Young Jews With Holocaust Tattoos: Are They Such a Bad Thing?

This week’s New York Times story “With Tattoos, Young Israelis Bear Holocaust” has raised a lot of eyebrows amongst American Jews. The email I got from a friend alerting me to it called the trend “tasteless”; friends who responded all agreed. For my part, I didn’t say a word – mostly because I couldn’t figure out how I felt. A few days later, I still can’t.

But let’s back up. The story begins,

When Eli Sagir showed her grandfather, Yosef Diamant, the new tattoo on her left forearm, he bent his head to kiss it.

Mr. Diamant had the same tattoo, the number 157622, permanently inked on his own arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Nearly 70 years later, Ms. Sagir got hers at a hip tattoo parlor downtown after a high school trip to Poland. The next week, her mother and brother also had the six digits inscribed onto their forearms. This month, her uncle followed suit.

Mr. Diamant’s descendants are among a handful of children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors here who have taken the step of memorializing the darkest days of history on their own bodies.

My first visible tattoo was a red star on my inner left wrist with the numbers 10:47 – like the time of day, in honor of a boyfriend who wrote a song by that title before he later committed suicide. Even now, looking at the tattoo serves as a daily reminder to value my life and to live it vibrantly, to push through difficult times and come out stronger. For nearly a year, though, every time I saw my grandmother, I wore a watch to cover up my tattoo and avoid arousing her inevitable disapproval. One day, my grandmother spotted a friend’s tattoo, similar to mine and in memory of the same individual. “That’s a wonderful tribute,” she told him, and to me, she said, “Kate! Why haven’t you thought about doing something like this to remember Dave?” And that’s how I came to reveal my tattoo to my grandmother – to no guilt trip at all.

My grandmother may not have taken issue with my ink, but as a tattooed Jew, I’ve often faced the ire of fellow members of the tribe who remind me that Leviticus 19:28 strictly prohibits tattooing for the sake of art and entertainment (medical tattoos and incisions are permitted). Upon spotting the tattoos on my wrist and foot, folks have exclaimed, “You must not want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery!” though it’s not true, strictly speaking, that my tattoos would disqualify me from such burial (except in Orthodox cemeteries, where I wouldn’t plan to be buried anyway). And because the tattoo on my wrist bears numbers, some have expressed their disgust that, given the horrors of the Holocaust, I’d have numbers permanently tattooed upon my arm.

Yet here are Israeli Jews who are not just tattooing numbers upon their arms; they’re tattooing Holocaust numbers upon their arms, visually replicating the most widely recognized physical sign of their our ancestors’ suffering. In “Fetishizing Holocaust Tattoos,” Jonathan S. Tobin writes,

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.

He’s correct, of course. No tattoo can truly memorialize the Holocaust or prevent future such occurrences (God forbid). And yet, none of the individuals the Times profiles claims to have gotten inked in order to memorialize all of the millions who died – only to pay tribute to those they love who survived. Further, no one seems to be under any illusions that having a “Holocaust tattoo” is a significant means of practicing living, breathing Judaism – not culturally and, given Leviticus’s prohibition, certainly not religiously.

It’s a non sequitur, though, to insinuate that memorializing the past is somehow prohibitive of living a Jewish present or building a Jewish future; such commitments can and do exist together, both in individuals without such tattoos and likely in the case of those with them, too. You’d never hear anyone say that lighting a memorial candle at the Holocaust Museum is “a vain attempt to relive a tragic past” or that doing so prevents a person from living a committed Jewish life! Similarly, having his grandfather’s Auschwitz number tattooed upon his forearm doesn’t prevent or prohibit a young man from speaking out against anti-Semitism or present-day genocidal activities or any other pressing social justice issue. On the contrary, given these young people’s insistence that their tattoos serve as a visual reminder of their Judaism, such a permanent, visible mark may actually encourage one to further embody Jewish principles in his or her everyday life. And there’s nothing vain, futile, or tragic about that.

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Kate Bigam

About Kate Bigam

Kate Bigam is the URJ's Social Media and Community Manager. Prior to this, she served as a Congregational Representative for the URJ's East District and at the Religious Action Center as Press Secretary and as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Kate resides in Northeast Ohio.

