For Anna Brunn Ornstein
From the age of five to almost 30, I dreamt I was in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and that I died there. I would wake — screaming aloud, sometimes weeping, shaking and disoriented. The older I got, the more often the nightmares came until, finally, I asked, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” The answer came immediately: “Write about the Holocaust.”
Despite its being kept a secret, I had known my family was Jewish since I was 8, when I asked my Great-Grandfather Hirsch. All the Hirsch daughters attended Catholic schools. All their children and grandchildren did the same. We were all baptized, attended Mass every day (that’s how Catholic schools started when I was young: with Mass), learned our Catechism, and never ever talked about being Jewish or about the Holocaust. I didn’t even know what that word meant. When I was older, I learned that my Great-Grandparents had paid for everyone in the family to go to Catholic schools, to protect us from the rampant anti-Semitism that existed in America in the 1950’s & 1960’s.
It didn’t work.
Despite my coloring — every member of the family had strawberry-blonde hair and green eyes, as well as “the famous Hirsch nose,” as everyone referred to it each time a new baby was born into the family — my classmates mercilessly called me “Yid” and “Kike” from the first grade. When I walked home from school every day, I had to pass my Great-Grandfather’s corner grocery, which was on the same block where my mother, divorced with 4 young children, lived in a house owned by her parents. I loved my Great-Grandfather more than anyone else in my family, so every day I stopped by his store.
“What’s a ‘Yid’?” I said once, after a particularly brutal and distressing day in second grade.
Grandpa Hirsch came around from behind the counter, knelt before me, and wiped my face, though I’d long stopped crying.
“Somebody called you a ‘Yid’?”
“What’s it mean?”
“It’s short for ‘Yiddish’.”
“It’s a German dialect. What Grandma and I talk to each other.”
“What’s a ‘Kike’?”
“That,” said Grandpa Hirsch, handing me a piece of my favorite candy, “I do not know.”
“Why do the kids at school keep calling me that?”
“Because sometimes you say Yiddish words.”
“Is that bad?”
“Not in my opinion.”
Did I know then which words I said that were Yiddish? No. Did I know then that Yiddish was a Jewish dialect of German? Of course not. Our family never spoke of such things. Despite the fact that Grandpa Hirsch closed his store every Saturday and opened it on Sundays — in an era of the so-called “Blue Laws,” when no businesses whatsoever were permitted to operate on Sundays. In fact, I always feared that the local policemen who walked the neighborhood and who invariably stopped by his store on Sundays for fresh coffee and my Grandma Hirsch’s pastries would arrest my Grandpa for breaking the Blue Laws. They never did, of course, and they always seemed to be chatting genially and laughing with Grandpa, who had a wicked sense of humor, whenever I went to the store on Sundays to make sure he was safe.
“But why do you stay open on Sundays when it’s against the law?” I said almost weekly.
“Somebody has to be open,” said Grandpa. “Everything else is closed on Sundays.”
“Is that why you take Saturdays off?”
“I’ll take Saturday as my Sabbath,” he would always say, “since everyone else takes Sunday.”
Eventually, somehow, I figured out what the elaborate Friday night suppers meant, what Yiddish really was, and why Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch’s Sabbath was on Saturday instead of on Sunday, when everyone else was off work and went to church. (My Grandparents never attended Mass: they were working in the store. It seemed reasonable to everyone in the family at the time.)
When I was 8, the only thing I wanted for Christmas as a chess-set, having learned the game from my mother’s boyfriend, who eventually became my step-father and then my adopted father (when I was 15). It was no accident that my Grandpa & Grandma Hirsch gave me the chess-set for Christmas. Grandpa treated me as a favorite: he was the only one who cared that I wanted to be a writer and listened to my stories, he always remembered my favorite candies without my having to remind him (though he gave all of us children far more candy than our pennies or nickels could have actually purchased), and, from the time I was small, I believed he was the only person in my entire family who actually loved me. So, when I opened the Christmas present to reveal my first chess-set — still in my possession almost 50 years later — and looked up in excitement at his happy, grinning face, I was naïvely astonished that he knew I liked chess.
“Grandpa, how did you know this was the only thing in the world that I really wanted?”
“A little angel whispered it in my ear,” he said, tapping his shoulder.
“An angel?” I said. “Aren’t we Jewish? Do Jews believe in angels?”
He patted me on the head.
