69752. That it was his phone number. That it was tattooed there, on his left forearm, so he wouldn’t forget it. That’s what my grandfather told me. And that’s what I grew up believing. In the seventies, the country’s phone numbers were all five digits.
I called him Oitze because he called me Oitze, which meant something corny in Yiddish. I liked his Polish accent. I liked to dip my pinky finger (the only physical characteristic I inherited from him was his gnarled pair of pinky fingers that seemed to get more crooked every day) in his glass of whiskey. I liked asking him to draw me pictures, even though all he ever really drew were varying sketches of one twisted, disfigured hat. I liked the beet-red color of the sauce (jrein, in Yiddish) he poured over his white ball of fish (gefilte fish, in Yiddish). I liked to join him on his long walks through the neighborhood, the same neighborhood where one night, in the middle of an empty field, a plane filled with cattle had crashed. But mainly I just liked that number. His number.
It wasn’t long, however, before I understood his phone joke, and the important psychological weight it carried, and eventually, although nobody ever admitted it, the historical significance of that number. Then, whenever we would be walking together or whenever he would be drawing a series of hats, I would find myself staring at those five digits, and strangely happy, I would play at inventing the secret scene of how he had gotten them. My grandfather lying face up on a hospital stretcher while an immense German officer (dressed in black leather) stood above him shouting out the numbers to a feeble-looking German nurse (also dressed in black leather) who would then administer them to my grandfather, one by one, with branding irons. Or my grandfather sitting on a small wooden bench facing a semicircle of Germans dressed in white lab coats with white gloves and white lights on their heads like miners, and then, when one of the Germans would blurt out a number, a clown, illuminated by the bright German spotlights, would ride in on a unicycle, pull out a magic marker whose green ink could never be erased, and write that number on my grandfather’s forearm while all the German scientists applauded. Or my grandfather, standing in front of a movie theater box office, sticking his left arm through the round opening in the glass where the tickets are passed, while on the other side of the window, a big, fat, hairy German would take one of those rubber stamps with adjustable dates like they use at the bank (the same ones that my father also kept on the writing desk in his office and which I always liked to play with) and slam it down on my grandfather’s forearm, as if permanently marking the most important date in history.
That’s how I played with his number. Clandestinely. Hypnotized by those five green and mysterious digits that seemed tattooed not just on his forearm but on his soul.
Green and mysterious until recently.
In mid-afternoon, sitting on his old, lard-colored leather sofa, my grandfather and I were having a glass of whiskey.
I noticed the green wasn’t really green at all, but rather a diluted, pale, grayish green that made me think of something rotting. The 7 had been almost amalgamated with the 5. The 6 and the 9 were now virtually unrecognizable, little more than two swollen, deformed, unfocused masses. The 2 seemed to be leaking, for it appeared to have slid a few millimeters away from the other numbers. I looked into my grandfather’s face and suddenly I realized that in that old childhood game, in each of those little childhood fantasies, I had pictured him already old, already a grandfather. As if he were born a grandfather, or as if he had suddenly aged all those years at the precise moment when he received the tattoo I was now examining so meticulously.
It happened in Auschwitz.
At first I wasn’t sure I’d heard him. I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. A light rain purred like a kitten on the roof tiles.
This, he said, gently rubbing his forearm. It happened in Auschwitz. It was with the boxer, he said without looking at me or showing any emotion. His accent was no longer his own.
I wanted to ask him what it felt like, after nearly sixty years of silence, to have finally said something truthful about that number. To ask him why he had told me. To ask if letting those words free after keeping them holed up for so long had some sort of liberating effect. If words stored for so many years have the same delicate flavor when they roll roughly off the tongue. But I remained silent, impatient, listening to the purring of the rain, afraid of something, perhaps of the striking importance of the moment, perhaps of him not telling me anything more, or perhaps of the simple fact that the true story behind those five little digits would not be nearly as fantastic as my childhood imaginations.
Pour me another splash, eh, Oitze, he said, offering me his jigger glass.
I did, knowing that if my grandmother returned from shopping she would protest. Ever since his cardiac problems cropped up, my grandfather would limit himself to two ounces of whiskey at noon and another two ounces just before dinner. Not a drop more. Save for special occasions, of course, like a wedding, or a soccer match, or an Isabel Pantoja appearance on TV. This time, I thought he was bracing himself for what he wanted to tell me. Then I thought that if he were to drink too much in his current physical state, what he had to tell me might affect him, and possibly too much. He settled back into the old sofa, savoring that first, sweet sip, and once again I remembered when, as a child, I heard him tell my grandmother that they needed to buy more Red Label (the only whiskey he drank) just after I had discovered some thirty-odd bottles hidden in the pantry. And I told him so. And my grandfather responded with a smile filled with mystery, a wisdom laden with a sort of pain that I would never understand: In case there’s a war, Oitze.