20 Responses to “Young Jews With Holocaust Tattoos: Are They Such a Bad Thing?”

  1. avatar

    I think Johnathan S. Tobin has it wrong. It’s not atypical to find cultural reference to a dark happening in any given culture’ past, to serve as a reminder to keep those dark days from being repeated. Christians wear perhaps the darkest reminder of them all, the Cross, the very thing Christ died on. You can find many of those reminders, physical or otherwise, in many cultures. Passover, the celebration of Martin Luthor King Jr’s birthday to remember his life, and (more importantly) his assassination, the American Independence Day celebration, which essentially celebrates a declaration of War. Culturally, we look back at those dark moments out our history knowing we have surmounted and survived them, and thus are we able to celebrate them in some way. I see the tattoos in question as a personalized version of this, where people may celebrate that their grand-parents and great grand-parents made it out of the Holocaust alive so that the story can be told and the event always remembered. I think your tattoo is another perfect example of that.

  2. avatar

    I’m not Jewish, but I still take issue with Tobin’s view that “the only proper memorial to the victims” is [anything, including his definition]. You cannot dictate what a universal “proper memorial” will look like, or feel like, or be like. A proper memorial is the one that helps you, personally, memorialize what you want to remember(and sure, ideally is not ragingly offensive to the rest of the world).

    • avatar

      Yes, thank you! If these people felt the need to add the tattoo, I am sure it filled a need they had (the ones who did it for their grandfather) and who is anyone to discredit that need?!?!

      That being said, I hope to hell this doesn’t become a trend and people do it out of fashion’s sake. I am all about memorializing and paying recognition to this time in our history, wish there was some other way…

  3. avatar

    As a convert, I don’t have family members who died in the Shoah.And my first thought was that it’s a tasteless thing to do;however, if a Shoah survivor approves, who am I to argue? I don’t have the right to tell him or her what a proper memorial looks like.

  4. avatar

    I am somewhat torn about this. On one hand, I was profoundly moved by the narrated scene where the grandfather bends down to kiss the granddaughter’s tattoo. If he was moved by this act of love for him, then I have a hard time condemning it. At the same time, I do find it in somewhat bad taste, and needlessly provocative in today’s environment. I agree wholeheartedly with Tobin that we must not use memories of past tragedies or an obsession with artificially manufacturing a modern culture of victimhood as ways to construct a positive Jewish identity. “Because of the Holocaust” is not a reason to be Jewish today. In my opinion, it is profoundly disrespectful to the memory of those who perished in the Shoah to use what happened as a justification for giving up on Liberal Judaism’s original idealism and universalism.

  5. Larry Kaufman

    “Because of the Holocaust” is not a reason to be Jewish today.

    Wrong again, Jordan. If I may channel Emil Fackenheim, the 614th commandment forbids us to give Hitler this posthumous victory.

    Having said that, I too am torn about this way of remembering, whether those who choose it are remembering their own loved ones – who, after all, survived – or the Six Million. On balance, I grant that each individual in Reform Judaism has the autonomy to honor and remember as he or she sees fit.

    And accordingly, bringing in the question of bad taste or being unduly provocative is itself in bad taste and unduly provocative!

    • avatar

      Larry, you have got to be kidding me! How can you, of all people, put forth that tired old platitude of “giving Hitler a posthumous victory”? Fackenheim’s “614th commandment” may have been one of the more dangerous ideas committed to writing by a Jew in the last century–if not in intent, then in effect.

      Discourse on all issues in the Jewish world seems to have degenerated to the point where everybody is accusing those with whom they disagree of “granting Hitler a posthumous victory”. In the absence of immediate external existential threats, we seem perilously close to destroying ourselves from within. In the words of my teacher Rabbi Howard Berman, we are “negating the idealistic, universal values inherent in our own tradition, in a defensive and paranoid capitulation to the very forces that sought to destroy us”.

