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The Loaded Tattoo

Today on Truth, Praise & Help, Renee Ghert-Zand expressed her displeasure at two Israeli men who decided to honor their Holocaust survivor matriarch with a tattoo of her Auschwitz number on their forearms. She, like many Jews, has trouble with tattoos and finds Holocaust remembrance tattoos particularly offensive. While I am also a little uncomfortable with the idea of remembering a survivor by their Nazi-given number, I am not opposed to the idea of remembrance tattoos--even ones on the forearm. As a grandchild of survivors who has seriously thought about getting a remembrance tattoo, I would like to offer a different point of view.

I have always wanted a tattoo, but I never saw the point of butterflies or shooting stars; I wanted something meaningful. And since this tattoo would be permanent, it would have to represent a part of my identity that would never change. The only thing that ever "felt right" was my Jewish identity, which to a large extent is based on being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. While I would not get my grandparents' numbers tattooed on my arm like the Israeli men profiled (I would not want to remember them by the number the Nazis gave them) I have considered getting the Hebrew word for "Remember" or perhaps "Love" tattooed on my forearm.

I was not the first person to have this idea. Holocaust remembrance tattoos are not new, but they are always controversial in the Jewish community, especially since tattoos are somewhat taboo according to Jewish law. At the same time, tattoos are experiencing a revival among young Jews, and are perhaps becoming integrated into our generational identity and culture. But could or should I go under the needle myself?

When I first shared this idea with my parents, I quickly learned the traditional stance on this issue. "Absolutely not!" My grandparents survived so that Jews would never have to be tattooed, marked, or counted ever again. Not only that, my father explained, it wasn't safe to walk around with a tattoo identifying you as Jewish. What if it did happen again? And finally, the most compelling reason of all, getting a tattoo like that would cause my parents and especially my grandparents a lot of pain and bring tzuris to the family. Needless to say, I don't have a tattoo, but I continue to think about it to this day.

I remember looking at my grandparents' Auschwitz tattoos as a child, mesmerized by what they signified. The tattoos were present when my grandfather showed me how to lift smoked whitefish off the bone, and when my grandmother served a bowl of fruit compote for dessert. The tattoos carried a silent presence in everything we did together, but for me as a child, the tattoos were neither sinister or depressing. Instead they were intriguing and mysterious.

Curious about my family's history, I read every young-adult Holocaust book I could get my hands on. I did not hear my grandparents' stories until I was much older, but seeing their tattoos made the history and story books real; it was right there on my grandmother's arm. It upsets me to think that when my children read the same stories, there will be no tangible proof or physical evidence to make them "real." Could a remembrance tattoo on their mother's arm serve that function in some small way? Could it be a gateway to discuss the family's Holocaust history with my children once they are old enough to ask what mom's tattoo is all about?

But the tattoo would not simply be for my children. It would be, primarily, for me. My grandparents were tattooed against their will and reminded of their suffering every day of their lives as a result. I, on the other hand, would be making the choice to be reminded. The tattoo would be a symbol of my duty to them, to remember, and to work towards ending genocide for the rest of my life. Like many, I often get caught up in my own day-to-day drama and lose sight of these larger responsibilities. A tattoo would take away this luxury--a luxury my grandparents may have wanted for me, but I do not want for myself. This is perhaps the heart of the whole issue.

My grandfather and late grandmother would be irrevocably hurt if I chose to honor them with a remembrance tattoo. For this reason, I have not, and will not while my grandfather is living. But is this reason enough to keep me from doing it after they are both gone?

The "old school" of Holocaust remembrance seems to be about "Never Again," which I have trouble with since, well, genocide has happened again. The old school remembrance focuses on fighting anti-Semitism and intermarriage, whereas the "new school" of remembrance--my generation's remembrance--is about preventing genocide, hate and racism on a global scale. I respect and understand the old school, but it feels tired, outdated, and perhaps a little unecessary in modern day America. The "new school" of Holocaust remembrance speaks to me and my generation. We, as the descendants of Holocaust survivors should be at the forefront of the fight to end genocide, no matter to whom it occurs.

A remembrance tattoo is something my grandparents would never be able to understand or accept. But my grandparents are from a different world and a different time, and they have a lot of beliefs and opinions that I do not share. I cannot live my life according to their terms because it would be a betrayal of my own values. In a strange way, I honor them by breaking away from their generational zenophobia and paranoia and moving towards a more inclusive and progressive Jewish future. Getting a remembrance tattoo would also upset my parents, but unlike my grandparents, I can expect them to at least try to understand and ultimately accept or tolerate my choice.

