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.