“Such a clever little girl we have.”
“Who’s a clever little girl?” said Grandma Hirsch from behind me, her hands on my shoulders as she kissed me on top of the head. “And why is she so clever?”
“Because she just asked me if we were Jewish.”
Grandma Hirsch dragged me over to the dining room table, looking very frightened. Grandpa followed. She knelt down in front of me and, still holding on to me tightly, glanced around the family gathering in their home before whispering.
“If anyone ever asks you if you’re Jewish,” she said, “you must say, ‘I was baptized and I go to Catholic schools.’ You understand?”
I nodded, not knowing why she seemed so distressed and frightened.
“Are you Jewish?” she said.
“No,” she said. “You were baptized and you go to Catholic schools. Are you Jewish?”
“I was baptized… and go to Catholic schools.”
“Good girl,” said Grandma, kissing me on the forehead before she hugged me.
“You see?” said Grandpa, messing my hair in that nice way he always did. “I told you she was clever.”
The rest of my family didn’t consider me so clever. They said I was “obsessed with being Jewish,” only they said it in the same hateful way my classmates called me “Yid” and “Kike,” often using the same anti-Semitic terms. Though everyone in our family used Yiddish words and phrases, though everyone acknowledged that Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch were German and that all the rest of their family had remained in Germany, and though everyone said we all had “The Hirsch Nose” — whatever that meant — no one ever admitted that we were Jewish. Most, eventually, probably never realized it.
Yet I still kept dreaming that I was in the Nazi Concentration Camps, and every night I died there. As the years passed, I noticed that my Grandma Hirsch often cried to herself, alone, in the kitchen, but if I found her there and asked her what was wrong, she always said, “Nothing. Go play.” I realized that Grandpa Hirsch had an air of grief that no one else seemed to notice. If they did notice it, they never acknowledged it. Once, I asked Grandpa why he was always so sad, despite his jokes and his laughter around other people. He sighed.
“Because so many bad things happen in the world.”
How could I have possibly known that he meant the Holocaust? How could I have known that he and my Grandmother had lost every other single member of their family — all of whom were in Germany — between the years 1940-1945? No one else would even admit that we were Jewish, my Grandma insisted that I must keep it a secret, and eventually, most of my family even forgot that we were Jewish, calling me crazy or obsessed whenever I insisted that we were.
So, about ten years after my Grandpa Hirsch died, when I had long lost contact with my abusive parents and siblings, when the nightmares of dying in the Nazi Concentration Camps increased to the point that they were waking me every single night, when I asked myself and the Universe, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” and the Universe answered, “Write,” that is what I decided to do.
I was already a writer — a poet, specifically — with many poems published in prestigious literary and university journals, working on Ph.D.’s in English and Comparative Literatures, and in Creative Writing. So that was what my dreams were telling me, I thought to myself in the dark in the middle of the night: I’m supposed to write about the Holocaust.
It was then that I realized that I knew nothing about it.
Beyond knowing that the Nazis had perpetrated this genocide against the European Jews during World War II, I knew nothing about the Holocaust. We had never studied the Holocaust in the Catholic schools I attended as a child nor in the history classes I took in college. I had never read Holocaust literature or, to the best of my knowledge, seen any films — documentary or otherwise — about the Concentration Camps, the Nazis, or the Holocaust. (My step-father watched World War II movies when he wasn’t watching football, but those John Wayne/Dirty Dozen-movies were always about the soldiers and how they’d beaten or escaped from the terrible Germans, who were Nazis. Those movies were never about the Holocaust and what had happened to the Jews. They were adventure/action movies about the American heroes who ended the war, or about the American POW-heroes who outwitted the mostly dimwitted German-Nazis. [My father was a huge fan of the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.”] The movies and shows he watched were never, ever about the Jews or the Holocaust.)
What I read while researching the Holocaust so that I could write about it did more than depress me: I found myself crying to the point of grieving. I was unable to do anything else but think of the Holocaust, the Jews, my lost heritage, and my poor Great-Grandparents. Yet none of the books or films or memoirs answered some of my most important questions.
That’s when I decided to find survivors and ask them if I could talk to them about the Holocaust and their experiences.
That’s when I met Anna Ornstein, who was in Auschwitz when she was only 16 years old.