I almost chickened out and didn't write this post because I know that my opinion is fairly controversial and might upset people. I understand that many of us feel very strongly about this issue and I respect those feelings and where they come from. This is a very hard topic to discuss, even (or especially) within my own family. Still, I hope that sharing my feelings will help open to the door to a real conversation about remembrance tattoos and shifting ideas about Holocaust remembrance in general. I would love to know how others, of different generations, feel about this. Please share your response in the comments.

18 Comments

Leah, I applaud you for putting yourself in the public sphere about this issue. I recognize that this post is somewhat dated by Internet standards, but it still resonates and I thank you for writing it. I am fortunate that my family fought and died fighting the Nazi's in American uniforms and not on the other side. My daughter is the great-grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I knew her grandfather and grandmother and while neither were tattooed, both bore their scars daily.

Her grandfather shepherded a good number of his wife's family to safety across Europe and Asia. Before that he was a member of the Polish cavalry and when he was insulted by his officers for being Jewish he beat them. This earned him a trip to prison before the war, but while there he had tattooed on his left forearm a Mogen David. He wore that throughout WW2 until his death in the early 2000's.

I'm Jewish and not Tatted up at all, but thought if I ever did get one it might be that. As a statement to the world that we are here, we are not afraid, and "Never Again" will we be victims.

So to your last point about the statement "Never Again," I don't see it as blanket refusal of genocide. I see it as a refusal of genocide and/or abuse of Jews. Even now at 39, I consider getting a Star of David on my forearm - what I don't ever consider is laying down for hate or violence, subtle or overt, conscious or unconscious against Jews. I often stand for others as well (see Rabbi Hillel's famous quote on the subject), but always never again against mine and a remembrance tattoo is one way of making that statement.

I am now 50 years old, and have thought of getting a Holocaust number tattooed on my forearm since about age 20.

I never considered most of the issues mentioned in the article above, and similar articles I have read today.

My thoughts, which I thought were simple:

The world, including the humans, can be a cruel and horrifying. We must not forget that. Remembering it can help us to prevent it. Many people seem to espouse the behavioral practice of "think positive, be positive, create only positivity", and "if you have negativity, you have created it with your thoughts". I believe in positive thinking, but certainly not out of ignorance or in a vacuum. No matter how "good" things are, bad things can happen suddenly.

And bad things like the Holocaust happened, but not suddenly! The event was planned and the plan was executed. If more people had thought of life's horrors, and were committed to avoiding them, the events would have unfolded differently. I don't know how different, but different.

Having read a few articles today, I wonder if my thoughts are more selfish or narcissistic than I had realized. Do I just want attention, to make people's jaws drop? Do I want to be thought of as "dark"?

I don't think so. I do think of myself as keenly aware of cruelty and suffering. And I think it's a powerful reminder. I think a tattoo of this sort states a life truth that is unchanging. My biggest doubts right now--I thought of this idea from the perspective of: "if I were to get a tattoo, what would it be?" Originally I had no interest in a tattoo. I feared that whatever permanent mark I selected "now" would not be equally relevant to me throughout my life. Now, 30 years later, I believe the message of a Holocaust number will be equally relevant to me for all my years.

Yet, is it about me being special? And is that OK? I've decided it is OK, and it's not relevant whether it's about me being special. The Holocaust must never be forgotten. A tattoo is a method to keep it present.

And, as a Jew and a gay man, I would have been killed twice. It's worth reminding anyone that cruelty is what it is, regardless of the victims of the cruelty.

I welcome considerate feedback.

I've been thinking about getting a remembrance tattoo for a while as well. If anything, I feel that any sort of tattoo that is oriented towards such a deep-meaning issue reaffirms one's humanity. By reappropriating those symbols that were once a sign of humiliation for our ancestors (including concentration camp numbers), and choosing to wear them to remind ourselves and others, we show we are not ashamed of saying who we are. Rather, we are willing to differentiate ourselves in a positive manner using once-negative imagery. I think it's incredibly powerful to permanently mark oneself in such a way, in order to show you are not ashamed of your ancestry, and that you will always remember how your ancestors once suffered so that you might be able to make the choice to mark yourself, as they were forced to be. As for following strict law and tradition, I think it's useful to consider other "traditions" within Judaism. Technically, we're not supposed to shave with a razor either(that includes women and their legs). Or have sex for non-reproductive means. Although there are those who choose to strictly follow those laws, there are others who don't, like me, and I think that's fine. In the end, I think a tattoo as it pertains to Judaism is something deeply personal, especially when it comes to remembrance.

