Commentary Magazine


Topic: Holocaust survivors

Fetishizing Holocaust Tattoos

The gradual disappearance of Holocaust survivors has long been viewed with worry by those tasked with ensuring that the world never forgets the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators. The passage of time means that the most able advocates of remembrance will soon be but a memory themselves. Fear that their experiences would be forgotten have fueled the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials, as well as praiseworthy efforts to create libraries of survivor testimony that will all remain once they are gone. But for some that is not enough.

For some grandchildren of survivors and others who care about the subject, that has led to a bizarre fad in which they have taken to having the numbers that the Nazis branded on the survivors tattooed on their own arms. As a New York Times feature published on Monday shows, this phenomenon has grown from isolated instances to what must considered a trend with large numbers of youths in Israel. While the motives behind this seem pure, one cannot help but wonder at anyone embracing a practice whose purpose was to dehumanize captive Jews. While survivors who lived long enough eventually saw that most considered those numbers to be a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame, the act of fetishizing this evidence of the Nazis’ crimes seems like something that says more about the current generation than it does about the experience of the survivors.

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The gradual disappearance of Holocaust survivors has long been viewed with worry by those tasked with ensuring that the world never forgets the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators. The passage of time means that the most able advocates of remembrance will soon be but a memory themselves. Fear that their experiences would be forgotten have fueled the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials, as well as praiseworthy efforts to create libraries of survivor testimony that will all remain once they are gone. But for some that is not enough.

For some grandchildren of survivors and others who care about the subject, that has led to a bizarre fad in which they have taken to having the numbers that the Nazis branded on the survivors tattooed on their own arms. As a New York Times feature published on Monday shows, this phenomenon has grown from isolated instances to what must considered a trend with large numbers of youths in Israel. While the motives behind this seem pure, one cannot help but wonder at anyone embracing a practice whose purpose was to dehumanize captive Jews. While survivors who lived long enough eventually saw that most considered those numbers to be a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame, the act of fetishizing this evidence of the Nazis’ crimes seems like something that says more about the current generation than it does about the experience of the survivors.

It is true that in the past insults directed at Jews have become symbols that transcended their original intent. Secret practitioners of Judaism in Catholic Spain were taunted as “Marranos” — a word that meant “pigs” but history has accepted the label as a mark of heroism. Yet while tattoos are — for reasons that completely escape me — all the rage in 2012, this is a very different sort of thing than a mere word.

For those grounded in traditional Judaism, the idea of using tattoos to memorialize the Shoah is intrinsically abhorrent since Jewish religious law forbids the practice under any circumstances. While not all the victims were religious any more than all the survivors and their descendants are, there is something profoundly distasteful about adopting a practice that was, in part, a Nazi effort to outrage Jewish sensibilities as well as to dehumanize the victims by replacing their name with a number.

But even if we were to somehow ignore this rather important point which is mentioned only in passing in the Times article, let’s understand that the tattoo craze seems like an effort to personalize an experience that can never truly belong to the person copying a survivor’s numbers.

Advocates for the practice will say that those who are appalled by this don’t understand today’s youth who see nothing wrong with tattoos and relate better to such individual gestures than more amorphous concepts. That may be so. A number on an arm may have a deep personal meaning for individuals, but turning oneself into a living Holocaust memorial via a tattoo is to merely become, as some of those interviewed for the Times story seemed to want, a conversation piece.

It might be admitted, as historian Michael Berenbaum told the Times, that a Holocaust number is preferable to some of the other things people pay to have drawn on their skin these days. But no one should be under the illusion that a tattoo can properly memorialize the six million slain in the Shoah or those who emerged from it.

The most important challenge for Jews today is to reconnect with Judaism, Jewish peoplehood and to act to protect the living Jewish state that is the best guarantee that the Holocaust will never happen again. That requires joint action that seems the antithesis of elevating a tattooed number inspired by Nazi dehumanization into a conversation starter.

