I will never forget that day. It may not have been particularly special or interesting. There was no major heat wave or blizzard, no natural disasters, and I was not caught in the middle of a raging battle in upstate New York. And yet my life was changed. I saw myself in a whole new way. I appreciated my life more, cliché as it may sound - all because I went to the bakery.
Yes, the bakery. The little shop with bagels and coffee and milk and pastries. But modern and fascinating as it was with its cyber café, Cohen’s Bakery did not change my life (no matter how good the black-and-white cookies are), rather a couple I saw there did.
I was accompanying my friend to get a latté. An older couple stood in front of us in line, and I happened to overhear their order. The woman asked for six onion bagels and two coffees, but this order did not change my life. As the man, wearing a striped shirt with rolled-up sleeves, khakis, and a white cap covering his sparse white hair, reached out to take the box of bagels, that was the moment that changed me. As his sleeve pulled up, a tattoo became visible. I saw the letter J followed by five numbers. They were not clear and had been fading since the end of the Holocaust. His skin had long since wrinkled.
I did not stare; I looked at the man’s face instead. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to hear about his experiences. But seeing him with his redheaded, sundress-clad wife doing an everyday task like buying bagels in a bakery stopped me. He’d moved on, and who was I to bring back horrible memories because of my curiosity? This man did not need my pity, but I will always regret not talking to him even though I know this was the right thing to do.
You might think that it’s ridiculous that I was so deeply affected by a man I never even spoke to. But seeing those numbers made me appreciate his ability to move on. He had lived through the worst massacre the world has ever known, and he was able to rise from all the death and pain. He was a martyr, but he found a normal life. And for that, I commend him. He is my hero, even though I don’t even know his name.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.