He seemed distant. His eyes seemed blank and fixed on a large window where the sheets of rain could be seen descending over nearly the entire expanse of the green slopes of Guatemala City’s Elgin neighborhood. He continued chewing on something, some seed or scrap of food or whatnot. I hadn’t realized until then that the waist of his gabardine trousers was undone and his fly was half open.
I was in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Near Berlin. Starting in November of ’39.
He licked his lips, as if the words he had just spoken were some sort of food. He kept the number covered with his right hand while in his left he held the small, empty whiskey glass. I picked up the bottle and asked if he wanted a little more, but he didn’t respond or perhaps he simply didn’t hear me.
In Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, he continued, there were two blocks of Jews and dozens of blocks of Germans, maybe fifty blocks of Germans, all of them imprisoned for theft or murder or for marrying Jewish women. Rassenschande, they called them. The shame of the race.
He fell silent again, and it seemed to me as if his speech was unfolding like a series of calm waves. Perhaps because memory is also pendular. Or perhaps because pain can only be tolerated in small doses. I wanted to ask him about Łódź, about his siblings and parents (he kept a family photo, just one, that he had gotten many years later from an uncle who emigrated before the war erupted, and which he hung above his bed, and which made me feel nothing when I looked at it, as if those pale faces were not real people at all but, rather, anonymous gray personages cut from the pages of some history text book), I wanted him to tell me everything about what had happened before ’39, before Sachsenhausen.
The rain was lessening a bit, and a white, saturated cloud began to make its way up and over the nearby ravine.
I was the stubendienst for our block. The one in charge. Three hundred men. Two hundred and eighty men. Three hundred and ten men. Every day a few more, every day a few less. You understand, Oitze, he said, more of an affirmation than a question, and I figured he was making sure of my presence, of my company, so that he would not be left alone with his words. He said, lifting some invisible sustenance to his lips: I was the one in charge of morning coffee, and then, in the afternoons, of the potato soup and piece of bread. He said, fanning the air with his hand: I was in charge of removing the bodies of those we found dead in the mornings. He said, almost as a toast: But I was also the one in charge of receiving the new Jews when they arrived at my block, when they shouted juden eintreffen, juden eintreffen, and I would go out to receive them, and I realized that almost all of the Jews arriving at my block were carrying with them some sort of concealed, valuable object. Some small chain or watch or ring or diamond. Something. Well protected. Well-hidden somewhere. Sometimes it was something they had swallowed, and so a few days later it would come out in their shit.
He held out his glass to me and I poured him another shot of whiskey.
It was the first time that I’d heard my grandfather use the word “shit,” and at that moment, in that context, the word sounded beautiful.
Why you, Oitze? I asked, taking advantage of a brief silence. He furrowed his brow and squinted his eyes just a bit, looking at me as if suddenly we were speaking two different languages. Why did they put you in charge?
And in his old face, in his old hand with which he had stopped gesturing and was now covering the number again, I understood the many implications of that question. I understood the question disguised within the question: What did you have to do in order for them to put you in charge? And I even understood the question that is never asked: What did you have to do to survive?
He smiled, shrugging his shoulders.
One day, our lagerleiter, our director, simply announced that I would be in charge, and that was that.
As if the unspeakable could actually be spoken.
Although long before that, he said after pausing for another sip, in ’39, just after I had arrived at Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, our lagerleiter found me one morning hiding under my cot. I didn’t want to go to work, you see, and I thought I could spend the entire day hiding out under my cot. I don’t know how, but the lagerleiter found me there, dragged me out, and started beating me here, in the small of my back, with a wooden baton. Or maybe it was metal. I don’t know how many times. Until I lost consciousness. I had to spend ten or twelve days in bed because I couldn’t walk. After that, the lagerleiter changed the way he treated me. He said good morning and good night. He told me he liked the way I kept my cot clean. And one day, he told me that I was now the stubendienst, the one in charge of cleaning the entire block. And that was that.
He became thoughtful, shaking his head.
I don’t remember his name, or his face, he said. He chewed on something a couple of times, turned and spit it out, and as if with that it were sufficient to acquit the matter, he added: He had very pretty hands.
Of course. My grandfather kept his own hands in impeccable condition. Every week, sitting in front of an ever-loudening television, my grandmother pulled out his cuticles with a pair of tweezers, cut and filed his nails, and then, while she moved to his other hand, she would soak the first in a small basin filled with a viscous, transparent liquid that smelled like varnish. When she had finished both hands, she would open a blue jar of Nivea and massage the greasy, off-white cream into each finger, slowly, tenderly, until it had been completely absorbed. Then, my grandfather would put his black stone ring back on his right pinky finger. He had worn it there for nearly sixty years, as a sign of mourning.
