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To Tattoo Or Not To Tattoo

A Hebrew tattoo reads "love."

I am leaving tomorrow for a trip home to LA. Between visiting cousins, friends, new babies, and family, my trips home tend to whiz by in a blur of too-short-check-ins.

With all of the wonderful (albeit short) visits I make while I’m home, the most important ones I make are to my grandfather. Papa is my last living grandparent. He is 92 years old and was always the grandparent to whom I felt the closest. We’ve had a connection since I was a newborn. There are pictures of us being absolutely delighted by one another while I was still in diapers. We have a mutual-adoration society of two. He vacillates between calling me “troublemaker” and “darling” but always with a smile on his face. I respond to either with glee. Yet for the first time in my life, I am nervous about seeing him.

Papa was driving himself until about six months ago. He still lives on his own, exercises every day, and is fiercely independent. But my mom says he has been fading lately, unable to remember basic happenings, like who visited yesterday, and long-ago things—like which of his sisters was married to whom. I know that will be hard to see. I can see the changes more clearly than my other cousins, because I go three months at a time without seeing him, so the changes are starker. Losing Papa isn’t just losing a touchstone and a man I adore, it is losing an important piece of history.

I am a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. I have watched my grandparents’ tattoos cause tears at little league games from a parent who realizes what she is looking at. I have seen the tattoos get them out of traffic tickets. And just the last time I was home, I saw a man at a deli lop up extra salmon for Papa, while gesturing toward Papa’s forearm as an explanation.

As far I can tell and remember, my grandparents’ tattoos were never much on their minds. I don’t think that they ever wore long-sleeves to cover them up or wore short sleeves to show them proudly. I remember when some well-intentioned friend of my parents got my brothers and I the book The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm, no doubt thinking that this would be a helpful explanation of something so odd. But we never thought of the tattoos as odd; after all, most of my grandparents’ friends had them as well. I don’t remember a time before I knew what the Holocaust was, and these tattoos were as much a fixture of my grandparents’ bodies as any moles that they had.

As the generation of Holocaust survivors leaves us, I am tempted to get a tattoo myself, of the numbers (or combination of numbers) on my grandparents’ arms. I have incredibly mixed feelings about this. It’s against Jewish law. Nazis did this to my grandparents; do I ever want to do anything a Nazi did to us, to myself? I know all of the arguments and thoughts on re-appropriating language and gestures, and I don’t disagree with them. But this gesture seems so finite—not a word on a page or spoken, but ink on my arm. And yet… I am tempted. 

There are many ways I could go about getting this tattoo. I could get it in white ink on my very pale forearm, as a gentle gesture. I could get the green ink in the exact placement as my grandparents'. I could get it placed somewhere people will not see easily. But standing on the subway tonight, I looked at my bare arm and thought about the mixed reactions I would get on the train and wondered how those reactions would make me feel. I thought about whether it would show on my wedding day, and how I would explain it to my children one day; how I would proudly explain it to my grandchildren after that.

I am going to ask Papa his thoughts on the matter. I am 99% sure that he will be against it.  He’ll probably have some very practical response to it like, “it’s ugly.” Although I know that I will let his answer influence my decision, I am not sure that it will be the deciding factor. Certain members of my family would be proud if I decided to get the tattoo. Others would be deeply offended. I weigh these emotions as I consider my options, because their feelings matter to me too.

I think about all of the years that my grandparents had to deal with other people’s feelings about their tattoos. And I think about how nice it would feel to have something so complicated on my body representing something that is so complicated in my heart. And I will continue to think about it. 


Topics: Holocaust
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As a Jew born after the Holocaust, I was initially horrified to read this. Then, the more I thought about, the more intiguing it became. Tattooing your grandfather's number on your arm becomes more than an honorific, more than a memento. By continuing to provoke outrage, anger, remembrance and reverence it becomes something else - a work of art.

If you had no direct connection to the number (i.e., if this were an internet meme) it would be slightly horrific. But as a filial memory, and act of love, I think it is both meaningful and beautiful

What does Grandpa say, does he see it as an honor or a curse?

I still don't know if I am going to do it. My grandfather's response was, "It will be ugly". And that was it. I sort of love the simplicity in that answer.

In reply to by Vanessa

Vanessa, be sure to keep us posted as you continue to mull it over. Whatever you decide, I'm sure it will be the right decision for yourself and your family.

I love the image in the picture. Also love the idea of a tattoo in the same place, but instead of a number, something symbolizing strength , survival, humanity, peace?

That was beautifully written. Are you going to do it?

Vanessa, the best thing you can do is remember their numbers but don't get one yourself. Did the four of them have stories or beliefs about their numbers? My dad did.

Thank you for your comment, Talia. I really appreciate it. It's nice to know that other people feel the same way and that there is no time limit on my decision. Best wishes.

I feel the same way towards getting a number tattoo on my forearm. I know that my survivor grandparents would be horrified, both because it's against Jewish law and because it's something that was foisted onto them, not a choice. I don't think I ever will, since it's just not acceptable to get a tattoo in my Orthodox community. It's something I would love to do, though.


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How to cite this page

Zoltan, Vanessa. "To Tattoo Or Not To Tattoo." 29 July 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 3, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/to-tattoo-or-not-to-tattoo>.