Survivors’ Tattoos Help Tell Their Story

Dani Chanoch, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania who has lived his postwar life in Israel, recently brought a film crew to the cemetery where he has reserved a burial plot. He told the crew proudly, on camera, that he will be the first member of his immediate family to be buried in a cemetery.

That statement, so powerful in its simplicity and all that it leaves unsaid, was just one of many survivor testimonies and stories included in the film “Numbered” that was screened this week in Manhattan. The screening was followed by a discussion with one of the producers. Several Claims Conference staff who attended the screening shared with me their thoughts about the film.

survivors from "Numbered"

“From what I heard about the film in advance, I was skeptical of the subject matter: a focus on tattooed numbers? Seeing the film, however, changed my perspective entirely,” said Lori Schuldiner Schor, Social Welfare Program Manager in our allocations department. “As a child of two survivors, including one with a number on his arm, I found the film to be a loving tribute to post-war resilience. Though I cried for 50 minutes of the 60 minute screening, I have recommended the film over and over again to practically anyone who was willing to hear about it. I’m proud to know that the Claims Conference supported this important documentation of real life by documenting the vivacious manners and attitudes of concentration camp survivors.”


Amy Wexler, our Public Relations Manager, was intrigued by the filmmakers’ approach to the topic. “I thought it broke through the clutter in so many terrific ways – visually, musically, stylistically, and, above all, the way the topic was treated with such frankness,” she said. Amy was especially moved by the interview with Dani Chanoch and his blunt pride about one day being buried in a cemetery.

Program Officer Marisa Scheinfeld, who oversaw the Claims Conference grant for the movie, also thought the film’s artistic elements enhanced its depiction of the topic. “I found the imagery both beautiful and touching, coupled with the filmmakers’ use of a camera clicking throughout many parts of the film while making the still images. Combined with the moving footage, it was very powerful. Many Holocaust films can feel dry, gory and/or immensely upsetting. This film is current, relatable and brings something new to the table,” Marisa told me.

The Claims Conference allocated funds last year toward producing this remarkable movie. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, “Numbered,” winner of a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival and an official selection at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, was also screened in Tel Aviv, Los Angeles and London.

man from "Numbered"

At 55 minutes long, “Numbered” introduces 30 Holocaust survivors, all Israeli, through their testimonies and focuses on four survivors with in-depth accounts. The film’s press material describes the movie as follows: Auschwitz prisoners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were tattooed with serial numbers, first on their chests and then their left arms. An estimated 400,000 numbers were tattooed in Auschwitz and its sub-camps; only some several thousand survivors are alive today… The film documents the dark time and setting during which these tattoos were assigned, as well as the meaning they took on in the years following the war.

Dani Chanoch talks with unnerving openness about his tattoo. “I love the summer, everyone can see my number then. It’s a sign of prestige today. I have a number, I’m a celebrity,” he says. “It usually throws them off though. Especially Germans. They don’t know what to do with themselves when they see it.”
Co-producer Neta Zwebner-Zaibert says that the filmmakers didn’t set out to address the big issues of the Holocaust. “This is a film about people and their stories. We wanted to show another side of the survivors,” she said in a post-screening Q&A. “Some of the people told us things they never told their families.”

man from "Numbered"The testimonies are as varied as each survivor’s tattoo. Many wear their number as a badge of honor. Zoka Levy, an admitted shopping addict who has since died at age 85, was not ashamed of her tattoo and would respond defiantly to those who suggested she have it removed by a plastic surgeon. “I say, why? I’m not the one who should feel ashamed. Those who did this to me should be ashamed,” she said.

Making the film began with Dana Doron, MD, who is currently a resident in Rehabilitation and Physical Medicine in the brain injury ward of Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, Israel. Several years ago, as a medical intern in an emergency room, she treated an elderly Auschwitz survivor with a number on her arm. As the granddaughter of a survivor, Dana decided to explore the legacy of survivors and their indelibly etched marks with Uriel Sinai, an award-winning photojournalist, who makes his film and cinematography debut with this movie.

Neta told the audience at this week’s screening that “we’re meeting more and more people that are getting numbers tattooed,” to honor a parent, like Hannah Rabinovitz, daughter of Leon Klinger, who is featured in the film. “Some survivors like it,” Neta said. “Others said we need to let it go.”

Hannah Tessler, who survived with her sister Sara, cannot recall her number when asked, although she admits to knowing the shoe size of every resident of her kibbutz where she was responsible for distributing footwear.

Members of the audience at this week’s screening had strong reactions to the film. Nicole of Brooklyn said that she regrets that she didn’t have the opportunity to get to know her survivor grandparents better as she was quite young when they died. She recalls eating bagels and lox with them in their Los Angeles home where they settled after the Holocaust. “They’ve informed so much of what I’ve chosen to do with my life – the study of genocide and conflict,” she said.

group from "Numbered" Audience member Karl Ludwig saw the film through a unique prism. A resident of Berlin, Karl is in New York as a volunteer with Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a German-based organization founded in 1958. The organization acknowledges Germany’s responsibility for Nazi crimes and was established out of the belief that “the first step towards reconciliation had to be made by the perpetrators and their descendants,” according to the organization’s materials. Through DOROT, a New York agency for Jewish elderly, Karl assists a woman who survived Auschwitz. He admired the way the film showed survivors falling in love after the Holocaust and having families despite what they endured. “It’s about life and moving on,” he said.

With the survivors among us growing fewer every year, our time with Holocaust eyewitnesses and to record their stories is ever more limited. A film like “Numbered” not only memorializes the Shoah but reminds us that every survivor – and every victim – has a unique, individual story that deserves to be remembered.

All photos courtesy of “Numbered.”

One thought on “Survivors’ Tattoos Help Tell Their Story

  1. Auschwitz survivor looking for long lost twin- Tattoo number only sure ID #A7734. For those unfamiliar to this search. Two twins were separated at Auschwitz in 1945. They were 4 years old. Elias {Elijah? spelling?} Gottesman is looking for his long lost twin that may or may not remember his family of orgin. However the twin brother, Jeno {Jolli} Gottesman would not ever be able to get away from the tattoo on his arm- A7734. If you have any information on a Jewsih holocaust survivor born in 1940 ish…from Hungary, please contact me, or the researcher in charge of this search. They have been apart for 67 years. Any leads, however small will be greatly appreciated. If you have nothing to share, please forward and post to all of your contacts and public pages. Please help us get this message in the right hands, and help him find his brother.


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