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Sunday, November 23, 2014

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The numbers 14447

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“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” – Elie Wiesel

I met a man who wasn’t in Auschwitz. In fact, he wasn’t alive during the Holocaust, yet on his left inner forearm are the concentration-camp numbers 14447.

These five numbers belonged to Eduard Berkovits, a Jew, and survivor of Auschwitz. Three years after Eduard’s death, in 2008, his son, Lou, had them tattooed on his arm. When I tell people what Lou has done, they ask me to repeat what I said. Then they are silent. That’s how I responded, too, when Lou first showed me his 14447.

Lou is a local real-estate broker, a father and a husband. His father, of blessed memory, was a Romanian Jew who was in Auschwitz. There he watched over his younger brother. They suffered together. They survived together.

Before the war, Eduard had been Orthodox. After his liberation, however, Eduard married a non-Jewish woman. They moved to Israel. When Lou was 10, they made Canada their home.

Lou told me his father was an extraordinary man. He said he was an entrepreneur, free and independent – the type of soul the SS could not keep down. Upon arriving in Canada, he rented a mechanic bay, made his own tools and put up a sign that said, “I fix anything.” The people came. “He had no sense of entitlement,” Lou said about his father. “That was amazing to me.”

Over the years, Lou watched his father live. He saw a man with a powerful work ethic, someone who lived life with gusto and passion. When Eduard died of a brain tumour, Lou wanted to somehow hold onto his father’s energy. “Really, I was looking for something beyond the memory.” He wore his father’s ring, but it held no significance.

One day, Lou remembered a time when Eduard already had dementia and was unable to recall, in a discussion, much at all about his liberation. He did, however, remember the meaning of the 14447 on his arm. He pointed to the numbers and said, “Laga,” to his son, a slang Hungarian word for camps.

Shortly afterward, Lou went to a tattoo artist and had 14447 inked into his body. He chose to be branded. “When I looked at the numbers, I saw my father’s face. It gave me strength to do the right things. The numbers affected me so much. They were just so much part of him,” Lou said.

“The tattoo was against his [Eduard’s] will. But he fought beyond it. 14447 represents the experiences which he encountered at a very young age – the fear, loneliness, helplessness, misery, and I’m sure every other horrible emotional and psychological trauma that he faced.

“But 14447 also represents my father’s character, his strengths and smarts, but mostly his unwavering determination to become a survivor. They are the things that made him the most unique person in the world to me,” Lou continued.

 “He was branded and he was my father. For that he deserves my ultimate respect, and commitment to never forget his life.”

Lou said he has never regretted getting the tattoo. He’s doesn’t known anyone else who did the same. He added, “Those numbers represent everything that is right and wrong with people in our world.”

“On my left forearm I bear the Auschwitz number; it reads more briefly than the Pentateuch or the Talmud and yet provides more thorough information.”

– Jean Améry in At the Mind’s Limits.

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