The Truth in Eli’s Blue Tattoos

David Irving, a British historian, will be in prison for the next three years after claiming for decades the Holocaust did not happen. The Austrian sentencing judge called Irving a “falsifier of history” who had academically challenged the Holocaust research of other scholars. One researcher, Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, fought back against Irving and won but she feels Irving’s imprisonment will only make him a Free Speech martyr.

When the Western mindset of freedom and Free Speech meets anti-Muslim cartoonists and Holocaust deniers like Irving, there is a strange and dangerous conflation of the radical worst of us becoming memes for a movement. The best evidence for fighting the David Irvings and others who press lies over ugly truths is in the specificity of the body and the revelation of embedded truth that erupts to the surface when crushed into the flesh. When I was a teenager, I worked at a television station as an on-camera movie reviewer.

There was a man who worked in the film department named Eli. Eli was the only person who could take a piece of ruined raw film, fix it, and have it on the air for the evening news in five minutes. Eli was old school. He could fix anything mechanical. The new videotape revolution happening around him held no interest. He was pure celluloid and chemicals and darkrooms. Eli was a “Jew in Nebraska” and that was extremely rare in the 1980’s. He moved to Nebraska after World War II after surviving Auschwitz and surviving Auschwitz was even rarer than a Jew in Nebraska.

The proof of Eli’s survival was tattooed on his left forearm in a series of jagged and blurry numbers. When a Jew was taken into a Concentration Camp, the Nazis would tattoo Jewish forearms with numbers in order to track them much in the same way ranchers brand their cattle to prove provenance and dominion over the beast. The bright white of Eli’s forearm surrounding the blue tattoos made the numbers leap from him like ephemeral ghosts of the past dancing along the bulging purple veins in his arm. The veins and numbers trafficked horrors from a childhood spent hiding in the ditches of Germany. Eli always wore short-sleeved shirts. It didn’t matter if the temperature was 30 below zero, Eli was in short sleeves.

Eli always wanted those numbers to dance in front of the eyes of anyone who dared to look at those marks of a promise of death. There was a rumor in the newsroom that if you asked Eli about his tattoos he would never shut up about the Holocaust. Eli wasn’t Eli: Eli, the rumor claimed, was an icon for remembrance. Eli was resented for it at work. Some in the newsroom called Eli — always behind his back and forever whispered in the hushed tones of evil finding voice — the “Jew Bastard” and the “Crybaby” and the “Jew Nazi” and, most insulting of all, simply “Jew” where “Jew” was pronounced with three syllables instead of one. Eli and I were always friendly with each other.

We’d wave whenever we met eyes in the hallway. One day I went to talk to Eli about a problem I was having with a wind-up Bolex movie camera and he took me outside to show me in brighter light how to get the winding mechanism to work better. In the cold, brilliant, harsh, light of a thawing Nebraska Springtime, I was finally able to see an up-close view of Eli’s blue tattoos. The numbers were barely legible as numbers. They looked more like ancient icons and they moved as the muscles in Eli’s forearm moved.

Eli’s tattoos were the color of a bruise that would never heal. I curried up some gumption and asked Eli about his tattoos. He looked his arm and then at me and then his face slowly held a childlike hurt as if I had kicked him in the teeth with a steel-toed jackboot. He summoned up a pain-stained voice and whispered, “Never speak,” in a heavy German accent.

His eyes were overwhelming with tears and I felt terrible. I had gone beyond the obvious to ask about the specific when only the general mattered. I didn’t know what to say as Eli pierced the second knuckle of each index finger into the corner of each eye to stanch the tears. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

“They all gone,” he choked. “Only me.”

Eli wiped his knuckles on his shirt, crisply nodded, turned his back and walked back into the newsroom. Eli and I never spoke again. I couldn’t face his eyes and he never looked up from his work desk when I passed by in the hallway. The numbers on his forearm haunted me ever since. I grew to realize all the murmuring behind Eli’s back was a way of minimizing his suffering and the mocking of his religion and his horror were inspired by the same vicious intent of the Nazis who punctured a tattoo needle into Eli’s forearm.

Hatred wears insidious and common masks — some of them obvious and brown-shirted, some of them quieter and dressed in white shoes and polyester ties. When I hear stories from people like David Irving who claim the Holocaust was not real or that the Holocaust was a hoax or that the Holocaust is only propaganda from the Jewish cabal seeking world sympathy, I am taken back to that bright day in Nebraska where the brutality of history and the current bruising truth were revealed and relived and reviled in real time right before my eyes.

Eli may not have been able to discuss his tattoos but by always exposing his forearm to the world, he testified to the Nazi truth embedded in his arm: From ugly numbers tumble beautiful lives that must never be denied.