My favorite documentary from this summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival is a movie
entitled Numbered. The film is a collage of narratives and photographs of
Auschwitz survivors who were tattooed during their incarceration.
are challenged to see the Shoah through the lens of Uriel Sinai from vantage
points that are novel and compelling; a survivor who defiantly adopts his number
for all computer-based security codes, a “next generationer” who enters a tattoo
parlor to perpetuate father’s number on her skin, entire families who decide to
“move on,” and some who don’t.
I had the privilege of mentoring the
film’s director, Dr. Dana Doron, while she was an inquisitive medical student
rotating through our hospital’s department of oncology. Dana invited me to the
premier at the festival where she told the crowd how the idea for this, her
first film, evolved.
Several years earlier, as an intern, she had been
paged to evaluate an 83-year-old woman in the emergency room. The stated
complaint was chest pain but it didn’t take long for Dana, an astute clinician,
to understand that this symptom was really not what brought this patient to the
hospital. In truth, the patient was a frequent visitor to the ER where she
sought people to hear her story. The woman was an Auschwitz survivor and had
come because she was lonely and pined for an audience.
concluded that there must be others with a similar sense of isolation. As we are
all too well aware, by tattooing numbers on forearms, the Nazi murder machines
had attempted to dehumanize people in order to systematically and mechanically
exterminate them in a guilt-free manner. Individuals defiled with numbers and
devoid of names or personalities need not be related to as members of homo
sapiens, the reasoning goes, and so could be guiltlessly discarded.
therefore set out to identify other survivors; most of whom learned not only to
live with the fact that they were indelibly branded like cattle but also found a
way to be empowered by this form of physical and mental torture. The film is low
key and low budget, but it works because the stories are jarring, and the
WHENEVER ATTEMPTS are made to portray the Shoah,
hearts nervously palpate. Will the artist err in his or her characterization or,
worse, trivialize the colossally evil event? Analogies to the Shoah face even
greater trepidation. To understand the risks taken by those who dare to draw
lessons from the Shoah, one need look no further than the criticism that Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu endured for having suggested parallels between the
intentions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those of Adolf Hitler.
Yet the Shoah must, in some manner, inform our behavior.
I do not make a
formal comparison to the Shoah here since I acknowledge that there can be no
parallel to, or overlap with, the barbaric ideology of the Nazis, but I confess
that I walked out of the theater with new worries about the modern medical
system. Our modern medical system has, of course, made great strides. One of the
emblems of this progress is the “electronic medical record” or EMR. The
intentions of the innovation are surely praiseworthy. The EMR was designed to
make the physician more efficient and to serve the patient, but sometimes, we
see opposite effects.
Recently, Abraham Verghese, Stanford University
Professor of Medicine, published a cautionary article in the prestigious New
England Journal of Medicine
. He suggested that the availability of iPods,
iPhones and iPads has made it easy to regard the human beings admitted to
hospitals as “iPatients.” Verghese worries that physicians come to know the
iPatient (especially the results of his blood tests and imaging studies) long
before they know the real patient.
Ironically, the ease with which we can
learn about patients on our touch screens makes us less inclined to touch the
real patient. Why should we bother to perform the physical exam, young doctors
conclude, when it seems so much more expeditious to derive patient data from the
EMR?! By so doing, though, our patients have become digitized, and instead of
representing an intricate tapestry of physical abnormalities and emotional
conflicts, they have morphed into binary collections of data. In short, they are
On the surface, our use of technological innovations such as
EMRs seems to represent progress. But, to some extent, we have all become losers
in the process. Patients have lost the attention they crave. The relationship
between doctor and patient has lost its intimacy. And physicians have lost the
joy, intellectual stimulation and humility that would have emerged from a good
bedside manner which has been miscarried by doctors who neither examine their
patients nor speak to them eye-toeye.
What’s more, Verghese argues that
poor bedside skill actually reduces physician efficiency, probably because the
doctor departs the encounter with the patient feeling less confident in the
working diagnosis and therefore tends to randomly order additional tests to
compensate for the insecurity that arises.
JEWISH TRADITION places a
taboo on using numbers to count people.
When a census was taken (Exodus,
Chapter 30; Numbers, Chapters 1 and 26), the quantification was determined
indirectly by using half-shekel coins as surrogates for people.
Book of Samuel, King David is punished for ordering an unauthorized census. And
these days, when counting to see if a “minyan” is present, various 10-word
scriptural phrases are used to infer whether a prayer-quorum has
Alternatively, some jokingly point at the minyan participants
and enunciate “not one, not two, not three…” as a way of pretending not to
The rationale for the prohibition against enumerating groups of
Jews is often thought to be a mystical gesture to ward off some superstitious
force that might construe our counting as a form of bragging and therefore
retaliate by reducing our critical mass. But Rashi, the medieval French rabbi
considered by most as father of all Torah commentators, suggests (Exodus,
Chapter 30, Verse 12) that to count human beings would be tantamount to
detracting from their dignity because no one can be encapsulated into a simple
objective icon such as a number. A policy that forbids counting then reflects a
worldview that emphasizes the need to relate to people as multidimensional human
It may be impossible to exaggerate the value of seeking to
understand the depth of another soul, especially if that soul is besieged by
illness. We continually re-learn that life lesson.
The film by Dana and
Uriel Sinai projects irony by documenting an emotional trajectory of human
response to the infamous tattooing that arcs between shame and
The very title of the film, Numbered
, drips with double
The Nazis flagged people for counting purposes in the
short-term, but in so doing hoped to eternally stigmatize the same men and
The Auschwitz survivors who testify in the film, by and large,
would not accept such a reality but rather chose to affirm their unique
Have we the courage at this time to heal, to care, and to
listen to people as unique human beings, each with their own story? The writer,
a doctor, is Professor and Chairman of the Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv
Medical Center and Co- Founder of Life’s Door-Tishkofet. He was recently awarded
the National Citation for Volunteerism by President Shimon Peres.