Who am I?
I am the son of Holocaust Survivors, and I learned about the Holocaust at an early age. After all, it was the explanation for many things about my family. Why did my parents have numbers tattooed on their arms? Why didn’t I have any grandparents like many of my childhood friends? Why did my mother often wake up screaming in the middle of the night, calling for her mother and obviously reacting to a nightmare that was so real to her?
My sister and I heard the explanations for all of this and more from my mother, who told us in great detail about her and her sisters’ horrific experiences and the loss of their mother, our grandmother, to the gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz.
The Holocaust was also the explanation for how my mother, a girl from a small village in Hungary, met my father who was from a small town in Poland, and how they fell in love under the most inhuman conditions and survived the evil beyond imagination.
The Journey Begins
My journey to the documentary Only A Number began over thirty-five years ago when, as a married man in my twenties, I visited with my parents at the house I grew up in, which I did almost weekly.
My mother had been working on improving her vocabulary and written English, which I previously referred to as “Hunglish,” since her writing was more like Hungarian phonetics expressed in English letters and words. She brought me the product of her recent labor, a list of words she had taken from the dictionary, spelled correctly with definitions beside them. Then, on a separate piece of paper, my mother had written a paragraph using those words based on something she did that day.
Within the paragraph were three sentences that struck me with such deep emotion and pathos, especially because they were written with a simplicity and innocence that made them all the more powerful. The events of my mother’s day had triggered a memory of something that she experienced at Auschwitz.
Although I was not a stranger to these stories, I felt as if the words leaped off the page and smacked me with the contrast between a simple occurrence of everyday life and the horrific memory that had become attached to it because of what my mother endured at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.
My mother asked me, “So, what do you think of my work?” Knowing that she was only focused on her effort to improve her vocabulary, I first complimented her on that. Then, I pointed to the three sentences in the middle and I said, “Mom, I’m going to ask you to do something really hard, and I don’t care how long it takes or in what order the memories come to you, but I want you to write about what it was like growing up as a young girl in Hungary, what happened to you when the Nazis invaded your country and what you experienced during the Holocaust.” My mother hung on my every word and I continued. “This is going to be very hard for you emotionally, but it would mean so much to me to be able to share with my children when I have them, and their children when they have them, and so on.”
Only A Number: The Diary
About six weeks later, my wife and I returned for one of our visits with my parents and, as we sat in the living room catching up, my mother suddenly got up and said, “I’ll be right back” and then left the room. She returned within minutes and handed me three notebooks that were filled with her writing. She had even finished on pages of three-hole-punched lined paper that she had fastened together with a piece of string. I just looked at her in amazement and my mother said, “I did what you asked me to do.” I thought I would burst into tears with gratitude and pride I felt for my mother’s accomplishment and for this family treasure.
I began to work on transposing my mother’s “Hunglish” to another notebook and ultimately to typewritten pages on a manual typewriter (remember this was more than 35 years ago), always intent on keeping the simplicity and innocent tone of my mother’s “voice.” I put the pages in chronological order and made lists of questions for my mother, father, aunts and uncles in order to fill in gaps or for things that were beyond my mother’s knowledge.
My mother had a number of ideas for the title of her story, but she chose to call it Only A Number because that is how the Nazis made her feel when her life and identity were taken away. She became A-17855.
Only A Number: The Movie
Once the diary had been accomplished, I immediately had thoughts of ways to share the story. This was still well before many books were written, oral histories had been recorded, movies made and museums launched. At first, I thought that a published book would be appropriate and pursued that for a while. Then, working in television and film, I thought that my mother’s experiences and my parents’ love story had the makings of a great narrative movie. I still do.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, following my mother’s diagnosis of dementia and her progressive memory loss that the idea of a documentary film came to me.
When it reached the point where my mother did not remember writing the diary, I felt compelled to bring her memories to life and preserve them in the most powerful way available to me. Inspired by the documentaries Night and Fog and The Gleaners and I as well as the book The Lost, I decided to approach Only A Number as a journey of rediscovery. I would travel to the locations and sites of my parents’ experiences and use landscapes, artifacts, visual metaphors and archival imagery to find the remnants of their past in the present and record my mother’s diary in order to tell the story. And, I did.