When I was a kid, I mean a little kid, my favorite nurse in my father’s office — he was a doctor — was Mrs. Mindus. I’m not sure how old she was or even how she spelled her name — I was about six and the year was 1950 — but she was a sweet woman and very welcoming to me when I visited the radiology office. She used to bring me crayons and a coloring book and sometimes candy as if I were her own child. The only other things I remember about her were that she spoke with an accent and she had a string of numbers tattooed on her arm.
I wondered what the numbers were. I had never seen anything like that on a grownup’s arm. She explained to me she had been in a concentration camp — Auschwitz — and felt lucky to have gotten out, maybe guilty as well, because the rest of her family had been gassed. My father told me about it too — about Mrs. Mindus’ dead husband and their dead children and so forth. I think he wanted me to know about it.
This was, as you might imagine, hard for a six-year old boy to wrap his mind around. But those macabre numbers on Mrs. Mindus’ arm had a profound effect on me. I thought of them frequently growing up and I think they had some influence on what I did in life, joining up with the civil rights movement at the age of twenty and then later making some movies about the Holocaust.
Often, however, as with many memories, Mrs. Mindus faded from my mind as I enjoyed my life, living la vida artistica, writing novels and films, traveling abroad. Those horrifying events were in the past. It could never happen again. Even when Israel was at war in 1967 and again in 1973 I never really worried. (Later histories by Michael Oren and others have taught me otherwise.) Anti-Semitism was, for the most part anyway, a thing of the past, of concern only to the Anti-Defamation League and similar organizations. They could take care of the rare outbreaks.
How naive I was!
Now more than ever in my life I am haunted by Mrs. Mindus. The tatooed numbers spook me, not because I expect to see friends and family being carted off to the camps, but because I see a world of anti-Semitism metastasizing so quickly across the globe there might not be time for that. From Paris to Caracas, from Brussels to Bangkok we hear chants of Jew-hating as loud, ugly and perhaps even more wide-spread than we did in the 1930s. Paris has even had a new Kristallnacht. And in dear old Blighty, “Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas!” goes the cry on the London streets with Jewish Labor Party leader Ed Miliband for all intents and purposes leading the band himself!