The Ghost Tattoo by Tony Bernard

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

Those who survived the Holocaust of World War II have, over the years, slowly told their stories. For some, the trauma they suffered has been such that there has been a reluctance to say anything about it because of the pain they have suffered and are still suffering. Tony Bernard’s father Henry was one such person. Henry was a hardworking and respected family doctor on the northern beaches of Sydney. Born and raised in Poland, he and his family were caught up in the Nazi invasion and the partitioning of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union from 1939.

His family were non-practising members of their local Jewish community. Though they saw themselves as patriotic Poles, they along with millions of their fellow Jews were systematically persecuted in stages during the Nazi occupation. This included being prevented from running their businesses, continuing their education and eventually being forced to live in the Ghetto that was established in their hometown of Tomaszow. Henry, his brother Igancy and their mother Theodora were then sent to the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

It would be natural to think that the identification tattoo Henry received when he arrived at Auschwitz would be the focus of this book. After all, having such a reminder permanently on your arm would naturally conjure up painful memories. This was not the case for Henry. It took his son Tony forty years to both hear and research the events that resulted in this interesting but sorrowful remembrance of what occurred and how it shaped Henry’s life from that time on.

The tattoo, for Henry, was not what was inked onto his arm but the ghosts of the past whose memory brought on a host of regrets of what he was unable to do at the time to protect those nearest and dearest to him. The quest that Tony Bernard undertook to uncover these and other stories allowed him to understand his father’s personality a little bit more. War marks everyone in some way often to the second and third generations. Henry’s hard work after arriving in Australia enabled his family to live securely in a peaceful place. It also affected his relationships with different people many of whom did not know or understand the trauma he had already suffered during the war years.

It is a testimony to Tony’s perseverance that we have this memoir of Henry’s life. The time and patience needed for such a task no doubt took many waking hours, not to mention Tony’s willingness to travel back to Europe with Henry to revisit places and to honour those who lost their lives because of the hatred that manifested itself during this turbulent period. It also provides much needed information about the life in the Jewish Ghettos in Poland. This has been acknowledged by the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Tony observes that his father would not though describe himself as a survivor. Other people, he said, had suffered much worse than he had so they were the true survivors. All he would say about himself at the time was that he lived through it. Henry’s story is then one of great significance both for that fact that he lived through it and for its humanity as he navigated the twists and turns of the Holocaust while trying to look out for and protect those whom he loved above everyone else.

Tony Bernard is an emergency doctor at Northern Beaches Hospital and Mona Vale Hospital in Sydney. Over decades and during multiple trips to Europe, he has found himself on a path of discovery as he tried to understand who his father was and what he had gone through.

The Ghost Tattoo

Tony Bernard


Allen and Unwin

ISBN 9781761065415

$32.99; 320pp

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