The New York Times recently interviewed a small cohort of Israelis who are tattooing their relatives’ concentration camp numbers on their arms as a living tribute. It is a fascinating, challenging trendlet, leaving a reader to decide whether the tattoos are a profound gesture, a disturbing cooption of another’s suffering, or something in between.
These children and grandchildren of survivors seem genuine in their attempts to connect with their relatives and their suffering, and to perpetuate the message of “never again.” While voluntary tattoos are forbidden under Jewish custom, the article’s subjects seem to regard their tattoos as a sincere ritual act.
Critics of the gesture say the tattoos transform “perhaps the most profound symbol of the Holocaust’s dehumanization of its victims” into kitsch and worse. “If people want to remember their grandparents who went through the camps, if they want people to remember the Holocaust, let them find a less garish, grotesque way of doing it,” writes Larry Derfner in the on-line magazine +972.
It is difficult to question how anyone internalizes family trauma and Jewish suffering, or to dismiss the feelings of the survivors who seem to understand and appreciate their offsprings’ gesture. But if one wants to keep the memory of the Shoa alive, even as the number of survivors shrinks every day, there are better, more effective and far-reaching ways to go about it. The best solutions involve education, and making sure the truth about the Holocaust is part of school curricula, discussed in the general media, and included in pedagogical institutions like museums. One must constantly refute the extremists who deny the Holocaust and call out politicians who abuse its memory through false analogies.
Judaism already has a model for keeping its memories and traditions alive: “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise.”