All the Jews who arrived in Sachsenhausen gave their secret personal items to me. You understand. As I was the one in charge. I took these items and used them to negotiate, also in secret, with the Polish cooks for things that would be even more valuable to the Jews. I exchanged a watch for an extra hunk of bread. A gold chain for another cup of coffee. A diamond for the last ladle of soup, the most sought-after ladle from the whole batch, because it always contained an extra two or three potatoes hidden in the bottom of the pot.
Once again, the murmur of the rain upon the roof tiles kicked up, and I found myself thinking about those two or three mushy, overcooked potatoes, and how in a world defined by barbed wire they could be more valuable than any sparkling diamond.
One day, I decided to give the lagerleiter a twenty-dollar gold coin.
I pulled out my pack of cigarettes and sat there, toying with one. I could say that I didn’t light it out of pain, out of respect for my grandfather, out of consideration for that twenty-dollar gold coin which I immediately pictured as black and oxidized. But I better not say it.
So I decided to give that twenty-dollar gold coin to the lagerleiter. Maybe I thought I had gained his confidence, or maybe I was trying to curry some favor with him. But one day, among the group of newcomers was a Ukrainian man who handed me a twenty-dollar gold coin. He’d hidden it underneath his tongue. Days and days of keeping that coin hidden under his tongue, and that Ukrainian gives it to me, so I wait until everyone has left the block and gone out to work before going up to the lagerleiter and handing it to him. The lagerleiter didn’t say a thing to me. He just stuck it in his chest pocket, turned around, and walked off. Several days later, I was awoken in the middle of the night with a kick in the stomach. I was shoved outside and there was the lagerleiter, standing in a black raincoat with his hands behind his back, and only then did I realize why I was being beaten. There was snow on the ground. Nobody said a word. They threw me into the back of a cargo truck and slammed the gate. I was half-conscious and trembling throughout the whole ride. When the truck finally stopped, it was morning. Through a gap in the wood I could see a large sign on the inner metal door. Arbeit Macht Frei, it read. Work Brings Freedom. I heard the Germans laughing. A cynical, disparaging laughter directed at me, thanks to that stupid sign. Then they opened the door. They ordered me to get out. Everything was covered in snow. I could see the Black Wall. Then I saw Block 11. It was already ’42, and everybody knew about Block 11. People that went in there never came out. They left me sprawled out on the floor of a cell in Block 11 of Auschwitz.
In a useless but somehow necessary gesture, my grandfather lifted his empty jigger glass to his lips.
It was a dark cell. Very humid. With a low ceiling. Almost no light. Or air. Just the humidity. And packed with people. Masses and masses of people. Some were crying. Others were whispering the Kaddish.
I lit my cigarette.
My grandfather used to tell me that I was the same age as traffic lights, because the first traffic light in the whole country was installed at some downtown intersection on the same day I was born. Also, we were idling at a traffic light when I first asked my mother how babies got in a mother’s belly. I was stuck in the back seat of a huge jade-colored Volvo which, for some reason, vibrated and shuddered whenever we had to stop at a light. I didn’t mention that a friend of mine (Hasbun) had secretly told us during recess one day that a woman can get pregnant when a man kisses her on the lips, while another friend (Asturias) had argued, much more assertively, that a man and a woman had to undress together, bathe together, and sleep together in the same bed, but without touching one another. I stood up in that wonderful little gap between the two front seats and awaited my answer. The Volvo vibrating in front of a red light on Bulevar Vista Hermosa, the sky a surge of blue, the smells of tobacco and anise-flavored gum, the dark, affable smile of a campesino in sandals who approached the car asking for change, the silent shame of my mother as she tried to find the words, these words: Well, when a woman wants to have a baby, she goes to the doctor who gives her a blue pill if she wants a little boy or a pink pill if she wants a little girl, and once the woman takes that pill, she becomes pregnant. The light turned green. The Volvo stopped vibrating and I imagined myself stuck in a tiny glass bottle, mixed up between a multitude of tiny blue babies and tiny pink babies, my name etched in bas-relief (just like the word Bayer appeared on the bottle of aspirin that I took from time to time and that tasted so much like plaster), still and silent while waiting for some lady to arrive at the doctor’s office (who I could observe through the glass of the bottle, all bent and distorted like a funhouse mirror) and swallow me with just a little bit of water (and I understood, with the ingenious perception of a boy, of course, the cruel nature of chance, the casual violence of being shaken out into some woman’s waiting hand, any woman’s waiting hand, a giant, lucky, sweaty palm that would quickly transport me into an equally lucky and sweaty mouth), and thus, finally, introducing me into an anonymous belly from which I would later be born. I’ve never been able to shake the feeling of solitude and abandonment that I felt stuck in that glass bottle. Perhaps sometimes I forget it or decide to forget it or, absurdly, convince myself that I’ve forgotten it completely. Until something, anything, even the tiniest thing pops up and puts me right back into that glass bottle. For example: my first sexual encounter, as a fifteen-year-old, with a five-peso prostitute at a brothel called El Puente. For example: the mistaken room at the end of a Balkan trip. For example: the yellow canary that, right in the middle of the Tecpán plaza, selected a secret, pinkish prophecy. For example: the icy hand of a stuttering friend, offered for the last time. For example: the claustrophobic image of a dark, humid, constricting cell flushed with whispers where my grandfather was locked up, sixty years ago, in Block 11 of Auschwitz.
