We Come from the Number /
In order to avoid the assignment of excessively high numbers from the general series to the large number of Hungarian Jews arriving in 1944, the SS authorities introduced new sequences of numbers in mid-May 1944. This series, prefaced by the letter A, began with “1” and ended at “20,000.” Once the number 20,000 was reached, a new series beginning with “B” was introduced. Some 15,000 men received “B” series tattoos. For an unknown reason, the “A” series for women did not stop at 20,000 and continued to 30,000.
— “Tattoos and Numbers: The System of Identifying Prisoners at Auschwitz,” Holocaust Encyclopedia*
Vardi Kahana did not regard the number tattooed on her mother Rivka’s forearm as an unusual sign. The number was taken for granted, as part of the mother’s identity. It was only natural to Vardi, that the three sisters – Rivka, Leah and Esther – should have consecutive numbers. For the young girl she was, the consecutive numbers possibly provided an absolute affirmation of their kinship.
Years later, by then already a seasoned photographer and a mother herself, Vardi Kahana invited her mother and two aunts to her studio to photograph them together. She chose to depict them in the same positions and order in which they were led 48 years earlier, in a crowd of female prisoners, to the tattoo artist to imprint the number on their forearm with needle pricks and ink – a number that renders each of them a work unit to the last. The photograph, like the story behind it, clearly indicates that the act of tattooing was performed not on the flesh of that generation alone. The next generations, even if their skin is outwardly silky, continue to carry it within them.
Thus, the most atrocious act of dehumanization in human history had become, in Kahana’s photographs, a moment when new life begins, of which she herself is a part. The consecutive numbers tattooed in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944 on the forearms of the three Jewish sisters from Beregsas (Berehovo), Hungary, have transformed from markers of the genocide industry to signifiers of rebirth. For, in comparison to the inmates led directly to the gas chambers and crematoria with no need for identification, the tattooed were lucky.
Thus, the low point became a point of departure, and the three sisters in the photograph appear like the three matriarchs in a rewritten book of Genesis. Thereafter, Kahana would go on to photograph three of the six patriarchs – her father Aharon and his brothers Moshe and Yehezkel – who declared their rebirth before the persecutions and extermination by immigrating to Palestine prior to 1939, and were thus granted life. And subsequently – the sons, the grandchildren, and the great grandchildren. And here is a brief history of the generation born after the year zero.
In her twenty-five years as a press photographer, Vardi Kahana has regularly documented the generation’s deeds, and mainly – its “face.” Over the years her work has changed, from perusing scraps of reality to observation of it under controlled conditions, drawing from the random outdoors into the studio; from mapping the scene of action to concentration on the figures in it. Concurrently, from the photographic press portrait – leaders, celebrities, artists, and men of the hour – Kahana reverts to looking into the depths of her family; as a natural development of the same need to delve, via photographic documentation, into the meaning of things.
As a journalist, Kahana realized that her family story possesses a broader, deeper significance than meets the eye, one which requires a documentary-artistic channel of expression, and that she is the one to articulate it. Thus, from the photograph of her mother and aunts, she embarked on a family journey in a project without a deadline, except the need to reach all the figures before they pass away. Coming to situate her family before the lens at this point, she is already immune to the banality inherent in family album depictions. This is not the hackneyed act of documentation whereby a person perpetuates his relatives, as he has been perpetuated by them.
Over the next fourteen years Kahana would visit most of the individuals comprising her extended family and document them where they chose to live. As a photographed subject – in her capacity as cousin, spouse, mother – she is but one of the components in the overall texture, but her presence is ubiquitous. Not only by virtue of the fact that she creates the photographs, but in her being the only possible reference point linking all the figures. She does not present a genealogical tree, although her mother, her father, her uncles and aunts, her cousins, their partners and offspring, constitute such a tree by their mere presence. The diagram she sketches is reminiscent of an airline’s hub map, like a star with rays emerging from a single focal point, their lengths varying according to the family or generational closeness to Vardi.
In some one hundred portrait photographs of the family members, scattered throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United States, Kahana presents the building blocks of the coming generations. At first spontaneous, the documentation has become the family epic whose constituent elements are intersections of severance, dispersal, and gathering. These points are reflected in the stories, where every choice from potential routes has set in
motion a new process, a new act, and a new human texture. It is a story about historical determinism and the arbitrariness of chance, with a clear lesson: the human purpose is to struggle with the die of fate; to refuse to become accustomed to the numbers tattooed in the flesh.
