69752. That he had it tattooed there, on his left forearm, so he wouldn’t forget it. That’s what my grandfather told me. And that’s what I grew up believing. In the 1970s, telephone numbers in Guatemala were five digits long.
I called him Oitze, because he called me Oitze, which means something soppy in Yiddish. I liked his Polish accent. I liked dipping my pinkie (the only physical feature I inherited from him: these two curved little fingers, more warped every day) in his glass of whiskey. I liked asking him to draw me pictures, but he only actually knew how to draw one picture, quickly sketched, always identical, of a sinuous and disfigured hat. I liked the beet-red color of the sauce (chrain, in Yiddish) that he poured over his white ball of fish (gefilte fish, in Yiddish). I liked going with him on his walks around the neighborhood, the same neighborhood where one night, in the middle of a big vacant lot, a planeful of cows had crashed. But most of all I liked that number. His number.
It didn’t take me too long, however, to understand his telephone joke, and the psychological importance of that joke, and eventually, although nobody would admit it, the historical origin of that number. Then, when we went for walks together or he started drawing a series of hats, I would stare at those five digits and, strangely happy, play a game of inventing secret scenes of how he might have gotten them. My grandfather faceup on a hospital bed while, straddling him, an enormous German officer (dressed in black leather) shouted out the numbers one at a time to an anemic-looking German nurse (also dressed in black leather), who then handed him, one by one, the hot irons. Or my grandfather sitting on a wooden bench in front of a semicircle of Germans in white coats and white gloves, with white lights fastened around their heads, like miners, when suddenly one of the Germans stammered out a number and a clown rode in on a unicycle and all the lights shone their white light on my grandfather while the clown—with a big green marker, in ink that could never be erased—wrote that number on his forearm, and all the German scientists applauded. Or my grandfather standing at the ticket booth of a cinema, sticking his left arm in through the little round opening in the glass where they pass you the tickets, and on the other side of the window, a fat, hairy German woman setting the five digits on one of those stamps with adjustable dates like they use in banks (the same kind of stamps my dad kept on the desk in his office and that I liked to play with), and then, as if it was an extremely important date, stamping it hard and forever onto my grandfather’s forearm.
That’s how I played with his number. Clandestinely. Hypnotized by those five mysterious green digits that, much more than on his forearm, seemed to me to be tattooed on some part of his soul.
Green and mysterious until not so long ago. In the late afternoon, sitting on his old butter-colored leather sofa, I was drinking whiskey with my grandfather. I noticed that the green wasn’t as green as it used to be, but more of a diluted, pale, grayish color that made me think of something decomposing. The 7 had almost amalgamated with the 5. The 6 and the 9, unrecognizable, were now two swollen blobs, deformed and out of focus. The 2, in full flight, gave the impression of having moved a few millimeters away from the rest of them. I looked at my grandfather’s face and suddenly realized that in my childhood game, in each of my boyish fantasies, I had imagined him already old, already a grandfather. As if he’d been born a grandfather, or as if he’d aged once and for all at the very moment of receiving that number, which I was now examining so meticulously.
It was in Auschwitz.
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him. I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle purred against the roof tiles. This, he said, rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said. It was with the boxer, he said without looking at me and with no emotion whatsoever and speaking in an accent no longer his own.
I would have liked to ask him what it felt like when, after almost sixty years of silence, he finally said something truthful about the origin of that number. Ask him why he had said it to me. Ask him if releasing words so long stored up produced some liberating effect. Ask him if words stored up for so long had the same taste as they rolled roughly off the tongue. But I kept quiet, impatient, listening to the rain, fearing something, perhaps the intense transcendence of the moment, perhaps that he might not tell me anything more, perhaps that the true story behind those five digits might not be as fantastic as all my childhood versions.
Oitze, pour me another drop, eh, he said, handing me his glass.
I did, knowing that if my grandmother came back early from her errands, I’d be in trouble. Since he started having heart problems, my grandfather drank two ounces of whiskey at midday and another two ounces before supper. No more. Except on special occasions, of course, like a party or wedding or soccer match or a television appearance by Isabel Pantoja. But I thought he was building up strength for what he wanted to tell me. Then I thought that, by having more to drink than he should in his current state of health, telling me what he wanted to tell could upset him, possibly too much. He leaned back on the old sofa and savored that first sweet sip, and I remembered one time when, as a kid, I heard him tell my grandmother that she needed to buy more Red Label, the only whiskey he drank, even though I had recently discovered more than thirty bottles stored away in the cellar. Brand new. And I told him so. And my grandfather answered with a smile full of mystery, with wisdom full of some kind of pain I would never understand: In case there’s a war, Oitze.
