Numbers, in and of themselves are innocuous, it is the actions of people that imbue them with meaning.
The teenager wasn’t asked when the Nazis tattooed a number on his arm. A decision made by men declared that men, women and children could be catalogued, used and discarded. Numbers labeled them as less than human.
Unlike so many others beside him, by some miracle (or many small ones) the teenager survived Auschwitz. He moved to America, got married and had a family. Over the years, throughout all his activities, no matter what he accomplished, Gerhard Maschkowski always carried with him the reminder that once he was less than human: the number that branded him a Jew.
71 years after liberation from Auschwitz the numbers on Gerhard’s arm have faded, less clear but always there. Time has not, cannot, erase the numbers from his arm or the memories that accompany them.
Sometimes numbers are a lot more than just numbers.
Sometimes the contrast between one set of numbers and another is nothing short of breathtaking.
Militaries worldwide issue their soldiers identification tags: “dog tags.” Each army decides to put different pieces of information on the tag. IDF tags have the soldier’s first and last name and their military identification number which, interestingly, is different from the civilian social security number issued to all Israeli citizens.
Now try to imagine yourself in Gerhard Maschkowski’s shoes. After being transformed into nothing but a number, what would it be like to hold in your hand dog tags given to a different Maschkowski? A Maschkowski, young and tall and strong. A Maschkowski born in the land of the Israel, who has now joined the Israel Defense Forces.
Here the number is added to the name, it does not come instead of the name.
Here the number is a badge of freedom, not a mark of freedom stripped away.
The young Gerhard had no one to defend him and no tools to defend himself. Now Maschkowski’s can defend themselves and other Jews as well.
The IDF means that never again will Jews remain defenseless against those that wish to exterminate us. Never again will it be necessary to count on the mercy of another for our protection. History has taught us that there is no one else that can be relied on. We must save ourselves. The ability to do so is the freedom of Israel.
Just ask Gerhard. He knows.
Sometimes numbers are much more than just numbers.