I got her name and professional address from one of my dissertation advisers, who had heard her speak on the Holocaust. She and her husband Paul, also a survivor, lived in Cincinnati, where I was working on my Ph.D. I sent them a copy of my first — and at that time, my only — Holocaust poem: Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays For Himself. In the accompanying card, I told them I had questions about the Holocaust and wondered if I could talk to them. Anna called me right after she and Paul read the poem. She asked what camp I’d been in.
The Ornsteins both thought I was a survivor myself. (Part of that might have been due to my adopted father’s last name: his parents came from Hungary during the war, and Anna, Hungarian herself, recognized the name. She and her her husband Paul are the only ones who’ve ever pronounced it correctly without being told how to say it.)
Because Anna wanted to know as much from me about myself and creative writing as I wanted to know about the Holocaust from her, we decided to meet. She was fascinated in how I could have made her believe that I had been in a Nazi Concentration Camp, how I could have known some of the things I’d written in my poems if I’d never been there. I wanted to ask her about things I couldn’t find answers to in books. It took more than one meeting. It took more than a few months. It took years. What began as a common interest in examining the Holocaust, on my part, and understanding how artists create, on her part, developed into a life-long friendship. She and her husband Paul, who had escaped Auschwitz and survived the War with the Partisans in the woods surrounding the infamous extermination camp, welcomed me into their home, their hearts, their lives. They told me everything about themselves and their families – before, during, and after the war. They discussed moral issues surrounding the Holocaust. They introduced me to other survivors.
They read everything I ever wrote.
They reminded me of my Grandpa Hirsch, only without having to hide the fact that they were Jewish.
Eventually my poems on the Holocaust became so long that editors at the journals where I submitted the poems began to write me notes on the bottom of the rejection slips: “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” and “Is this supposed to be a short story or a part of a novel?” and, after I submitted a 32-page single-spaced poem, “Our journal is only 50 pages long…”
“Maybe I should write a novel about the Holocaust,” I said to myself one day, realizing that I had so many moral issues still to explore about it.
As soon as I thought that, I heard the voice of The Kommandant, from a poem I’d written (originally, a very bad short story) during grad school, about a Nazi Kommandant who forces a Jewish inmate with whom be becomes obsessed to be his “mistress.” I heard the Kommandant, who had no name up to that point, say, “Tell my story.” At the same instant, I heard the voice of the girl saying, “You can’t tell his story without telling mine.” And I saw a vision of the book I would write.
(By the way, I don’t know how that happens. It’s one of the mysteries of my art that I have never attempted to figure out, but this is what it’s like: I’m in a dark, unfamiliar room. For one instant, there is a flash of lightning which illuminates that room. In that moment, I see everything in the room, know most of its history, and understand something about it. Then the room goes dark again. My job then is to re-create, in words, that momentary vision. And that is the most difficult work I have ever done in my life.)
Throughout the writing of the book which would eventually become The Kommandant’s Mistress, I had many questions to which I could not find answers in my sources, primary or secondary, or from other survivors. Whenever that happened, I turned to Anna.
One of the most important questions I had while writing the novel involved the numbers the Nazis had tattooed on the arms of the Auschwitz inmates. These tattooed numbers, visible on the inner left forearms of many survivors, originated in Auschwitz, designed specifically as an Extermination camp rather than as a Concentration Camp.
Auschwitz was not meant to “detain” Jewish inmates for extended periods of time. It was built as part of the Nazi’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” — said “problem” being how to eliminate all Jews from Europe and other Nazi-occupied territories. It was constructed with the sole aim of killing Jews as efficiently and quickly as possible. By gassing them, en masse, mostly upon arrival, with Zyklon B: cyanide-pellets that turned to gas when exposed to air, designed to exterminate rodents, a term by which the Nazis had long referred to the Jews.
Not all the Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately killed, however. It seems the Nazis needed the Jewish labor for the war effort. By the time Auschwitz was operating at its highest capacity, Germany was losing the war. As its martial defeats increased, so did the Nazi escalation of eliminating the Jewish population in its occupied territories. Hitler’s rabid obsession with the Jews, and Nazi anti-Semitic attempts to exterminate the entire Jewish population in all of Europe, Russia, Greece, and any other Nazi-occupied territories, directly corresponded in escalation with Germany’s defeats and loss of territory in the War.
