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.
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "The Loaded Tattoo." 19 April 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 30, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/the-loaded-tattoo>.