An unbelievable true story about a number from the Holocaust. (This gave us chills.)
As a child growing up in the Bronx, the last four digits of Terry Noble’s phone number were 7401. Coincidence: When Terry was assigned a social security number, the last four digits were 7401. And years later, when he found himself as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel – where he now called himself Tuvia Ariel – he worked with a carpenter whom he respected.
The carpenter was a wiry, solid man, dedicated, the silent type. Ariel learned that he was one of the few who had escaped Auschwitz and survived, that he then joined the Polish partisans, then the British Army. It sent him to Palestine, where he deserted to join the Palmach, the Jewish fighting force, and helped Israel win her independence in 1948.
Quite a history.
But more than awe piqued Ariel’s curiosity about this survivor’s experiences in the Holocaust. Ariel had read the number tattooed on his arm. The last four digits were 7401.
“Don’t talk about it!” Ariel recalls the carpenter telling him forcefully, painfully. “I lost my whole family, my mother, my father; there was a brother in back of me, a brother in front of me – I’m the only one left. Don’t bring it up again!”
Tuvia Ariel is a man with many stories. In fact, he is a story: the man who was once a famous musician’s adviser and arranged for kaddish to be recited for an estranged Jewish radical; the man who put in a stint at Yale Law School and was a soldier in the U.S. Army in Israel during the 1956 Sinai war. He tore the “USA” from his uniform and, looking like an Israeli, hitched his way down to the Sinai Peninsula, ready to fight, only to find that the war had ended two hours before.
I was told in advance how colorful Ariel was, but nothing prepared me for the likes of a comment he made one hour after I met him on Friday afternoon. I knew he had a new leg. I knew it was breakthrough for him. But who gives thought to such things? Who wonders what it is like to be without a leg, or with a new one?
Praying in the synagogue on Friday, I sensed nothing unusual as Mincha came to an end. Suddenly, Ariel approached me, almost in tears. “This is the first time in my life I prayed the Shemoneh Esrei standing up. I have never been able to address God like any other Jew, beginning the prayer by taking three steps forward, ending it with three steps backward…”
Ariel was raised in a non-observant home, in which the Shemoneh Esrei was not recited. Then he went to Israel to volunteer. In 1967, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, he saved his life by cutting off his own leg as it got caught in a machine he operated on a kibbutz – a machine that sucked his leg into its grinder and from which the rest of his body escaped only by his quick and gruesome self-amputation. A little over ten years later he became a religiously observant Jew. By then he was rotating between a wheelchair, crutches, and artificial legs, which, however, could never keep him standing still long enough to pray the Shemoneh Esrei.
Then, that Friday, he did it. After walking home (only three blocks), he choked up again, “That’s the longest I’ve walked in 22 years.”
He was fitted with a new leg only shortly before – the day the Berlin Wall crumbled. He found his new leg innocently enough. Ariel was in the United States at the beginning of 1989 on a business trip.
He saw an advertisement, featuring a new kind of plastic developed for spacecraft, also used for artificial limbs. The ad featured amputees engaged in vigorous basketball, not from wheelchairs, but standing up, running, passing, even jump-shooting. A regular game.
Not with people amputated below the knee, but above the knee.
Ariel thought to himself that seeing this was like seeing a grandmother, who had died long ago, suddenly walking down the street. When he lost his leg 22 years earlier, he never thought he would see himself live normally again – and here were people just like he was, playing basketball.
He inquired and was directed to an advanced prosthetic clinic in Oklahoma City. For above-the-knee amputees the old system had the stump rest on the prosthesis, which caused pain and circulatory problems and often did not work well, sometimes not at all. Using the new, flexible, rubber-like plastic, the new prosthesis grips the stump, which not only relieves pain and circulatory problems, but also better channels the energy and movement of the stump into natural, leg-like movements.
Even in advance of receiving his own leg, Ariel was not satisfied to give himself new life. He wanted it for all the above-the-knee
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