It needs to be restated that the only proper memorial to the victims is a living breathing Jewish people determined to survive and thrive in a world still filled with anti-Semites who might like to emulate Hitler. Drawing a number on your skin may have meaning to individuals (or, as in one case, serve as a reminder to a young man to call his grandfather) but Jewish identity can’t be rooted in a vain attempt to relive a tragic past. Judaism is an affirmation of life not death. Seen in that light, the attempt by some secular Jews to grab onto a symbol of the slaughter as a way to connect with the past seems more like a futile provocation than a method of perpetuating the memory of this great tragedy.

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Getting Améry Wrong (along with Everything Else)

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Anna Breslaw’s outrageous essay at Tablet last Friday, which declared that the European Jews who survived Hitler’s war against them were really “villains masquerading as victims.” John Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY (whom I am proud to call my friend), has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, single-handedly exposing Breslaw’s rant for what it is and demolishing Tablet’s non-apologetic apology for the article.

Anyone who has read her essay knows that Breslaw does not merely insult Holocaust survivors but cancer patients too. As someone who voluntarily decided to adopt what Breslaw derides as the “extreme will to live,” I suppose I should be angered by her ignorant and dismissive comments about cancer patients:

If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind.

I’ll just say that I do not recognize my experience in this passage. And the comment “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer,” which was never spoken to me or my wife (and would seem to be a clumsy attempt to suggest the patient is not alone), is hardly the worst breach of cancer etiquette.

No, what pisses me off is what has been little remarked so far. Namely: Breslaw’s misappropriation of the great Holocaust writer Jean Améry as a source and ally in her attack on Holocaust survivors:

Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry — a Holocaust survivor — discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. . . . It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.

Every word of this which is not an outright error is a shallow distortion. Améry would have spit upon Breslaw’s suggestion that some Jews were able to survive the death camps only because their “extreme will to live” led them to do something “villainous,” something they were unwilling to discuss afterwards. The reality of the camp, Améry wrote, was total. It obliterated human dignity, the self, the mind, everything Améry summed up as “the word.” The Jew in the death camp was not even a victim in the usual sense of the word. “The soldier died the hero’s or the victim’s death,” he said, “the prisoner that of an animal intended for slaughter.”

This is the sense in which Améry wrote that “evil overlays and exceeds banality.” Banality is an experience within the normal range of the human; the subjection to evil, which Améry identified with the experience of torture, “is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.” It exceeds the mind’s limits. At the first blow, the prisoner realizes he is helpless. And this changes everything. “The expectation of help, the certainty of help, is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings,” Améry wrote. It is, indeed, one of the defining experiences of the human. To find himself beyond help is to find himself beyond the human experience. He is beyond villainy and victimhood, face-to-face with a reality that has obliterated his will to either. To speak of such a man as a “villain masquerading as a victim” is to display a depthless failure of understanding.

(And by the way, Améry’s suicide, as he himself explained in his 1976 philosophical essay On Suicide, was an act of freedom, an assertion of extreme will, a refusal to fall victim to “the very people he should forgive,” the insistence that he, not they, would decide when he should die.)

Breslaw may have quoted the great Jean Améry, then, but she did not understand the first word of him. And she herself acknowledges as much, although she does not even know her own mind sufficiently to see that she has done so. In her opening paragraph, she attributes her bad opinion of survivors to “gut instinct.” Then, seven paragraphs later, immediately after quoting him, she praises “Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts” — an impulse that, by all appearances, Anna Breslaw entirely lacks.

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Anna Breslaw’s outrageous essay at Tablet last Friday, which declared that the European Jews who survived Hitler’s war against them were really “villains masquerading as victims.” John Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY (whom I am proud to call my friend), has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, single-handedly exposing Breslaw’s rant for what it is and demolishing Tablet’s non-apologetic apology for the article.

Anyone who has read her essay knows that Breslaw does not merely insult Holocaust survivors but cancer patients too. As someone who voluntarily decided to adopt what Breslaw derides as the “extreme will to live,” I suppose I should be angered by her ignorant and dismissive comments about cancer patients:

If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind.

I’ll just say that I do not recognize my experience in this passage. And the comment “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer,” which was never spoken to me or my wife (and would seem to be a clumsy attempt to suggest the patient is not alone), is hardly the worst breach of cancer etiquette.