He was sort of gone. His eyes were glazed over, fixed on the big window, through which we could contemplate the crests of rain falling over almost the whole of the green immensity of the Colonia Elgin ravine. He was chewing on something, a seed or a little bit of grit, perhaps. Then I noticed the top button of his gabardine pants was undone and his fly half-open.
I was at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Near Berlin. From November of ’39.
And he licked his lips quite a bit, as if what he’d just said was edible. He was still covering the number with his right hand while, with the left, he held the whiskey glass. I picked up the bottle and asked him if he wanted me to pour him a little more, but he didn’t answer or perhaps he didn’t hear.
In Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, he continued, there were two blocks of Jewish prisoners and lots of blocks of German prisoners, maybe fifty blocks of Germans, lots of German prisoners, German thieves and German murderers and Germans who’d married Jewish women. Rassenschande, they called it in German. Racial shame.
He was quiet again, and it seemed to me that his speech was like a calm surge. Maybe because memory is also pendular. Maybe because pain can be tolerated only in measured doses. I wanted to ask him to talk to me about Łódź and his brothers and sisters and parents (he had one family photo, only one, that he’d obtained many years later from an uncle who’d emigrated before the war broke out, and which he kept hanging on the wall by his bed, and which didn’t make me feel anything, as if those pale faces weren’t of real people, but the gray and anonymous faces of characters torn from some history textbook), ask him to talk to me about everything that had happened to him before ’39, before Sachsenhausen.
The rain let up a little and a swollen white cloud began to climb out of the depths of the ravine.
I was the stubendienst of our block. The one in charge of our block. Three hundred men. Two hundred and eighty men. Three hundred and ten men. Every day a few more, every day a few less. You see, Oitze, he said as an affirmation, not a question, and I thought he was making sure of my presence, of my company, as if he didn’t want to be left alone with those words. He said, and put invisible food to his lips: I was in charge of getting them coffee in the mornings and later, in the afternoons, potato soup and a piece of bread. He said, and fanned the air with his hand: I was in charge of cleaning, of sweeping, of changing the cots. He said, and kept fanning the air with his hand: I was in charge of removing the bodies of the men who were dead in the mornings. He said, almost announcing: But I was also in charge of receiving the new Jews when they arrived in my block, when they shouted Juden eintreffen, Juden eintreffen, and I went out to meet them and I realized that almost all the Jews who came into my block had some valuable object hidden on them. A little necklace or a watch, a ring or a diamond. Something. Well hidden. Well tucked away somewhere. Sometimes they’d swallowed these objects, and then a day or two later they would come out in their shit.
He held out his glass and I poured him another shot of whiskey.
It was the first time I’d ever heard my grandfather say shit, and the word, at that moment, in that context, seemed beautiful.
Why you, Oitze? I asked him, taking advantage of a brief silence. He frowned and closed his eyes a little and stared at me as if we suddenly spoke different languages. Why did they put you in charge?
And on his old face, in his old hand, which had now stopped gesturing and gone back to covering up the number, I saw all the implications of that question. I saw the disguised question inside that question: What did you have to do for them to put you in charge? I saw the question that is never asked: What did you have to do to survive?
He smiled, shrugging his shoulders.
One day, our lagerleiter, the camp commander, just told me that I’d be in charge, and that was it.
As if you could speak the unspeakable.
Though a long time before, he went on after a sip, in ’39 when I’d just arrived at Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, our lagerleiter found me one morning hidden under the cot. I didn’t want to go and work, you see, and I thought I could stay all day hidden under the cot. I don’t know how, but the lagerleiter found me hidden under the cot and dragged me outside and started beating me here, at the base of my spine, with a wooden or maybe an iron rod. I don’t know how many times. Until I passed out. I was in bed for ten or twelve days, unable to walk. From then on, the lagerleiter changed the way he treated me. He said good morning and good afternoon to me. He told me he liked how clean I kept my cot. And one day he told me I’d be the stubendienst, the one in charge of cleaning my block. Just like that.
He sat pensively, shaking his head.
I don’t remember his name, or his face, he said, then chewed something a couple of times, turned to one side to spit it out, and as if that absolved him, as if that might be enough, added: He had very elegant hands. I should have known. My grandfather kept his own hands impeccable. Once a week, sitting in front of the increasingly loud television, my grandmother removed his cuticles with little tweezers, cut and filed his nails, and then, while she did the same to the other hand, he soaked them in a tiny dish full of a slimy transparent liquid that smelled like varnish. When both hands were done, she took a blue tin of Nivea and spread and massaged the white cream into each of his fingers, slowly, gently, until both hands had absorbed it completely, and my grandfather would then put the black stone ring back on the little finger of his right hand, where he’d worn it for almost sixty years, as a sign of mourning.
