Chapter 2: The Attic Full of Photographs
By Julie Goldstein Ellis, daughter of Magda Blaufeld Goldstein and Louis Goldstein, cousin of Lola Goldstein/Mueller Taubman
My mother had a blue number on her arm. A string of digits, six or seven of them, was tattooed on her left forearm. In front of the numbers was the letter A.
It’s strange, but although I grew up seeing that number every day, I can’t tell you what the number was. I never memorized it, never said it out loud. I don’t remember ever reading it silently to myself. But I know the A was for Auschwitz.
When I was young, I must have asked about it, but I don’t remember doing so. I don’t remember my mother saying anything about it at all, until much later in life. Only as a teenager did I start to learn about the dehumanizing horrors associated with that number.
At some point as a child, I must have realized that my parents had a very troubled background that my older sister and I should not ask about. We wanted to protect them from any further sadness and pain, so we never made trouble ourselves. We were always good. I remember at about age eight cutting myself on a piece of broken glass and my sister admonishing me, “Don’t tell Mom.” She secretly gave me a BandAid to take care of it. I felt frustrated and sad that I couldn’t tell my mommy I got a cut. Only now do I recognize how this small episode in my life was emblematic of the thought processes and dilemmas of the second generation.
When my son was very young, and we were visiting my parents in New York, he noticed the number on my mother’s arm. “Bobie Magda has a number,” he said. “Yes,” I said, “she does.” Here he was, an innocent, observant little boy and he had noticed. The secret. The thing we didn’t talk about. I didn’t even attempt to explain why she had a number tattooed on her arm, and he didn’t ask why. He just accepted it as a fact, as I must have when I was little, too. My parents had always tried to shelter me and my sister from knowing about the horrors they lived through. In the same way, I did not want to burden my son with the knowledge of how awful human beings could be to one another.
When I was growing up, there had always been a reticence in our home about World War II. No one wanted to talk about the subject to anyone else, let alone tune into their own feelings. Silence became a refuge, a safe place. When I was very young, I wasn’t always so silent. I was a gregarious girl in elementary school. I had lots of friends and was an outgoing student, eagerly raising my hand in class. That changed in the summer of 1967, after I finished the eighth grade. My family took a trip to Israel, where my parents were reunited with friends and family they hadn’t seen since just after World War II. These were people from their hometown in Hungary, people with whom they had survived the war. They were thrilled to see each other, singing songs and sharing stories of the good times when they were young.
Just after the Six-Day War, this was an exhilarating time to visit Israel and to see Israeli Jews as victorious. But our tour included visits to Holocaust memorials and museums, where I saw my parents break down crying. There I learned more details about the Holocaust than I had ever wanted to know. In one museum our guide made a dramatic presentation of artifacts from concentration camps, including soap made from human fat and a lampshade made from human skin. Seeing these actual objects in addition to all the photographic displays of what took place in the camps was staggering. Then there was no turning back. There was no way to shake the memory of my father sobbing as he showed other people on the tour the name of his hometown engraved on the wall of remembrance. The wall listed hundreds and hundreds of towns whose Jews had been murdered.
After that trip I became quieter, more introspective. I began to feel different from my classmates. I trained myself not to think very often about the image of my parents getting so upset at the Holocaust memorials, but it is something I will never forget. I can count on one hand the number of times I ever saw my father cry. That was one of them.
ADDITIONAL FAMILY RESOURCES
[by Julie’s cousin] Taubman, Lola. My Story. Self-published, 2013.