Last winter I began work on a book project about my mother and her small circle of friends. When Bergen-Belsen was liberated in 1945, the Swedish Red Cross brought her to Sweden, where she was sent to the small industrial city of Boras to work in a textile factory. The women she met in Boras—almost all of those brought to Sweden by the Red Cross were women—became a surrogate family to her, replacements for the sisters she’d lost during the war.

Many of the women remained in Boras until the 1950s, when most departed for the United States, Canada, or Israel. Yet even after my mother came to the United States and made contact with blood relatives—some of them American-born and others who had also been in the camps and survived Hitler—she felt a special bond and connection to the Borasers and stayed close to them. As a child growing up in Borough Park, I remember running around with other children whose mothers had been in Boras, squeezing into the crawl space under the tables and chairs that were our make-believe bunkers and hiding places, while overhead the talk was as always of death and murder, suffering and hunger.

As part of my research for the project, I had been granted access through Columbia University to the Visual History Archives, which are the audiovisual archives of the Shoah Foundation. But my access was limited by my freelance work schedule and the library’s hours. So I searched online, looking for other resources and testimonies and interviews with survivors that might illuminate my mother’s experience.

I found little of value with respect to my mother’s story. But, almost incidentally, I happened upon information about someone else whose life I hadn’t planned on researching: the other survivor in our household, my father.


When you Google the terms “Holocaust” or “survivors of the Holocaust,” there are almost as many websites devoted to denying the existence of the Holocaust as there were victims. The results of one search yielded the Auschwitz Archives, an amateurish page that I took at first to be yet another site for Holocaust deniers but is actually the repository for all the extant archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I found it hard to focus on the home page, something that had less to do with the site than with the belief that no one can look directly at Auschwitz and remain sane, which is itself but a corruption of the biblical story where God tells Moses that no man may behold God’s face and live. Similarly, I had spent my childhood looking out the corner of my eye at my mother and her Boraser friends, grasping at their experience obliquely and by way of inference.

The Auschwitz Archives carries a disclaimer, explaining that during the evacuation and liquidation of KL (Konzentrazion Lager, or concentration camp) Auschwitz, by order of the camp authorities almost all important documents were destroyed, including prisoners’ personal files. Thus, it was impossible to establish full and accurate information about all the people who were imprisoned. Still, some documentation had survived.

There was a prisoner search function, asking for the person by last name, camp identification number, occupation, date of birth, place of birth, place of origin. I had zero expectation of my mother turning up in the archives’ records. Although she was in Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war, she had first been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944, the start of the extermination of Hungarian Jewry. When she arrived in Birkenau, the death camp, the gas chambers and crematoria were running full out, and the thinking may have been, why spill ink on those who are headed to the gas chambers anyway? So, she was never tattooed. After two months in Birkenau—the darkest days of her life—she and her two younger sisters were selected as part of a group of 3,200 girls and women sent to work in Germany and they ended up, together, as laborers in a munitions factory. Of the 3,200 lucky enough to be picked for that transport only 34 would survive—including my mother, but not her sisters. And so when I entered my mother’s name in the archives’ database, I didn’t expect to find anything, and was not surprised when my search yielded no results.

Since I was already on the site, I decided to fill out a search form for my father. It was more an afterthought than anything else, just as his life during the war had always been an afterthought. My father had been the invisible man in our household and his experience, a mystery, an abstraction. Not because he wished to keep that experience secret but because of his matter-of-fact attitude toward what he had been through. Unlike my mother, who spoke frequently with her Boraser friends about her experiences, he did not dwell on his life before the war, perhaps because that life had been so impoverished, so miserable, that some part of him felt guilt at his inability to mourn its passing.

My father was taken from Sosnowiec (“Sosnovitz,” as it fell from his lips) after the liquidation of the ghetto and was sent to Auschwitz, where he became prisoner number 172070. I grew up looking at those six numerals on his left forearm, so one would think they would be indelibly imprinted on my mind. But it is strange how such things really work. I had to check with my younger brother to confirm the number but it turned out he was even more confused than me: He remembered it being 170017. Fortunately, however, there was an old photograph in my apartment of my father holding my son, then an infant, at a birthday party. It is summertime and my father wears a short-sleeve shirt. With a magnifying glass, the blue tattoo is clearly decipherable.

I filled in the details of my father’s life on the website—his birth date, the tiny village where he was born, the names of his mother and father, the city from which he was deported. I stopped at “date of arrest”—what constituted his “arrest”? He had been in one of the final transports from Sosnowiec together with a smattering of others left behind to clean up after the liquidation of the ghetto. Apprenticed as a tailor prior to the war, he sewed together scraps—clothing, fabric, bedding—to be shipped to Germany as war materiel. He spent those last three months in Sosnowiec, he said, doing one thing: eating whatever he could. He didn’t know about Auschwitz but knew enough to know that the next place after Sosnowiec would be much worse than anything he’d known to then. So, he arrived in Auschwitz in as good a shape as possible. He passed the selection and was placed in Auschwitz-Monowitz/Buna and sent to labor in the IG Farben synthetic rubber plant. In the barrack with him were two Italian Jews, one a chemist named Levi—whom my father referred to simply as “the chemist Levi” or “the Italian Levi,” not knowing until many years later that Levi had become a famous author.