What's in a Phone Number?
by Michaella Baker, 2023 Business Fellow
99237 was too few digits to be a telephone number, but at a young age–at your age–I didn’t know that. I never tried to dial the number and see who might pick up. I’m not even sure I knew how to use a phone back then.
As the granddaughter of an Auschwitz survivor, I anticipated experiencing a range of emotions visiting the concentration camps for the first time. Guilt though, guilt was not one of them. There was a reason Papa told us the number on his arm was his phone number. He was shielding us from the horror he endured.
I walked through the dusty paths of Birkenau, where 99237 was tattooed on Papa’s arm and where he lived for two-and-a-half years. Looking at the latrines he might’ve used and the dingy barracks he might’ve slept in, guilt seeped in. I felt like I was breaching an unspoken pact we had made. In exchange for Papa not burdening us, his grandchildren, with his story of survival, we would remain innocent, shielded.
Why did I choose to visit the place he tried so hard to protect us from? Why did I choose to go where he was forced to?
In a space where Papa’s existence was so precarious, protection overtook my guilt. Despite visiting Holocaust memorial sites throughout my life, for the first time, I felt like I had people to lean on. This feeling was unanticipated, especially given that most FASPE fellows were not Jewish, were strangers before the trip, and didn’t have as robust an educational background or personal connection with the Holocaust. On the grounds of Auschwitz, astoundingly, I felt safe.
Upon this realization, I began to think I had reached my emotional limit. I needed to separate from the group. I walked to a quiet spot, sat down under a tree, not far from the camp’s first gas chamber, and wrote down my thoughts. My blatant display of emotion continued to elicit immense compassion from fellows, and several people approached me, recognizing that I was not just moved but personally affected, as the historical events touched my own family. Although I appreciated their recognition, I didn’t necessarily feel entitled to receive more sympathy than anyone else. The safety and protection I felt turned into confusion.
When learning about the Holocaust, nearly everyone has a visceral reaction, Jewish or not. But Jewish people lay particular claim to deep-seated emotional responses. This concept, which I’ve termed “emotional entitlement,” is a play on the theory of psychological entitlement.1
Emotional entitlement, however, narrows this theory by focusing on Jewish people’s relationship to the Holocaust. Jews believe we are owed the privilege of our emotions in this regard, feel entitled to others’ sympathy in recognizing what we have gone through and are going through when engaging with Holocaust memorials. On this view, we don’t need to reciprocate, nor do we need to acknowledge that others bear distinct emotional reactions too.
At least, this has been my experience. The first time I visited the United States Holocaust Museum, I was with my eighth-grade class on a field trip to Washington, DC. As I walked through the museum, I remember being struck by the atrocities without experiencing the deep, visceral reaction I expected. “Oh well,” I thought to myself, “I don’t like crying in public anyway.” I remember looking over at a friend, who was also Jewish but didn’t have family connections to the Holocaust, bawling over the exhibit, being cared for by a teacher. The immature 13-year-old in me wanted to scream: “she doesn’t even have family who died in the Holocaust. My grandfather was a survivor, and look at me. I’m not demanding more attention, am I!?”
I hadn’t thought of that moment until I participated in the FASPE trip. The trace of a forgotten moment came to the forefront of my mind. During the visits to Brandenburg and Sachsenhausen, fellows provided comfort. Small gestures–eye contact and a subtle smile, a hug at the end of the tour, a word to check if I was okay. The sense that people were in my corner was nurturing but also led me to question why I had not recognized such support in the past. The gestures that FASPE fellows offered, ones that I didn’t return, made me question my sense of emotional entitlement. It wasn’t until Birkenau that I realized my emotional entitlement was alive and well.
In the concluding days of the trip, I started asking myself: based on the theory of emotional entitlement, who is entitled to have emotional reactions to historical events?
An obvious answer is that I’m entitled to feel a certain way because of my identity as a Jewish person or because of my family history. This is no different from the emotional reaction of Japanese Americans visiting internment camps or the descendants of slaves visiting plantations in the American South. Feeling emotionally entitled to events, however, conceivably makes it more challenging for other people to empathize with us and relate to histories that, at first, may not seem to be theirs too.
After all, it’s not just Jews that perished. FASPE fellows from various backgrounds had different connections to the atrocity. One of the fellows (now a close friend) is an amputee and identified with the killing of the physically disabled victims. Another fellow grew up during South African apartheid and resonated with victims of Nazi discrimination based on his own family’s history. The list goes on.
The idea of emotional entitlement is not to hinder people–Jewish or not–from feeling genuine emotions that arise from challenging history and memorial sites. Rather, the purpose is to add texture to our emotions and better understand how these emotions might hinder others’ learning and engagement. If Jewish people take ownership of the emotional connection to the Holocaust and walk into memorial sites expecting sympathy and giving nothing in return, we’ve gravely missed the point.
Sitting under the tree on the outskirts of the Birkenau gas chamber, it occurred to me that despite having the dirt of Auschwitz on my shoes and under my nails, our secret and unspoken pact hadn’t been breached. I would always remain innocent because I could never understand the terrors Papa faced. And perhaps that’s the true irony: I came into this experience hoping to understand, but I left humbled by my lack of understanding. 99237 was an identity, a memory, a grandfather, a phone number. But it isn’t just my number to remember. It’s ours.
I don’t have a number on my arm or any tattoo for that matter. Without the tangible evidence of atrocity, how can I explain to you, my grandchild, our family history of the Holocaust? How can I convey to you what your great-great-grandfather experienced in a way that helps you acknowledge his struggle without a sense of guilt or a stifling burden? Without a sense of emotional entitlement?
I can only share with you what I have learned. And though not a tattoo, my experience at the concentration camps and in Papa’s home country left an indelible mark: a lesson to appreciate history in a way that allows people to engage and empathize, to learn from hardship, but not to claim it as your own. Allow other people to understand alongside you and embrace even the most unexpected emotions. Offer protection, cultivate humility, and practice kindness.
I know I can’t protect you from everything or give you all the life lessons you could ever need. So, I’ll say this: dial Papa’s phone number if you ever need some perspective. I can’t promise he’ll pick up, but I promise he’ll be there.
Michaella Baker was a 2023 FASPE Business Fellow. She is a behavioral health specialist at McKinsey & Company.
- Psychological entitlement “refers to an inflated and pervasive sense of deservingness, self-importance, and exaggerated expectations to receive special goods and treatment without reciprocating” (Fisk, 2010; Grubbs & Exline, 2016). Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6552293/