Counting Numbers at The Auschwitz Exhibit

roslyn bernstein
6 min readNov 15, 2019

For as long as I can remember, I jumped over lines and cracks in the sidewalk, repeating to myself as I leaped in the air, “Step on a line, break your mother’s spine; Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Always counting, as I hurtled forward.

Numbers were my way of controlling the environment, whether it was the concrete pavement that I walked on or the Broadway musical, where I sat in the audience and counted the performers who took a bow at the end of every performance.

Numbers were very much on my mind in 1961 when I visited Israel for the first time. It was the year of the Adolf Eichmann trial and survivors were everywhere and they had concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. I had never seen them in New York City where survivors tended to wear long sleeves to cover up their numbers. But in Israel, a hot climate, numbers were to be seen on the streets, in the markets, and in the cafes. There was no escaping them.

I spent nearly a year counting them, all the while studying their lined faces.

I saw many of those faces yesterday at Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away, an exhibit at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage. First shown in Madrid, where it was seen by over 600,000 visitors from all over Europe, it made its U.S. debut in New York City on May 8, 2019 and will be up until August 30, 2020.

Featuring 700 original objects and 400 photographs, the exhibit juxtaposes personal objects and testimonies with architectural fragments from the camp. Even before one enters the museum, the setting is somber. Outside on Battery Place, an original German-made Model 2 freight train car used for the deportation of Jews, Roma and other undesirables to the ghettos and extermination camps during the war reminds us that we are about to enter a dark and troubling place. There are numbers on a corner of its wooden frame, relating to its size and weight. In front of the car, the curators have installed text which reads: “There were 120,000 of these cars built between 1910 and 1927, to transport foodstuffs, goods, and livestock.” The final sentence begins the litany of numbers that march through the exhibit: “Up to 100 people would be crammed into a single wagon.”

roslyn bernstein

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet. Books include The Girl Who Counted Numbers,Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.