Holocaust Tattoos and Skin Memorials
Yom Hashoah means the "Day of Devastation." It is the powerful and all too literal name by which the Holocaust is remembered in Israel and elsewhere within the Jewish Diaspora.
Regardless of the many ways that the Jewish community has chosen to deal with this personal devastation and the even more ways by which the world has attempted to understand it, it always returns to a very intimate understanding, a scar upon the psyche.
Which makes it appropriate that tattooing has, recently, become an important facet of this conversation. As is well-known, many Jews who were victimized by the Holocaust had identification numbers tattooed (branded, actually) onto their forearms.
Today, many descendants of these victims are considering and, in rare cases, actually getting their parents and grandparents numbers tattooed on their own arm. The reasons vary.
For some, it is similar to a Christian wearing a cross around their neck, taking upon themselves a piece of the burden administered by Jesus. For others, it is simply a reflex of memory. With Holocaust revisionist history gaining popularity and the witnesses to the Devastation passing away, it is a skin-based documentary of a time we wish not to remember but should never forget. Of course, with all things tattoo, the reasons, the logic behind the reasons and the quality with which those reasons are displayed are of subjective value and worth. What is unquestionable, however, is the growing popularity.
First reported in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, in 2008, this article on a son tattooing his father's Auschwitz numbers on his own arm encouraged debate and shock. Since then, the story has been met by many others, and today, the phenomenon is far less shocking, albeit still equally debatable. As the original article says, a Holocaust remembrance tattoo, particular one that mimics the identification numbers, is a delicate interplay between the sensibilities and sensitivities of the victims, those who seek to honor them and the religious community.
It is outside my realm to discuss the actions, motivations and judgments of my peers. Instead, allow me to share my personal story. When I was 19 and, at the time, only sporting one other tattoo, I decided that the weight of the Holocaust was too much to bear internally. I had no outlet for the emotion I suffered. I wrote poetry but none read it. With youthful anger, I could have killed a Nazi with my bare hands, but such an angry fantasy was just that, a fantasy waiting for a Quentin Tarantino movie to give it boundaries. I knew not how to quench my anger nor salve my pain other than to place it somewhere outside of myself.
At the time, I was editing a Holocaust survivor's book and I told the author, Alex Levin, of my idea for a Holocaust memorial tattoo. He was thoughtful and considerate. And, resolute. "Absolutely not," he demanded. "We need no other reminders of that time and place. No." For that day, our interview was over. He became quiet, bowed by knowing that his suffering had found its way, if only minimally, into my own heart. And, perhaps, angry at my heart for being so weak and selfish.
I vowed that day to never get one of these tattoos. Not because I knew it would hurt the living or harm the memory of the dead. But because I did not understand its power and, I know enough to leave alone that which I do not understand.