I could not have been more than four or five when I asked her. It seemed to me, at the time, to be an innocent, straightforward question: “Mommy, when do I get my number?”
I was, of course, upset when she burst into tears and ran out of the kitchen, but I was also confused. This was Washington Heights in the 1950s. It was an enclave of survivors. Every adult I knew had a number. Even my teenage sister had one in blue ink tattooed on her forearm.
They were as ubiquitous on the benches of Riverside Drive as they were on the footpaths of Fort Tryon Park. If you saw an adult with some sort of hat on his head, he invariably also had a number on his arm. In the summer, when the community traveled en masse to Catskill bungalow colonies, or to Rockaway beaches, the numbers came too.
I presumed it was a ceremonious part of becoming bar mitzvah, or perhaps graduation from Breuer’s or Soloveichik, our local yeshivas. No one appeared to be embarrassed by their number. ARG! I never saw anyone try to cover it up when they went swimming. It seemed to be a matter of fact part of life.
When, as children, we would ask our parents why there was a “Mother’s Day” and a “Father’s Day,” but no “Children’s Day,” the automatic response was “Every day is ‘Children’s Day’!” In Washington Heights, in the ’50s, every day was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Ironically enough, at the same time, no day was Yom HaShoah. The commemoration, as it exists today, was not around then. Breuer’s and Soloveichik consisted almost exclusively of children of survivors, yet neither school had any assembly, or recognition of any type, of the Shoah.
The very word Shoah didn’t exist. The word Holocaust did, but it was never invoked. When on rare occasion our parents would make reference to the events that led them to leave Europe to come to America, they would label it “the War.”
I was already bar mitzvah when I first realized that my parents had been previously married and had prior children.
They spoke nostalgically of life “before the War”; they never spoke of what happened during “the War.” They spoke reverently of their parents and siblings who were “lost in the War”; they never spoke of their spouses or children who perished. After all, they had new spouses and new children who didn’t need to be reminded that they were replacements.
I was already bar mitzvah when I first realized that my parents had been previously married and had prior children. Years later I was shocked to discover that my sister with whom I was raised was not my father’s daughter.
When I finally came to understand that not every adult was a survivor, and people would ask me what survivors were really like, I never knew what to answer. There was Mr. Silverberg, our seatmate in shul, as jovial as Santa Claus, who always had a good word for everyone. On the other hand, there was Mr. Grauer, our neighbor whose face was indelibly etched in a frown and was always threatening to hit his wife or his children. In retrospect, as a psychiatrist, I could understand both, but who truly defined what it meant to be a survivor? Did anyone, or anything?
I learned the answer from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
This gadol hador, the greatest sage of his generation, was so renowned he was referred to simply as “Rav Moshe.” The closest I came to this legend was at Yeshiva University High School, where my rebbe was his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Tendler. Rabbi Tendler, and every other rabbi, would speak of Rav Moshe in awe-stricken tones usually reserved for biblical forefathers.
One summer I was spending a week with my aunt and uncle in upstate Ellenville. Uncle David and Aunt Saba, survivors themselves, as the doctor and nurse in charge of the concentration camp infirmary, had managed to save the lives of innumerable inmates, including my mother and sister. After “the War” they had set up a medical practice in this small Catskill village, where, I discovered, to my amazement, they had one celebrity patient - Rav Moshe.
My aunt mentioned casually that Rav Moshe had an appointment the next day. Would I like to meet him? Would I? It was like asking me, would I like to meet God.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I agonized over what I should wear. Should I approach him? What should I say? Should I mention that his son-in-law was my rebbe? Should I speak to him in English, or my rudimentary Yiddish?
I was seated in the waiting room, in the best clothing I had with me, an hour before his appointment. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually he arrived, accompanied by an assistant at each side. He didn’t notice me.
I was frozen. I had intended to rise deferentially when he entered, but I didn’t. I had prepared a few sentences that I had repeatedly memorized, but I sensed that my heart was beating too quickly for me to speak calmly.
My aunt was addressing him irreverently. I was mortified. Then it got even worse.
My aunt had heard the chime when he entered and came out of the office to greet him: “Rabbi Feinstein, did you meet my nephew Ikey? Can you believe a shaygitz [unobservant] like me has a yeshiva bochur [student] in the family?”
Rav Moshe finally looked at me. I was mortified. My aunt was addressing him irreverently. She was joking with him. She had called me Ikey, not Yitzchok, or even Isaac.
Then it got even worse. She walked over to him. Surely she knew not to shake his hand. She didn’t. She kissed him affectionately on the cheek as she did many of her favorite patients. She then told him my uncle would see him in a minute and returned to the office.
Rav Moshe and his attendants turned and looked at me, I thought accusingly. I wanted to die. In a panic, I walked over to him and started to apologize profusely: “Rabbi Feinstein, I apologize. My aunt, she isn’t frum [religious]. She doesn’t understand…”
He immediately placed his fingers on my lips to stop me from talking. He then softly spoke two sentences in Yiddish that I will remember to my dying day: “She has numbers on her arms. She is holier than me.”
Rav Moshe had understood what I had not. Our holiest generation was defined by the numbers on their arms.