And it turns out that the points of decision were faced not only by the first generation who survived the Holocaust, in the choice whether to stay or emigrate, and if so – where to. Even what seemed to be a uniform solution, the Eretz-Israel solution, turned out to have been a path with forks and side-routes, and each branch in the clan has opted for its own path. All those who came to live here gathered in differentiated, clearly- defined communities, closed to a lesser or greater extent. What can be more distant than Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak, Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk and the settlement of Susya, Hebron and Copenhagen, Herzliya, and Ganei Tal? And yet, the closeness exists, and its source is known. It is there, at the zero point, inherent in the numerals on the arm.
According to the findings of this documentation, familial variance is the response of the living whose existence is threatened. Wandering and variation introduce a higher chance for survival. Hence, diversity and difference are an answer to the concentration and death camps to which every Jew was taken. The numbers imprinted on the forearm of the first generation shaped the new identities of the family members. They created new identities which express different interpretations to the questions: Who is human, what is human society, what is divinity, and what is worship, in the wake of the mass extermination.
The second generation chose different, remote answers for themselves, as distant as the Messianic, power-minded settlement and life in a closed-in neighborhood at the heart of the Palestinian city of Hebron, and the choice of secular urban life in the country’s centre , or alternatively – of radical Orthodoxy which avoids standing at attention on Holocaust Remembrance Day in the belief that mourning the six million who perished is a matter between man and God, unfit for a national ceremony.
It is not accidental that Kahana chose to photograph her relatives in the embrace of their nuclear families. It turns out that all of her relatives married and had children, and the divorce rate is negligible. History indicates that catastrophe induces fertility. The extended family has become a catalogue for life options; each nuclear family embodies one of these. The photographed subjects are no longer themselves, but rather models of their chosen life style. They are iconic in their appearance and dress, the way they face the camera and, obviously – in their geographical setting and the photographic “location” within it.
The human diversity, discernible in the depicted families, can only be construed as defiance of all racial doctrines. Like a proof that it is not the genetic relation that defines a person, but the way in which one defines oneself: in his actions, appearance, dwelling, occupation, worldview, belief, and reference to his past.
At the same time, the nuclear families have fortified themselves behind walls. Each family lives behind the wall of its new, religious, settlemental, ideological community. Just as one community does not blend with the other, so the families live their lives separately. The extended family still unites on happy or grievous occasions, but the bond naturally weakens. Until the second generation a direct contact was preserved between cousins of all streams and factions. The next generation, whose number is much greater, connects less. The more the family grows, the weaker the ties between its sections, who will ultimately assimilate into their communities.
Hence, the new variance was not created on a personal basis, but rather on a communal one, and thus, the social diversity in Israeli society is narrower than might have been expected. Furthermore, a high wall still divides the Jews from the Arabs in Israel – both sides place taboo on intermarriage. And if there was one case of intermarriage in the family, as with cousin Shmuel’s grandchildren who are the offspring of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and a Danish convert, and now a new branch is forming from a marriage with a Danish woman of
Turkish origin, with Islamic roots – this case, ever-so-typical of present-day Europe, is still unusual in Israel.
Vardi Kahana too is a part of a community. Hers is urban, secular, and open in comparison to the other communities which are withdrawn. For the time being, it seems that only an individual belonging to this community could have taken upon himself such a documentary task. As one who embarked on her quest from a starting point of openness and equality, her choice of a minor, matter-of-fact photographic mode and the similar positioning of the depicted subjects before the camera, form a level of renewed, momentary unity between them. The photographs attest to careful avoidance of political stands.
Kahana photographed her niece and nephew, Merav and Yonatan from Herzliya, on the local roller-skating/skateboard?? ramps. Merav’s skating attire merges with Yonatan’s IDF uniform – a soldier’s boot versus a skater’s shoe, helmet versus helmet. This photograph triggers an entire range of images. In the background a rollerskater is flying in mid-air, momentarily appearing, at twilight, as the silhouette of a helicopter, just as the ramps appear at sunset like the silhouette of a ship, or possibly a backdrop for a play about illegal immigration to Palestine.
Cousin Eta’s six children face the camera in the closed market of Hebron (with a soldier on guard in the background), while the faded graffiti “Rak Kach” (denoting both “Kach only” and “that’s the only way”) may be seen on the wall next to them. As someone who, in her journalist capacity, often documented the deeds of Rabbi Meir Kahana, the photographer must wonder how the next generation of Hebron children will look: will cousin Eta’s children find a common language with brother Zvika’s children?
This is my mother! says Vardi Kahana in the last, possibly most moving photograph in the sequence (though not last according to the shooting order). This is the number on her arm! These are my children, Gil and Roni! This is where I come from, and this is where they are headed. Within the extended family, here is my little family. The first and third generations are held together in an embrace, and I am the link between them. That is my role.
Hanoch Marmari is the head of the Department of Visual Communication at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Jerusalem