I am thinking about getting a tattoo of my grandparents numbers as well. They are both survivors and were both tattooed at Auschwitz. My grandfather, who outlived my grandmother by about 10 years, recently passed. He was never able to tell my family his story in person, however did so on a documentary organized by steven spielberg called "survivors of the shoah". I have always listened to the lessons and morals he taught me, however not until after his death have i truly learned everything that he went through through this videotape. I agree mostly with the number 3 point from the 21 year-old anonymous poster. My grandparents endured and survived horrors that i can not begin to fathom. When i feel overwhelmed or frustrated with events in my life, i have only to think of my grandparents and all of my troubles seem so small and insignificant. I feel extremely lucky and in debt to my grandparents, because without their tenaciousness and resolve I, along with the descendants of all other survivors, would not be here. My grandmother's number is now lost, and all that we have been able toput together are A8..... from pictures where her sleeves are rolled up. I do not want my grandfathers number to be forgotten, and am very near the point of having A9805 placed somewhere over my heart or on my ribs, in a spot that I would be able to cover with a tank-top. This would make it effectively impossible for me to forget my zaidy's number, and would provide a daily reminder of how lucky I am as well as a reminder that I have something to live up to. It is a way to own the experience, to view the number as a mark of pride and strength, rather than a symbol of persecution. The idea bears many similarities to other ways in which individuals take pride/identify with symbols of their own oppression, similar to the pink/purple triangle originally used by the nazis that is now an international symbol of gay pride. I am probably going to do it but love reading the feedback and other opinions about this topic

I've just seen your blog and as the child and grandchild of Holocaust surviviors I'd like to add my two cents' worth: Firstly, Jewish law and tradition have always prohibited tattoos so if you do get a tattoo of any kind you are thumbing your nose at your own religion, whether you intended to do so or not. Secondly, it also seems rather discordant to choose to remember the Shoah in a way that you know your parents and grandparents, who went through it, would disapprove of. You can't possibly claim that you would be "honoring" them by doing this when they clearly wouldn't want you to. Thirdly, I don't think that what you call the "old school" of Holocaust remembrance, with its emphasis on "Never Again" and fighting anti-Semitism, is necessarily outmoded, or that it conflicts with the "new school", which fights genocide and racism everywhere. The two things can blend together. Young Jews can and should fight racism in general, but we should also be aware that Jews are STILL the most targeted group for racism around the world. Even today there are more attacks by racists in the US and in other countries on synagogues and Jewish communal buildings than there are on mosques, churches, or any other religion's structures. And please do not forget that Iran has threatened to exterminate the Jewish state, killing all six million Jews in it (a rather significant number, of course). Anti-Semitism is, unfortunately, still alive and well and is not an "outmoded" issue at all.

Finally, I do think there are other ways to commemorate the Holocaust, and specifically the way it affected your family, while honoring your family's desires and your Jewishness at the same time. Some people publish books (I recommend reading "The Lost" by Daniel Mendelsohn), other people create blogs and websites in they tell their families' stories and post photos and copies of documents; I myself have made it my personal project to dig up the names and as many details as possible about my relatives in the Holocaust, and have sent Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of those who didn't have pages commemorating them. These are just some suggestions that would memorialize the events without writing them indelibly on your body.

In addition, probably the best thing you could do to honor your family is to remain Jewish, and to ensure your children do so too. We might be part of a universalistic modern world, but we have our own specific and great history, culture, traditions and rituals that we can and should be proud of. And not only that, but keeping them going gives us the best possible victory over those who tried to exterminate us.

Miriam, I understand what you are saying, I have questions though (shock for a group of Jews discussing something, right?)... I'm not willing to be quiet about who I am. I'm not the type to slap people in the face loud about being Jewish, but I don't shy from mentioning it if it's appropriate to the conversation. Further, being an infantry veteran of American wars, theirs a certain in-your-face attitude that I've developed, or maybe always had. I have a Mogen David necklace of course, but how do I tell the world I will stand for mine in no uncertain terms? Not everyone can or is willing to be an Elie Wiesel or Simon Wiesenthal, but some of us are willing to fight anti-Semitism in a personal and direct way - even without knowing it or suffer the consequences. How do we do that without marking ourselves openly?

I too am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and have been struggling with getting a tattoo of my own, specifically Zachor. I believe if you want to honor your previous generations memory and never forgetting is important which is what that simple word sums up. As for putting it on your forearm, no only would I prefer somewhere I could cover it up if I wanted for a job interview or such, but to imitate the numbers tattooed on our grandparents, to me, shows a more ongoing fate of forearm tattoos that I find demeaning because it was against our will and refers to the fact that we were considered a number and not human beings. I would say if you want the tattoo, get it, but you may want to put it somewhere where you will be able to remind yourself daily that doesnt create controversy.