All the Jews gave me those objects they brought in secretly when they entered Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. You see. Since I was in charge. And I took those objects and negotiated in secret with the Polish cooks and obtained something even more valuable for the Jews who were coming in. I exchanged a watch for an extra piece of bread. A gold chain for a bit more coffee. A diamond for the last ladleful of soup in the pot, where the only two or three potatoes had always sunk.
The murmur on the roof tiles started up again and I began to think of those two or three insipid, overcooked potatoes that, in a world demarcated by barbed wire, were so much more valuable than the most splendid diamond.
One day, I decided to give the lagerleiter a twenty-dollar gold coin.
I took out my cigarettes and started toying with one. I could say I didn’t light it out of sorrow, out of respect for my grandfather, out of courtesy for that twenty-dollar gold coin, which I immediately imagined black and rusty. But I’d better not.
I decided to give a twenty-dollar gold coin to the lagerleiter. Maybe I thought I’d earned his trust, or maybe I wanted to get on his good side. One day, there was a Ukrainian among the group of Jews who came in, and he slipped me a twenty-dollar gold coin. The Ukrainian had smuggled it in under his tongue. Days and days with a twenty-dollar gold coin hidden under his tongue, and the Ukrainian handed it over to me, and I waited until everyone had left the block and gone out to the fields to work and then I went to the lagerleiter and gave it to him. The lagerleiter didn’t say a word. He simply put it into the top pocket of his jacket, turned around, and walked away. A few days later, I was awakened by a kick to the gut. They pushed me outside, and the lagerleiter was standing there, wearing a black raincoat and with his hands behind his back, and then I reacted and understood why they kept punching and kicking me. There was snow on the ground. No one spoke. They threw me in the back of a truck and closed the door, and I was half-dozing and shivering the whole way. It was daytime when the truck finally stopped. Through a crack in the wood I could see the big sign over the metal gate. Arbeit Macht Frei, it said. Work shall set you free. I heard laughter. But cynical laughter, you see, dirty laughter, mocking me with that stupid sign. Someone opened the back of the truck. They ordered me to get out. There was snow everywhere. I saw the Black Wall. Then I saw Block Eleven. It was ’42 by then and we’d all heard about Block Eleven at Auschwitz. We knew that people who went into Block Eleven at Auschwitz never came out. They threw me into a cell and left me there, lying on the floor in Block Eleven in Auschwitz.
In a futile but somehow necessary gesture, my grandfather lifted his glass, now empty of whiskey, to his lips.
It was a dark cell. Very damp. With a low ceiling. There was hardly any light at all. Or air. Just damp. And people piled up. Lots of people piled up. Some people crying. Other people murmuring the Kaddish.
I lit my cigarette.
My grandfather used to say that I was the same age as traffic lights, because the first traffic light in Guatemala had been installed at some intersection downtown the very day I was born. Idling in front of a traffic light was also where I asked my mother how babies got into women’s tummies. I was half-kneeling on the backseat of an enormous jade-colored Volvo that, for some reason, vibrated when it stopped at traffic lights. I didn’t mention that a friend (Hasbun) had confidentially told us during recess that a woman got pregnant when a man gave her a kiss on the lips, and another friend (Asturias) had argued, much more audaciously, that a man and a woman had to take off all their clothes together and then shower together and then even sleep together in the same bed, without having to touch each other. I stood in that wonderful space between the backseat and the two front seats and waited for an answer. The Volvo vibrated before a red light on Vista Hermosa Boulevard, the sky entirely blue, the smell of tobacco and aniseed chewing gum, the black and sugary look of a campesino in rough sandals who came over to beg for change, my mother’s embarrassed silence as she tried to find some words, these words: Well, when a woman wants a baby, she goes to the doctor and he gives her a blue pill if she wants a little boy and a pink pill if she wants a little girl, and then she takes the pill and that’s it, she gets pregnant. The light turned green. The Volvo stopped vibrating and I, still standing and holding on to whatever I could so I wouldn’t go flying, imagined myself stuck in a glass jar, all mixed up among blue little boys and pink little girls, my name engraved in bas-relief) just like the name Bayer on the aspirins I had to take sometimes and that tasted so much like plaster), still and silent as I waited for some lady to arrive at the doctor’s clinic) I saw her wide and distorted through the glass, like in one of those undulating mirrors at the circus) and swallow me with a little water (and with the ingenuous perception of a child, of course, I perceived the cruelty of chance, the casual violence that would toss me into the open hand of some woman, any woman, a big, sweaty, fortuitous hand that would then throw me into a mouth just as big, sweaty, and fortuitous) in order, finally, to introduce me into an unknown tummy so that I could be born. I’ve never been able to shake off the feeling of solitude and abandonment I felt stuck in that glass jar. Sometimes I forget it, or perhaps decide to forget it, or perhaps, absurdly, assure myself that I’ve completely forgotten it. Until something, anything, the slightest thing, sticks me back into that glass jar. For example: my first sexual encounter, at the age of fifteen, with a prostitute in a five-peso brothel called El Puente. For example: a mistaken room at the end of a trip to the Balkans. For example: a yellow canary that, in the middle of a square in Tecpán, chose a secret and pink prophecy. For example: the last icy handshake from a stuttering friend. For example: the claustrophobic image of the dark, damp, crowded cell stuffed with whispers where my grandfather was locked up, sixty years ago, in Block Eleven, in Auschwitz.
