From right to left, Eva and Nao­mi Umlauf

Pho­to by Alessan­dra Schellnegger

From a young age, I knew that my Oma was a sur­vivor. My par­ents instilled in my sis­ter and me an aware­ness that we had the blood of sur­vivors run­ning through our veins from both sides of our fam­i­ly: Holo­caust sur­vivors on one side and, on the oth­er, slaves and those who endured the Jim Crow South. Although I knew the broad con­tours of my Oma’s sto­ry — and had often glimpsed the num­bers tat­tooed on her arm — she shared few details of her expe­ri­ences. I held back many times from ask­ing ques­tions, out of fear that I would dredge up painful mem­o­ries. When my Oma decid­ed to tell her sto­ry ful­ly in this book, I real­ized how crit­i­cal her his­to­ry would be to me as I seek to under­stand my own iden­ti­ty and place in the world. 

Peo­ple have at times pre­sumed that my iden­ti­ty as the grand­daugh­ter of a Holo­caust sur­vivor is at odds with my being Black, Chris­t­ian, and Amer­i­can. Such exter­nal per­cep­tions seek to insert dif­fer­ences that do not reflect my or my family’s lived real­i­ty. Nor do bar­ri­ers in com­mu­ni­ca­tion between Ger­man and Eng­lish and the ocean that sep­a­rates us from my Oma define or cre­ate dis­tance in our lov­ing rela­tion­ship. Though I rec­og­nize the enor­mous his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of this trans­la­tion as part of broad­er efforts to bear wit­ness to the sto­ries of sur­vivors, for me this mem­oir is a deeply per­son­al text, and as I read its words, I feel I am engag­ing in inti­mate con­ver­sa­tion with my Oma. I remem­ber how my mom always said that, though my Oma’s eyes are blue and mine are brown, we share the same heart-shaped face. In this book, I see her face mir­rored in mine, my sto­ry etched between the lines of hers. 

One moment in the mem­oir stands out in a very sig­nif­i­cant way for me. As my Oma dis­cuss­es not know­ing whether my grand­fa­ther Jakob had received a tat­too dur­ing his intern­ment in mul­ti­ple con­cen­tra­tion camps, she writes, Did he have a num­ber? I can’t say for cer­tain: It wasn’t appar­ent to me back then. But his arms were cov­ered in silky black hair that I caressed with­out look­ing for a num­ber under­neath.” To me, this is the most beau­ti­ful moment in the text. It reveals the ways that, despite painful mem­o­ries, my Oma has always man­aged to pro­vide love and com­fort — in our case cross­ing the ocean for grad­u­a­tions, birth­days, and Thanks­giv­ing. And though she was not able to speak about the Holo­caust with my grand­fa­ther, she shared her life and love with him. 

That my grand­moth­er in lat­er life sum­moned the courage required to tell her sto­ry has shown me the pow­er of using one’s voice and one’s sto­ry to build con­nec­tion, pro­mote under­stand­ing, and com­bat the big­otry and hatred that rest on the fear of, and the inabil­i­ty to see our­selves in, the Oth­er. Learn­ing through the lens of her sto­ry has deep­ened my own pas­sion to fight injus­tice in its many forms. Although the expe­ri­ences and strug­gles of Jews and African Amer­i­cans are dis­tinct, their shared expe­ri­ence as vic­tims of hor­rif­ic oppres­sion and unspeak­able inhu­man­i­ty has inspired both com­mu­ni­ties to work in sol­i­dar­i­ty to obtain jus­tice. There is a long and sto­ried his­to­ry of Black and Jew­ish activism on civ­il rights and human rights issues. Sto­ries like my Oma’s tap into our com­mon human­i­ty and help us under­stand in a unique­ly per­son­al way the dire indi­vid­ual and gen­er­a­tional con­se­quences of allow­ing big­otry and hate to fes­ter and root them­selves in our hearts and our soci­eties. The pow­er of telling one’s own sto­ry is among the great­est lessons my grand­moth­er taught me; and the lega­cy, from both sides of my fam­i­ly, of resilience, courage, inge­nu­ity, cre­ativ­i­ty, and most of all, com­pas­sion and under­stand­ing will con­tin­ue to inspire me to do my part, whether in small ways or large, to make my world kinder, gen­tler, and more just.

The After­word for The Num­ber on Your Fore­arm is Blue Like Your Eyes by Eva Umlauf (May 7, 2024; Man­del Vilar and Dryad Press) was writ­ten by Nao­mi Umlauf, Eva’s granddaughter.

Nao­mi Umlauf is Eva Umlauf’s grand­daugh­ter and a stu­dent at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty. As a grand­child of a Holo­caust Sur­vivor, she dis­cuss­es the impact of the Holo­caust lega­cy on her fam­i­ly and her own future as a third-gen­er­a­tion survivor.