A18917 is on my left forearm, I am 21. I didn't get this tattoo to reaffirm my judaism, and out of a myriad of concerns- only three are priorities:1. Her family, including her daughter (my grandmother) are neither angry nor embarrassed, but instead, vocally proud.2. I have only had this tattoo for a year, and already I have educated the ignorant (seriously) and conversed with the curious.3. I am reminded daily of the following:How lucky I am to be alive and free.I am humbled by the immense struggle of my kin and people.Her story, and how the Holocaust effects how I was raisedThe incredible power of love, will, and self-preservation.

As a convert, I have watched similar conversations with interest. I am aware of the prohibition against mutilating the body, which appears to be somewhat redefinable based on the era we live in. For instance, I don't hear much being said about multiple piercings on the ear lobe, or in general, as compared to tattoos.

Certainly the Holocaust adds another dimension to the discussion of tattos. One thought I had was to have my hebrew name tattoed in orange on my forearm. Letters and names, identifying me, not objectifying me, in the color opposite blue on the colorwheel. To me, it seems the opposite of the intent and meaning of the blue numbers which my adopted tribe members were forced to endure.

Why are you ashamed? Wrestling with tough issues is an important value.

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Leah,I thought your piece here was very sensitive and thoughtful, and that others will see it that way (in other words, I don't think you need to worry about too much hate mail). You, being the granddaughter of survivors have a very immediate take on the subject.I am very glad that my post inspired you to write this. I have come a long way re. tattoos, but the concentration camp numbers are where I draw the line. They are simply too dehumanizing and give power to those who tried to oppress, torture and kill us - or to anyone who would want to do so to anyone else today. To tattoo "Zachor" or "Yizkor" or something similar on the inside of the forearm would make more sense to me - if one were insistent on getting a Holocaust remembrance tattoo in the first place.If you have not already, I recommend that you check out the link included in the comment by Sue on my blog post. It is an article from Ha'aretz from a couple of years ago about another Israeli man who tattooed his father's Auschwitz numbers on his arm, and the father's reaction.Renee

Renee, thank you for speaking on this subject as well. I would respectfully disagree about the dehumanizing aspect of tattooing a concentration camp number on one's forearm in remembrance of the holocaust or what we went through and are going through (as exemplified by this discussion) as a people.

To me, a reform Jew, born and raised in Los Angeles, those tattoos are symbolic of something. The represent to me that despite the best efforts of well organized and determined foes, we live. Those that bore the tattoos initially, however they felt about them, survived. Those who might honor their kin or their people with a similar tattoo are showing the world that they too live - that we live, in their own way. Would someone 3 or 5 or 10 generations before have something to say about how I live? I have no doubt they would. Are they more or less right than I am? I would say neither - we cannot judge a person outside of their historical context and I would not like to be judged outside of mine.

I am ashamed to say that I had thought of copying my father's Auschwitz number on my arm many times. Not only in his honor, but to remember and alway be reminded of a sad simple Yiddish truth:

"As soon as you forget you are a Jew, someone will remind you".

And I say, "Never Again"

I appreciate your clear-headed writing about this. I invite you to visit my blog Awkward Offerings, where I struggle with issue as well as other Torah/modernity issues. I do think that you nailed it when you wrote of the luxury that you do not want for yourself. Keep struggling!

I can see why you worried about expressing such potentially controversial thoughts on a subject that strikes a very personal chord for so many people, but I'm really glad you did. You presented a thoughtful case for turning a taboo into a deeply significant and respectful connection to your identity and family, and I think that's a valuable contribution, since so many people think only rebellious kids or individuals looking to actively reject their heritage even consider getting tattoos, when really it's a lot more complex than that.

Leah, you mentioned that you've read many books on the Holocaust. If you haven't read Clara's War by Clara Kramer, I recommend that you do.

I totally hear you. My grandparents were in the camps. Though I don't remember their numbers, or even seeing them, the thought of getting a small zachor tattoo on my arm where their numbers were has occurred to me more than once. Not because I want ink, but because as years pass, it becomes more abstract to future generations. I am one, not two, but I am living proof of people who went through hell for just being born who they were. Terrible things happened. Some people say they didn't. The hell they didn't! So, yeah, zachor. Zachor Et Asher Asa Lecha Amalek (that's a little long for my arm). I don't like to sit around thinking about this stuff, but it's part of me. I probably won't get it done so I can have the option of wearing short sleeves in front of my frummie relatives without them bugging out. Some tattoos are already etched indelibly in the heart. Zachor is one of them, for me.

Holocaust Remembrance Tattoo
Full image
Holocaust remembrance tattoo.
Photo courtesy of Israel's Channel 2 News

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "The Loaded Tattoo." 19 April 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 25, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/the-loaded-tattoo>.

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