Counting Numbers at The Auschwitz Exhibit

roslyn bernstein
6 min readNov 15, 2019

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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.”

One of them stares at me from a photo-blow-up on the side of the car. She is caught looking out, just before the door closes. The text is grim: “Anna Maria (Settela) Steinbach, a Roma girl, born in the Netherlands in 1934. On May 19, 1944, she, along with 244 other Roma, was transported to Auschwitz on a train that also contained 207 Jewish prisoners. Rudolf Breslauer, a Jewish prisoner in the Westerbork concentration camp, who had been ordered to shoot a movie, captured this iconic image. Settala was murdered in Auschwitz at age nine.”

Inside the Auschwitz exhibit, I counted many other faces whose stories were equally grim. The Haberfeld family whose founding father Jakob opened the Haberfeld Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory in Oswiecim (later known as Auschwitz) in 1804. The distillery was well known through the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the 1930s, Haberfeld’s grandchildren Gerhard, Alfons, Erwin, and Ada, benefiting from the company’s success, were upper class citizens of the town. Alfons received the Silver Cross of Merit from the Polish government for his social work with the poor and his wife Felicia was known for her efforts to improve the lives of local women.

This was all before Hitler’s army arrived. In July 1939, Felicia and Alfons Haberfeld traveled by ship to the United States to represent the family business at the New York World’s Fair. They left their two-year-old daughter, Franciszka with her grandparents in Krakow. When World War II broke out and Germany occupied Poland, the Haberfelds could not return. In December 1939 they landed at Ellis Island as refugees.

Two years later in 1941, Franciszka and her grandparents were forced to move into the Krakow ghetto. After the war, Felicia and Alfons learned about the tragic fate of their family. “The Germans had discovered six-year-old Franciszka hiding in a basement with her grandparents during a roundup of the ghetto in 1942. They were deported to the Belzec death camp and murdered.”

All of their tragedies are remote when one looks at the wedding portrait of Alfons and Felicia from 1936: he is dressed in a perfectly tailored tuxedo with a white bowtie and a boutonniere in his lapel; she wears an elegant white dress with a matching headpiece. Installed next to their photo in the exhibit is a studio portrait of their daughter Franciszka Henryka (ca. 1940), a rosy vision in her pink socks with matching pink bows in her hair. We can almost touch her.

Everywhere there are faces to count: There’s a poster designed for use in schools from 1939 with a grid of twelve children’s faces. The two left columns are of German Youth (Deutsche Jugend) and the two right columns of Jewish Youth (Judische Jugend). The text below is a punch in the gut. Its English translation: “The soul of the race speaks in the face.”

There’s Metamorphosis (1903), a harsh cartoon that appeared in a German satirical weekly. If we move from left to right over its three panels, counting one-two-three, we can see the transformation from the Russian Jewish peasant dressed in rags to the well-dressed Jew who has become a member of upper-class society, clearly a threat to anti-Semites.

In the wall text that accompanies a school photo of the girls in a Beit Yaakov school in Bedzin (ca. 1930), we are told that by 1938, there were 250 branches of Bais Yaakov schools in Poland, educating some 38,000 girls. More numbers, more counting.

I can count more than 35 guests in Anne Frank’s parents’ wedding portrait (1925).

A wall size map shows the percentage of Jews among the total population before the Holocaust: the biggest number in Poland where there were 3,250,000 or 10 percent, Hungary 401,000 or 4.9 percent, and Romania, 757,000 or 4.2 percent.

Colored snapshots of the Hoss family in their garden from 1943 show them enjoying the sun and tending their beautiful flowers. Rudolf Hoss was the commandant at Auschwitz. We are told that his house and garden were located only 400 feet away from the Auschwitz I prisoner compound and Crematorium I. So close and yet so far.

There’s a poignant inventory of Solomon Weinreb’s belongings which were held in the Auschwitz storehouse (1941). It is marked with ink numbers, a reminder of how carefully the authorities counted the modest belongings of their prisoners.

My head is swirling from the numbers. I cannot escape them. They run through the manuscript of The Girl Who Counted Numbers, a novel that I am working on which is set in Israel during the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961. It is a mystery that involves a young American’s search for her uncle missing since the Holocaust. His family came to America in 1921 but he refused to come and remained in his shtetl. No word of him ever since and no records. Did he survive?

Nineteen sixty-one, the year when Holocaust survivors and new immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia walked the streets of Jerusalem. The year when all Israel sat glued to their radios listening to the Eichmann trial.

It was the moment that I began counting the survivors.

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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.