People were crying and reciting the Kaddish.
I reached for the ashtray. I was already feeling a little dizzy, but just the same I poured us the rest of the whiskey.
What else is there once you know that you’re going to be shot the very next day, eh? Nothing. You just cry or throw yourself down and start reciting the Kaddish. I didn’t even know the Kaddish. But that night, for the first time in my life, I recited it. I recited the Kaddish thinking of my parents and I recited the Kaddish thinking about how the next day I would be chained up in front of the Black Wall and shot. It was ’42 then and we all had heard about the Black Wall of Auschwitz and I even saw it myself when I was removed from the truck. I knew that was where the executions took place. Gnadenschuss, a single shot in the back of the head. But the Black Wall didn’t seem to be as big as it was supposed to be. It didn’t seem as black, either. It was black, but with little white marks. White marks everywhere, said my grandfather, poking his index finger in the air as if punching keys on a keyboard while I sat there, smoking, imagining a starry night sky. Splashes of white, he said. Left, perhaps, by so many bullets passing through so many heads.
It was very dark in that cell, he continued quickly, as if not to lose himself in that very darkness. And a man sat down next to me and started speaking to me in Polish. I don’t know why. Perhaps he heard me reciting the Kaddish and recognized my accent. He was a Jew from Łódź. Both of us were Jews from Łódź, but I was from Zeromskiego, near the Rynek GŁówny market square, and he was from the opposite side, near Poniatowski Park. He was a boxer. A Polish boxer. And we spoke all night in Polish. Or rather, he spoke to me all night in Polish. He told me in Polish that he’d been there for some time, in Block 11, and that the Germans were keeping him alive because they liked to watch him box. He told me in Polish that the next day I would be judged, and he told me in Polish which things to answer yes to and which things to answer no to during that judgment. And that’s how it happened. The next day, two Germans pulled me from the cell, took me to a young Jew who tattooed this number on my arm, and then they took me to an office where my judgment was to take place. A young woman was presiding there, and I was saved by telling her everything the Polish boxer had told me to say, and by not saying anything that the Polish boxer had told me not to say. You understand. I used his words and his words saved my life, and I never knew the Polish boxer’s name and I never recognized his face. Perhaps he was later shot.
I put out my cigarette in the ash tray and tipped back the last dregs of whiskey. I wanted to ask him something more about his number or about the young Jew who tattooed it. But I only asked him what the Polish boxer had said. He didn’t seem to understand my question at first, so I said it again, a little more anxious, a little more determined. Oitze, what things did the boxer tell you to say and not say during your judgment?
My grandfather laughed, still a bit confused, and as he leaned back I remembered that he refused to speak Polish. In sixty years, he hadn’t spoken so much as a word of his native language, the native language of those who, according to him, betrayed him in November of ’39.
I never found out if my grandfather didn’t remember the words of the Polish boxer, or if he chose not to speak them to me, or if they simply no longer mattered, if they had fulfilled their purpose as words and then disappeared forever, along with the Polish boxer who on some dark night pronounced them.
Once again, I found myself staring at my grandfather’s number, 69752, tattooed on his forearm by a young Jew in the winter of ’42, in Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the Polish boxer’s face, imagine his fists, imagine the white mark the bullet had made after it went through his head, imagine the words he had spoken in Polish which managed to save my grandfather’s life, but all I could imagine was an eternal line of people, all of them naked, all of them pale, all of them emaciated, all of them crying and reciting the Kaddish in absolute silence, all of them believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers while they waited in line in order to get numbered themselves.
By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright by Ezra E. Fitz. All rights reserved.