On Shavuot, We Are All Individuals — Not Numbers
Jack “Srulek” Feldman is a smiling, sprightly old man who lives in Rochester, New York, where — until relatively recently — he owned and ran a local fish store called Modern Fish Market.
Jack’s early life was typical for a middle-class Polish Jew born in the early 20th century. The family was Orthodox, but not strictly, and Jack was educated in both Hebrew and secular studies. They led a comfortable existence, even as the world around them was descending into madness.
In September 1939, Jack and his family were visiting relatives in Skaryzsko-Kamienna, when the news came through that Germany had invaded Poland.
Within a short period of time, everything was taken away from them by the Nazis, and the family — along with all the other Jews in the area — were forced to move into Sosnowiec Ghetto, where they shared a one-room apartment with 15 other people.
Then one day in 1940, Jack and some of his friends were walking along the street when they were suddenly grabbed by Nazi thugs and thrown into a holding cell. Jack never saw his parents and family again.
For the remainder of the war, Jack bounced around various labor camps and death camps — in constant danger of being killed or dying of starvation.
In 1944, Jack was sent to the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Upon arrival, Jack miraculously escaped death after being recognized by a Kapo who had once worked for his father. Although Mengele had already directed Jack toward the gas chamber, the Kapo surreptitiously removed him from that line and placed him in a work line instead.
Later that day, Jack was processed into the work camp and his arm was tattooed with the number A-17606. From then until his liberation, this number was Jack’s only identity.
In January 1945, news of the Soviet advances on the Eastern front reached Auschwitz, and the SS forced thousands of inmates, including Jack, to march from Poland to Germany on what later became known as the “death marches.” Thousands died of hunger and exposure, but somehow Jack survived, and on May 5, 1945, he was liberated in Germany.
Jack returned home to Sosnowiec, only to discover that not one member of his immediate family had made it through the hell of the Holocaust. Except for three cousins, he was entirely alone in the world; he was just 19-years old.
Determined to press ahead, he married a fellow survivor, Sally “Sura” Herzsenfus, and moved to the United States, where he built up his modest business and raised a beautiful family.
I came across Jack as a result of watching a poignant, deeply moving HBO documentary, The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm.
The short movie is presented through the eyes of Jack’s great-grandson, Elliott. Via a series of photo stills and some extraordinary rotoscope animation, Jack’s history is brought to life, gently narrated by Jack himself, as he is prompted by questions from his curious great-grandson.
The movie is introduced with Elliott holding up a photograph of Jack’s forearm with the tattooed number.
“This is a close-up of his number from Auschwitz,” Elliott says.“That was his number, and he told us [that] back then, your number was your name. That was all he was to them.”
The tattooing of numbers onto Jews was just one of several methods that were used by the Nazis to dehumanize victims of the Holocaust.
The verse describes the count as (Num. 1:2): מִסְפַּר שֵמוֹת — “a count of names.” Each individual in the count was expected to present themselves to Moses, and to introduce themselves by name.
Interestingly, when they were counted 40 years later, the count was not individualized; rather, it was a general count of families and tribes.
The message is simple. In order to be counted among a group, you must have an individual identity, and bring your own unique personality and strengths to enhance the group as a whole.
Jack Feldman, his parents Szaja and Matla, his sister Sura Laja, his brother Szulim Hersh, and every other Holocaust victim, whether they were killed or whether they survived, all had a name. They were not simply a number tattooed on an arm, or some list of statistics. Each one of them had a role to play in the dynamic group known as the Jewish nation — and the world as a whole.
As we head into Shavuot and contemplate the formative moment of our religious identity — the revelation at Mount Sinai, we must use the opportunity to refresh our identity so that our contribution is maximized for the good of the Jewish nation as a whole.
As Jack Feldman made clear to his great-grandson Elliott — you must never let yourself become a number.