on the mantel of the family piano, but the atmosphere of their house was one of life busily lived in the present, with an optimistic eye towards the future and not the past.
Actually I knew before my visit to look for number 47386 among the photos at the Holocaust Museum. Six years previously it had been Sonia herself, visiting with her children and grandchildren, who spotted the photo of her arm. Then and there she spontaneously began to talk about her wartime experience. Strangers crowded around to hear the unexpected unrecorded testimony of a woman who created a second life after her first had been destroyed. Now, at 90, Sonia lives peacefully in the present.
Neither Sonia nor her husband ever revisited Poland, but her grandson has.
Another cousin of mine felt the pull for years to see with her own eyes from where her parents had fled Warsaw in 1939, and where other, less fortunate, relatives lived out the war, or perished. Before her trip she gathered every address she could, and once there combed the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw searching in vain for her grandfather's grave, then visited Treblinka where other grandparents met their end. The trip, she maintained, brought a sense of closure. She had seen with her own eyes what had been so striking in her imagination of a lifetime.
Going to a Holocaust memorial is, in minor mode, a trip back to the much more traumatic soil of Europe itself.
Nearing the end of my visit in the Washington museum, I passed by an auditorium whose plaque said its walls were lined with stones all brought from Jerusalem. Just as Jerusalem stone is familiar to me, so are the pictures and artifacts of the Holocaust.
Since the museum opened in 1993 more than 16 million people of diverse backgrounds have made the emotionally difficult journey through its dense halls packed with meticulous documentation of Nazism's attempt at a Final Solution and its extermination of 11 million human beings. Most gape at models of crematoria; for children of survivors they echo a secondhand deja vu.
On the day of my visit I squeezed with the packed crowd passing through an authentic boxcar which stands upon actual train tracks that once led into Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I suspect my heart beat with more palpable trepidation than most of the other 11,000 visitors that day as I scurried as fast as I could through that death train on a sunny summer afternoon in the heart of the capital of the United States of America in the year 2001. For me and others like me, the Holocaust Museum is a place to encounter a past almost as tangible as if we ourselves had experienced it.
It is also a place to experience the triumph of the human spirit. My cousin Sonia, Auschwitz inmate number 47386, must harbor atrocious memories. But they didn't stop her from joyfully embracing life during her second lifetime.