      Larry claims (hopefully not seriously) that “bringing in the question of bad taste or being unduly provocative is itself in bad taste and unduly provocative”. If everyone lived by that grotesquely circular maxim, there would be no dialogue, and no possibility for progress, change, or improvement. Some things must be called out for what they are. It cannot be considered always wrong to call something else wrong! That would be logically fallacious and unproductive. Granted, Larry has a point insofar as EXCESSIVE provocation is also unproductive. We should strive for a balance.

  6. avatar

    As Jews, in the torah, we are commanded to don a visual reminder, it is called tzitzit. We are specifically prohibited from making marks on our skin. So enough with the tattoos, start wearing tzitzit!

    • avatar

      Of all the various reasons not to do the whole tattoo thing, I think those based in a fundamentalist reading of Scripture are the least relevant. Speaking of the Torah as literally “commanding” things like tzitzit or literally “prohibiting” tattoos is not germane to serious discussion in a liberal Jewish context, except for the utilitarian purpose of academically describing orthopraxy. We need to start teaching the Documentary Hypothesis in Religious School–that would clear up so much of the nonsense one hears in the community today.

  7. avatar

    The sentiment that Jordan just expressed regarding commandments in the Torah is why I left the Reform movement. Judy’s suggestion that the traditional practice of using tzitzit as a reminder of our Judaism in place of these Holocaust tattoos seems incredibly relevant to the discussion at hand. I say this in light of the fact that every authority figure (rabbi, lay leader, etc) that I interacted with in the Reform movement encouraged me (and my born-Jewish husband) to “try on” different commandments. Their idea was that these seemingly meaningless rituals might actually come to have meaning for us if we gave them a chance. And if we gave it up after a week, then at least we could say we had tried and we could answer from experience why, as individual Reform Jews, we did not practice those rituals. But the minute test driving kashrut turned into a regular practice for us we got funny looks and questions from those in the Reform movement. This movement claims to promote the individual’s study of Jewish traditions and the individual’s decision to adopt those Jewish practices that s/he has found meaningful. Anything bordering on Conservative or Orthodox, however, is brushed off as “fundamentalist” and “nonsense”. That is a shame.
    To get back on point, I think Judy’s suggestion is not only valid, but very interesting. Can the Torah and traditional Jewish practice offer meaningful options in cases like this? Or are there some things that are so beyond our comprehension that we have to invent new ways to react and cope? If that new way of coping conflicts with the Torah, is that an issue? In the case of Holocaust tattoos, I think wearing tzitzit might not carry the personal connection and memorial that these people seem to be seeking by using their grandparents’ Holocaust numbers.

    • avatar

      I understand, Erin. I’m not sure how long ago you had that experience with the Reform Movement, but I can certainly tell you that you would be unlikely to have the same experience today. It would be only in the kinds of Temples I frequent that you might get funny stares for keeping Kashrut. The mainstream is very much more in line with your thinking.

      A few years ago, people would indeed have been encouraged to “try on” different Mitzvot, but ritual “Mitzvot” in that context were not thought of as “commandments”. The traditional practices that have roots in the Biblical and Rabbinic writings were thought of as optional means to pursue EXTRA connection with God and our Tradition, but only the ethical commandments were considered non-negotiable and actually commanded by God. These days, many Reform Jews, both lay and clergy, probably do see themselves as being literally commanded by God to do things like keep Kosher, wrap Tefillin, etc. While I have no personal issues with those individuals, and wish them well, I very much wish they would join the Conservative Movement as you have. Otherwise, there will be no spiritual home for Jews who do not want to be secular, but for whom traditional ritual is a barrier to spiritual meaning. We have already lost far too many of these Jews to Unitarianism, Quakerism, Baha’iism, and unaffiliation.

      • avatar

        Jordan, this was a year and a half ago and my synagogue was not CR. This is a problem I have run across within the Reform movement overall, not just pockets here and there. For certain things, like wearing a kippah or tallis in the synagogue, you’re right. Traditional practices related to ritual seem to be making a come back in the Reform movement as a way to make services and prayer more spiritual (obviously this doesn’t work for everyone). It’s when traditional practice leaves the walls of the synagogue that people seem to shy away from it and that’s where I felt pushed away.
        I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot of those people go Conservative like I did. For one thing, the Conservative movement is old; I’m the youngest person in most Conservative synagogues by at least 20 years. Plus, the Conservative movement has to resolve some of its debates regarding social issues – intermarriage, paternal Jews, gay marriage, etc.