Thus, in 1944, when Anna, her family, her future husband Paul, his family, and other Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, the extermination camp was operating at what was probably its highest capacity: 450,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in about five weeks. The remainder were interned there, to be worked, starved, beaten, and tortured to death. Unless the Kommandant of Auschwitz was in one of his more playful moods. At such times, he would order all the inmates to line up in groups of five – zu fünf – and arbirtrarily shoot every tenth, or fifth, or umteenth one, until he got bored and trotted away on his famously beautiful white horse.
It was in Auschwitz that the practice of tattooing inmates began. These random, meaningless numbers were not a way to identify and keep track of the Jewish inmates, though the Jews believed that they were, but a way to further insult, degrade, and dehumanize them. These tattoos also mocked the Jewish beliefs: the origin of the traditional Jewish prohibition of tattooing seems to be in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” Tattooing may have been considered idolatry or part of pagan practices, which the Torah forbids.
Of course, some Jews have always gotten tattoos. Ilse Koch, wife of Karl-Otto Koch, the Kommandant of the Nazi Concentration Camps Buchenwald (1937-1941) and Majdanek (1941-1943), and one of the first prominent Nazis put on trial by the American Military, harvested Jewish tattoos, selecting interesting tattoos, having those Jews killed, and the tattoos cut away from the bodies; she is rumored to have said tattoos made into lampshades and other decorative items. Additionally, there are photographs of Auschwitz inmates’ tattoos, considered attractive or unusual by the notorious “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, who requested that these photographs be taken for him. One such tattoo that Mengele wished to have photographed was of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. (Later in his life, the Nazi photographer claimed he was “forced” to take the picture, and that he “regretted it.”) It is assumed that the Jewish inmate with that tattoo either died as a result of Mengele’s experimentation upon him, or in the gas chambers after the photo was taken.
When I was writing the scene where the female protagonist, Rachel, is getting tattooed in the unidentified Auschwitz-like camp, I had not yet gotten my first tattoo (which I would get at age 47), so I did not know what it felt like. Anna Ornstein has two numbers tattooed on her inner left forearm. I called her to ask about what getting a tattoo felt like.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
“Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know. I felt so happy those days we were tattooed that I simply don’t remember what it felt like.”
“You felt happy?”
“We thought it meant we would survive. We weren’t registered anywhere, so we thought they were identifying us with tattoos to keep track of us. I remember the sun was shining, birds were singing, and I was happy.”
“Why do you have two numbers?”
“They told us they got the numbers wrong the first day,” said Anna, “so they had to do they again the second day. To get the numbers right.”
“But the numbers were meaningless.”
“We didn’t know that, so I was happy. Besides,” she said, “we thought, ‘Even the Germans wouldn’t be stupid enough to go through all this trouble and then kill us all’.”
Anna went all along the line of tattoo artists until she found a girl who was doing very neat, small tattoos on the inmates’ inner left forearms. (Some inmates’ numbers are very large, stretching along the entire length of their forearms. Some numbers start on the inside of the inmates’ forearms before continuing on the back, down to their wrists.) Anna complimented the girl who was doing the small, neat tattoos on her work. The girl was flattered. Anna’s original tattoo — B-71 — if done under any other circumstances, could be called tasteful or even attractive. (Having had it so long, Anna simply considers it “part of [her] body.”) The next day, when they were ordered to get an additional tattoo — Anna returned to the same girl, complimenting her again and requesting that she be the one who did Anna’s next tattoo. The B was crossed out. An A, supposedly for their barracks though Anna was not in Barracks A but in Barracks B, was put before the original B. The number 200 was put above the previous 71. Anna’s number was, supposedly, technically, A-20071, but it ended up looking like this (I’m not sure of the type of line used to cross out the B, so I have not put it in):
In the seven years I’d spent researching the Holocaust, first for my poems, then for my novel, I had never been able to find any information on the tattoos, other than the fact that some Jews had them and some did not, and some photographs of them, like this one:
Anna’s story was so unlike anything I expected to hear that I put her story about the tattoo, exactly as she told it to me, into the novel (when Rachel is getting tattooed).
World War II ended 67 years ago. The Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps were liberated 67-68 years ago. Soon there will be no Holocaust survivors left to tell their own stories. Only those of us who knew them, and their own family members will be able to tell their stories. Eventually, however, the Holocaust will, inevitably, become part of the “distant past,” existing only in art.
