Who was the man with the numbers on his arm?
By: Mendel Super
It’s a nightmarish image for most. Some time in the 1980s, Penelope Frey was sorting through her husband’s belongings in his Park Avenue clinic in Manhattan when she came across an old box. Brushing off the years of dust, she opened it to discover a human skull, a literal skeleton in the closet. But she was not shocked by what she had found. Her husband, Dr. Maurice Frey, was a dentist, and she figured the skull was from a teaching skeleton, common before synthetic models became available.
The truth, she would learn, was far more tragic than she had first assumed, and may never be fully uncovered.
One day in the 1950s, Dr. Frey explained to his wife, a European gentleman walked into his clinic. The man had been through the worst horrors of history and was visibly in poor health. Frey noticed the numbers of evil seared into the man’s arm. When making the appointment, the man explained that he had no money to pay for the dental work, but Frey regularly treated fellow survivors free of charge, and friends often referred them to him. The good doctor attended to the man’s needs. When the treatment was finished, the man said he intended to leave his body to science and his skull as a teaching model for dentistry.
Some time later, a box arrived at the doorstep of Dr. Frey’s clinic. Inside was the man’s skull. The dentist offered it to the New York University College of Dentistry, but administrators declined. And so the skull remained in the clinic until Dr. Frey’s retirement in 1987. He died in 1993.
Frey was born in 1910 in Reisha, then a major city in the heavily Jewish Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today Rzeszow, Poland). Educational opportunities for Jews were limited, so he went to France to study dentistry. In the early 1930s, he opened a practice in Paris. When the Nazis overran Paris, he fled, making his way to Lisbon, Portugal. Many Jews had gathered in Lisbon desperately seeking to board a ship out of Europe before it went up in flames.
On June 12, 1941, Frey boarded the Serpa Pinto, one of the last ships out. Two other passengers on that vessel were the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, of righteous memory. Eleven days later, on June 23, the 28th of Sivan, the refugees disembarked on Staten Island, freedom beneath their feet.
“They were a bedraggled bunch,” Penelope Frey tells Chabad.org, recalling her late husband’s memories. “Some of them were so sick. There were plenty of children and very little food left. It was sweltering hot. They all rejoiced because they knew that Hitler had just announced his march to Russia.”
As The New York Times reported on June 24, 1941, in a story headlined Arriving Refugees Gay at War’s Turn: “There was great jubilation among the refugees who arrived yesterday over the news that Russia was at war with Germany. They had received word of the Nazi invasion of Russia before the liner docked here. One man, who declined to give his name, seemed to reflect the feelings of most of his fellow passengers when he declared: ‘We didn’t know whether we should be more joyful for reaching America or for learning that Russia had gone to war with Germany.’ ”
The eventual defeat of the Germans at the hands of Russia was a certainty for those refugees, as Penelope Frey put it: “It happened with Napoleon, and it was going to happen again.”
When Frey recounted his experiences to his wife—they married in 1966—she had asked if he knew anyone from the ship still alive. He did. And then upon his wife’s suggestion, every year on that day, Frey’s office hosted a celebration with six or seven survivors.
Only 11 miles from Dr. Frey’s Park Avenue office, across the East River on Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Rebbe, too, would celebrate and give thanks to G d from their escape from the Nazi inferno. The 28th of Sivan became a day of celebration in 770 Eastern Parkway—the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—with a special farbrengen held to mark it each year from 1986.
The Skull’s Saga Continues
Eighty years later, it would be the Rebbe’s emissary in Temecula, Calif., who would help lay the skull of this anonymous, destitute Holocaust survivor to rest.
Penelope and her husband knew a young Jewish boy who was close with their family and later became religious, moving to Israel. When Penelope revisited the mysterious skull that she’d brought with her to California when she moved there after retirement, she asked this family friend his advice. What does one do with a Jewish skull in a box, she wondered?
“Call the local Chabad,” her Jewish friend suggested.
“She called me while I was standing in line with a youth group at Knott’s Berry Farm and said, ‘I have the skull of a Holocaust survivor and would like to give it a proper burial, ” recounted Rabbi Yonasan Abrams, co-director of Chabad of Temecula with his wife, Natanya. “I wasn’t sure whether to call the mortuary, a more qualified rabbi, the media or police!”
Abrams immediately began making arrangements. On Oct. 4, with the assistance of Baruch (Bruce) Bloom of the Chesed Shel Emes Society of California and as Penelope Frey looked on, he carefully lowered the small casket into a grave at the Mount Olive Memorial Park Jewish Cemetery in Los Angeles and then they gently shoveled some dirt over the fresh grave. After 70 years, the skull of the man from the dental clinic with the numbers on his arm was finally laid to rest.
“We don’t know why he suffered so much during his lifetime, and even after life, but finally, his soul can rest in peace,” reflected Abrams.
“This story has a positive ending,” remarked Penelope. “This lifts my heart, and I believe my husband would have acted in the same way.”