        • avatar

          Erin, I don’t know where you live, so can’t speak to your experiences. I know that at my reform temple, while we have become more traditional and spiritual in many ways…use more Hebrew, wear kippa and tallit if we choose, study Torah, etc. However, we maintain our liberal and open acceptance for all degrees of observance. I personally stopped eating pork and shellfish many years ago…and have never felt judged by anyone for it. I am also a non-believer in the biblical god, and very open about it – and I’ve never been judged for that either. I think you/one has to find the right fit…in my opinion the values of the congregation are more important than the label.

      • Larry Kaufman

        There is absolutely no reason on earth to exile Reform Jews who feel differently commanded than you do to another movement, whose ideology, even if not its practice, is totally at odds with Reform.

        One of the hallmarks of Classical Reform Jews, back in the bad old days, was their tendency to dismiss ritual practices that the Movement had rejected as being contrary to “pure” Reform. (Please note that I attributed that position to CR Jews, not to CR itself, although some rabbis were probably guilty of it, too.)

        Of course, some of that purportedly ideological dismissal of Jews who were too into ritual was actually a matter of social snobbery, which I don’t see in Erin’s experiences. I just think she’d been hanging around with the wrong Reform Jews. If she talked about being Kosher in my congregation, she’d probably be asked where she shopped. And anyone who would brush off her practices as fundamentalist, nonsensical, or Orthodox, obviously missed the lessons on autonomy and on derech eretz, civilized behaviour.

  8. avatar

    I’m 62 and got my first tattoo at 56. As a liberal, secular Jew the biblical prohibition was never an issue for me. On my first trip to Israel 4 years ago I wanted an Israeli tattoo as a permanent reminder of that long dreamed of trip. I wanted a chai..and originally wanted it on the inside of my wrist, but concerned that choosing a tattoo,even one commemorating life, on a place where so many had been forced to get them would offend some, I got it on my ankle. Last year in Iceland I did get a tattoo on my left wrist (still with some concerns at first). I have a Jewish star with words ‘one love’ tattooed above my heart and that, in part, is to permanently mark myself as a Jew. Although my family emigrated to the US in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, so I don’t know of any family members who may have been lost in the Holocaust, I am of the first generation after and much of my Jewish identity is connected to it. After reading the article in the times, I have been reconsidering getting a ‘memorial’ tattoo on my right arm…a quote from Hannah Senesh in Hebrew: ‘blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.’ As time passes, the survivors age and die, and the memory of the Holocaust is fading, I am feeling a strong pull to make a permanent statement. It might not be right for others, but it feels right to me.

    • avatar

      Just to clarify, Robin–my issue was with the NUMBERS being tattooed in imitation of the Holocaust survivors. I think your idea of the Hannah Senesh quote is lovely! I personally am not a fan of tattoos, but for those who are “into” them, they can be a profound statement, religious or otherwise. You picked a quote from one of my favorite Jewish-themed poems.

  9. avatar

    i am not Jewish…I am appalled by the plight the Jewish people have endured. I had a tattoo applied to my inner left forearm this past March 29th…it is a piece of art of my own which i drew in 1986 when my father passed away. It is a crying face and i added to that, an inscription and it reads right to left. The inscription is alpha-pneumeric and is:
    N1494 73V3N … or … NEVEr AgAIN
    I am happy to wear this for the rest of my life…if it is all i can effectively do to remind just one more person to never forget…NEVER AGAIN.

    • avatar

      In addition, Some may feel offended by the notion or the visual…because they know the original pain…but for generations to come, it NEEDS to be a harsh, slap in the face, kind of remembrance.
      The exodus (PASSOVER) has been & is still, to this day been celebrated with the youngest always asking der feir kashes (the 4 questions), so it should never be forgotten…The Holocaust is far more of an abomination of humanity and must be “kept alive” so that it should never ever be repeated…


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