People crying and people saying Kaddish.
I brought over the ashtray. I felt a little light-headed, but I poured us the rest of the whiskey anyway.
What else have you got left when you know the next day you’re going to be shot, eh? Nothing. You either lie down and cry or you lie down and say Kaddish. I didn’t know the Kaddish. But that night, for the first time in my life, I also said Kaddish. I said Kaddish thinking of my parents and I said Kaddish thinking that the next day I’d be shot kneeling in front of the Black Wall of Auschwitz. It was ’42 by then and we’d all heard of the Black Wall at Auschwitz and I had seen the Black Wall with my own eyes as I got out of the truck and knew perfectly well that was where they shot people. Gnadenschuss, a single shot to the back of the neck. But the Black Wall of Auschwitz didn’t look as big as I’d imagined. It didn’t look as black, either. It was black, with little white pockmarks. It had white pockmarks all over it, said my grandfather while pressing invisible aerial keys with his index finger, and I, smoking, imagined a starry sky. He said: Splashes of white. He said: Made by the very bullets that had gone through the backs of so many necks.
It was very dark in the cell, he went on quickly, as if not to get lost in that same darkness. And a man sitting beside me began to speak to me in Polish. Maybe he heard me saying Kaddish and recognized my accent. He was a Jew from Łódź. We were both Jews from Łódź, but I was from Żeromskiego Street, near the Źielony Rynek market, and he was from the opposite side, near Poniatowskiego Park. He was a boxer from Łódź. A Polish boxer. And we talked all night in Polish. Or rather, he talked to me all night in Polish. He told me in Polish that he had been there for a long time, in Block Eleven, and that the Germans kept him alive because they liked to watch him box. He told me in Polish that the next day they’d put me on trial and he told me in Polish what I should say during that trial and what I shouldn’t say during that trial. And that’s how it went. The next day, two Germans dragged me out of the cell, took me to a young Jewish man, who tattooed this number on my arm, and then they left me in an office, where I was put on trial by a young woman, and I saved myself by telling this young woman everything the Polish boxer had told me to say and not telling the young woman everything the Polish boxer had told me not to say. You see? I used his words and his words saved my life and I never knew the Polish boxer’s name, never saw his face. He was probably shot.
I stubbed out my cigarette in the ashtray and downed the last sip of whiskey. I wanted to ask him something about the number or about that young Jewish man who had tattooed him. But I only asked what the Polish boxer had said. He seemed not to understand my question, and so I repeated it, a bit louder, a bit more anxiously. What did the boxer tell you to say and not say, Oitze, during that trial?
My grandfather laughed, still confused, and leaned back, and I remembered that he refused to speak Polish, that he had spent sixty years refusing to speak a single word in his mother tongue, in the mother tongue of those who, in November of ’39, he always said, had betrayed him.
I never found out if my grandfather didn’t remember the Polish boxer’s words, or if he chose not to tell them to me, or if they simply didn’t matter anymore, if they had now served their purpose as words and so had disappeared forever, along with the Polish boxer who spoke them one dark night.
Once more, I sat looking at my grandfather’s number, 69752, tattooed one winter morning in ’42, by a young Jew in Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the face of the Polish boxer, imagine his fists, imagine the possible white pockmark the bullet had made after going through his neck, imagine his words in Polish that managed to save my grandfather’s life, but all I could imagine was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.