Some children and grandchildren, in an effort to preserve their family members’ stories, have had the numbers of their loved ones tattooed into their own arms. Some oppose this; some approve. I believe that we each must choose our own ways of remembering the Holocaust and reminding others that this kind of hatred and genocide still exist, against Jews as well as against other ethnic or religious minorities.
I have written two books on the Holocaust, telling the stories of the survivors, the victims, the perpetrators, and the observers who stood by and permitted it to happen. In addition to telling the story of Anna’s tattoo in The Kommandant’s Mistress, I wrote the story of her mother’s and her time in Auschwitz — based on all the stories she told me over the years — in the poem “Sofie and Anna,” which appears in Where Lightning Strikes.
This year, I decided to go another step toward Remembering and Reminding others about the Holocaust. Yesterday, with Anna’s blessing and permission, I had her Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with the transliterated Hebrew words Yizkor (Remember) and Zachor (Remind).
My intention is to tell everyone who asks what it means Anna’s story and the story of the Holocaust. Until the day I die. After that, if I am lucky, I will be able to continue to tell the story through my books.
Already, however, I know I made the right decision, getting Anna’s numbers tattooed, along with Yizkor and Zachor, on my inner left forearm.
Because of what happened at the tattoo shop.
Of the three younger people (aged 33, 27, and 26) working at the shop where I got my tattoo, only one knew what the Holocaust was: the oldest. She’d asked what I wanted to get as a tattoo while I was filling out the required paperwork, awaiting the tattoo artist on duty that day. When I showed her and told her what it was, she said, “Oh, my god, that is so incredibly awesome and wonderful of you. Tell me about Anna.”
The young man who did the tattoo did not know what my intended tattoo meant. When I told him Anna had survived the Holocaust and those were her Auschwitz numbers, he said, “What’s the Holocaust?” (Apparently, it is still not taught in many schools, at any level.) He wanted to hear Anna’s entire story before he did the tattoo. Then he spent hours, literally, preparing the tattoo (it’s drawn on transfer paper, pressed onto the skin, and everything “approved” before tattooing begins, since, once done, it can’t be undone). In fact, the actual tattoo took less than fifteen minutes. It took so long to prepare, he told me, because he wanted it to be as “respectful” as possible, and to be as “beautiful” as he could possibly make it, considering what it originally represented.
When he put the transfer on my inner arm, I got emotional.
“Don’t get emotional on me,” he said, “or I’ll get emotional and I won’t be able to see what I’m doing.”
Afterward, with a catch in his voice, he asked if I would please tell Anna how honored he was to have been chosen (even if by fate) to have done “her” tattoo. I told him that I would tell her as soon as I got home. He shook my hand several times, thanking me for telling him Anna’s story. He also told me that he has had many Jewish customers come in for tattoos, usually for a Star of David. He said he will tell every one who comes in about my tattoo as well as about Anna’s story. He said he also intends to read up on the Holocaust.
When I went to pay, I was charged much less than the price I was originally quoted. I asked why. The other young man in the store said he was told to give me the largest discount they offer, for that tattoo and for any other tattoo I ever have done. He then asked to see it. He asked what it was. The young girl told him.
He said, “What’s the Holocaust?”
“You love history,” she said, “but you don’t know about the Holocaust?”
“I know it happened during World War II. I guess I better read up on it.”
Then he asked me to tell him Anna’s story.
Afterward, he, too, shook my hand and thanked me.
I know some Jews fiercely object to having the numbers of Holocaust survivors tattooed on a child’s, grandchild’s, or friend’s inner left forearm. Some famous survivors have spoken publicly against it. The Internet is filled with debate on the “trend,” as it is sometimes derogatorily called, and the debate seems equally divided for and against people having the numbers of their loved ones tattooed on their own arms in order to tell the story of the Holocaust. There are others, too — non-Jews — who oppose this practice: some state their reasons, some do not.
But already, by having my friend Anna’s Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with Yizkor and Zachor, I have accomplished what I wished. One young girl who knew about the Holocaust learned Anna’s story. Two young men who knew about World War II but nothing else, learned about Anna and about the Holocaust itself. All three are determined to share that story with others.
This is how we will help keep the Holocaust from becoming the “distant past” that can “never happen again” — by telling the story, over and over and over. By making it personal. By emotionally involving others so that they, too, feel compelled to tell it. Perhaps, by continuing to tell the stories, in every way we can, we can make a difference.
Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
For more information on the Holocaust database
or to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims