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Numbers: My Only Proof MAG
In third grade we were assigned a biography project. This assignment was famous at my school, and we'd all been thinking about our topics since kindergarten. The posters would cover the halls midway through the year for everyone to admire. I always saw a bunch for Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. I wanted to do someone different.
Maybe I shouldn't have.
I spent several months reading and googling and gathering all the information available on Anne Frank, born June 29, 1929. (Whenever the clock turns 9:29, I instantly see her face.) She hid in an attic, shielded by a fake bookcase door, dubbed “the annex.” (A local clothing store with that name gives me the chills.) She was eventually discovered and shipped to Auschwitz. It is there that she was stripped of her name and, in exchange, given a number that she wore tattooed to her forearm for the rest of her short life.
This information is programmed into my mind. This information makes me live in fear of history repeating itself. That's when I coined my mantra: This is America. It could never happen in America. But, my God, it haunts me here.
I still shiver at the mention of Anne's name, or Auschwitz or the Holocaust or Hitler; my heart plummets to my stomach at the sound of those words. Soon after the project I watched, for the umpteenth time, “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Story line: Find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. I shook in fear of the swastika and buried my face in my sofa pillow.
That night, I dreamt that below my sister's dresser was a hatch that brought me to a concentration camp in my house. I'm in America, I told myself when I woke up. We're free here, so it can't happen here. It won't happen here.
I feared these nightmares. One day in Hebrew School we were watching “The Devil's Arithmetic,” a graphic, gruesome film on the topic. That night I cried for hours, too scared to sleep. I also refused to enter the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., for fear of the nightmares it might have brought.
I tried to keep my distance from the topic for a while, but it followed me everywhere. I went to my Hebrew school to find that Irving Roth, a survivor of Auschwitz who now lives in my area, was speaking to us. He shared his story and showed us his number tattoo.
I was almost 13, and it was time to decide on my Bat Mitzvah project. Three years later, my heart veered me toward the same subject. I would adopt a survivor, I decided. I would learn Mary Blank's story so I could share with future generations how at age nine she hid from the Nazis by posing as a Christian child. Would I be able to give up Judaism if my life depended on it? No way. The day after my Bat Mitzvah, I went to Hebrew school of my own accord for the first time. The day after my Bat Mitzvah I felt Jewish for the first time.
It won't happen here. It'll never happen here.
I entered ninth grade with much trepidation. I walked through the foreign halls with only a pinch of confidence. I knew it was the first year that really mattered and that I would need to be conscious of balancing my grades and clubs and social life. With all this pressure, I was relieved and comforted to have English class, my favorite subject, begin my day. But nothing's perfect.
Just three weeks into the school year my teacher announced that we would be reading Night by Elie Wiesel. She also assigned our first project. We were to do a group Powerpoint on one aspect of the novel to learn more about that period. Good thing I was already an expert.
One boy was ecstatic that he could use a swastika as a background for his group's slide – every slide, in fact. At first I thought nothing of it. I didn't become a cynic until after this experience.
The boys spoke about the Nazi party's viewpoint. It was innocuous, fact-filled. Except for one slide. “Hitler thought the Jews were a poisonous race that needed to be exterminated,” it read in 20-point font. “He is right,” was written below in six-point font. My skin grew hot. My heart plummeted. My eyes welled up. Beeeeeep, beeeeep. Fire drill. When we got back, the offensive text was gone.
It was obvious who had reported the incident, and no one held back their opinion on how they felt about me doing that.
“It was a joke,” they snapped.
“It was funny,” they claimed.
“Stop getting people in trouble,” my boyfriend yelled.
“You stinking Jew,” my friends screamed.
Stabs to my heart.
“You weren't there. You're not affected by it.”
Look at my arm. There's a number there. I don't care if you can't see it. I am branded with a permanent reminder, despite being born 40 years after the Holocaust. Prejudice does happen here. I might not have lived through it, but the Holocaust changed me.