No, what pisses me off is what has been little remarked so far. Namely: Breslaw’s misappropriation of the great Holocaust writer Jean Améry as a source and ally in her attack on Holocaust survivors:

Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry — a Holocaust survivor — discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. . . . It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.

Every word of this which is not an outright error is a shallow distortion. Améry would have spit upon Breslaw’s suggestion that some Jews were able to survive the death camps only because their “extreme will to live” led them to do something “villainous,” something they were unwilling to discuss afterwards. The reality of the camp, Améry wrote, was total. It obliterated human dignity, the self, the mind, everything Améry summed up as “the word.” The Jew in the death camp was not even a victim in the usual sense of the word. “The soldier died the hero’s or the victim’s death,” he said, “the prisoner that of an animal intended for slaughter.”

This is the sense in which Améry wrote that “evil overlays and exceeds banality.” Banality is an experience within the normal range of the human; the subjection to evil, which Améry identified with the experience of torture, “is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.” It exceeds the mind’s limits. At the first blow, the prisoner realizes he is helpless. And this changes everything. “The expectation of help, the certainty of help, is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings,” Améry wrote. It is, indeed, one of the defining experiences of the human. To find himself beyond help is to find himself beyond the human experience. He is beyond villainy and victimhood, face-to-face with a reality that has obliterated his will to either. To speak of such a man as a “villain masquerading as a victim” is to display a depthless failure of understanding.

(And by the way, Améry’s suicide, as he himself explained in his 1976 philosophical essay On Suicide, was an act of freedom, an assertion of extreme will, a refusal to fall victim to “the very people he should forgive,” the insistence that he, not they, would decide when he should die.)

Breslaw may have quoted the great Jean Améry, then, but she did not understand the first word of him. And she herself acknowledges as much, although she does not even know her own mind sufficiently to see that she has done so. In her opening paragraph, she attributes her bad opinion of survivors to “gut instinct.” Then, seven paragraphs later, immediately after quoting him, she praises “Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts” — an impulse that, by all appearances, Anna Breslaw entirely lacks.

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The Most Disgraceful Piece of Anti-Semitism Published in Years

I thought quite a while before deciding to write this item, because it deals with an online publication that is kind of a distant cousin to COMMENTARY. But after spending years calling out anti-Semitism committed primarily by paleoconservative publications and anti-Zionism on the part of liberal Jewish publications of a kind all but indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, I decided it would be improper for me to be silent on something published by Tablet. It is, without question, the most disgusting piece of anti-Semitism I think I’ve ever read outside of the arrant lunacy of schizophrenic letter writers, and the fact that it was written by a Jew trumpeting her connection to the Holocaust only makes it all the more repugnant.

You can find it here. I’m not going to quote from it, because to do so would be to provide a forum for words and sentences so noxious they hardly justify description. Suffice it to say that in an article taking off from the cable-TV series “Breaking Bad,” the contemptible author of this article denounces her Holocaust-survivor grandparents for fulfilling the Nazi perception of Jews, libels Elie Wiesel, and likens the survival of Jews in the camps to the behavior of a fictional gangster meth dealer.

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I thought quite a while before deciding to write this item, because it deals with an online publication that is kind of a distant cousin to COMMENTARY. But after spending years calling out anti-Semitism committed primarily by paleoconservative publications and anti-Zionism on the part of liberal Jewish publications of a kind all but indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, I decided it would be improper for me to be silent on something published by Tablet. It is, without question, the most disgusting piece of anti-Semitism I think I’ve ever read outside of the arrant lunacy of schizophrenic letter writers, and the fact that it was written by a Jew trumpeting her connection to the Holocaust only makes it all the more repugnant.

You can find it here. I’m not going to quote from it, because to do so would be to provide a forum for words and sentences so noxious they hardly justify description. Suffice it to say that in an article taking off from the cable-TV series “Breaking Bad,” the contemptible author of this article denounces her Holocaust-survivor grandparents for fulfilling the Nazi perception of Jews, libels Elie Wiesel, and likens the survival of Jews in the camps to the behavior of a fictional gangster meth dealer.

How anyone at Tablet responsible for the acceptance and publication of this piece of evil filth—no other term will do—can look at herself or himself in the mirror today is a mystery that surpasseth understanding.

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