I would like to hear your take on the article in The New York Times (October 2, 2012, "Tattoos to Remember," by Katherine Schulten).
Livia Rebak was branded with the number 4559. Now her grandson, Daniel Philosof, has the same tattoo. At right, three men who stood in the same line in Auschwitz have nearly consecutive numbers.
.WHY did Eli Sagir get a tattoo with the number 157622 inked on her forearm?
WHY might this tattooing practice be unsettling or offensive to some?
WHY did people in the camps “treat with respect the numbers from 30,000 to 80,000,” according to Primo Levi?
About HOW many Holocaust survivors are still alive? etc.
Judaism, as the article mentions generally frowns on tattoos (and body piercing) as it alters G-d's image.
I will be using this lesson, for 8th and 9th graders. Others, in my school will be using it for 7th graders. Thanks.
It is always difficult to write about the holocaust. It almost feels sacrilegious or disrespectful to evaluate any type of holocaust memorial, especially when it is being done in the family of holocaust survivors. Although like all Ashkenazi Jews, I have extended family that were in the Holocaust, my more immediate family have been in the US for generations, so I can only talk about the experience of holocaust survivors from a distance.
As I am an Orthodox rabbi, I will start with Jewish law. According to Jewish law, it is prohibited to get a tattoo. What the reason behind that law is remains a matter of dispute among various religious authorities, but according to the vast majority of halakhic decisors, and certainly following the consensus position for more than a millennium, it would be a violation of a Torah commandment to voluntarily get tattooed. This law is recorded in Leviticus 19:28 and codified in the Shulḥan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 180. I will point out, however, that the idea that this will somehow affect their ability to be buried in a Jewish cemetery is pure myth. There are no negative consequences to having a tattoo except for the fact that getting tattooed transgresses Jewish law—a negative enough consequence from my vantage point as an observant Jew.
This is my response from the perspective of halakha. However, I assume that the people doing this are not observant (I don't know for sure), and that they are feeling that their lives do not properly reflect the pain of their grandparents who were holocaust survivors. Many of us who grew up hearing holocaust survivors speak at our schools every year on Yom ha-Shoah have been feeling this distance as well, as the memories of the holocaust begin to leave the category of living history and firmly enter the “past” in its full meaning. Many have been feeling that the holocaust was too colossal an event to be relegated to history books, at least for now.
I assume that this feeling is infinitely more acute with family members of holocaust survivors who understand that their grandparents will soon pass on to the next world. Perhaps they feel that the loss of this family-wound would be an insult to their past, their grandparents and the trauma they lived through. Perhaps this is a way of feeling close to loved ones they will soon miss, some way of creating continuity with them. I don’t really know and I cannot judge them. I worry that this will be an act that they may regret in the future and that this type of memorial may backfire, but it may not. I would say that although I cannot identify or condone this practice, I understand where it comes from and I empathize with it. As a community, the Jews need to think about the future of holocaust memorial in our communities and plan for the sad day when no survivors will be left to tell their stories.
This is a fascinating question – not because the rule about tattoos is unclear, but because the underlying meaning of those getting the tattoos is so very interesting.
The Torah states quite clearly in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) Ch. 19, verse 28., “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves, I am God”. As with all translations, there is some interpretation involved, and one can find variations on this translation that I think you might find interesting. A very literal translation might be something like, “A marking/incision/gash for a soul/being you shall not place on your flesh/skin, nor shall you write a tattoo on yourselves, I am God.” The interesting part here being the doubled prohibition which both specifies a marking of the skin, or cutting oneself, as well as a component that specifies writing or drawing on the skin. The prohibition against tattoos is very clear. This includes all tattoos with the single exception of tattoos which are for medical purposes (such as guiding a surgeon where to cut during surgery).
Thus, there is no reason to distinguish between this kind of tattoo and what you call a “decorative” tattoo. In fact, one might consider such a tattoo as more stringently prohibited than a “decorative” tattoo, if anything. Why? If you recall, the prohibition is not merely against a tattoo, but is a doubled prohibition in which the first part of the prohibition specifically calls out against marking oneself “for a soul” – generally understood as a prohibition to mark oneself in memory of the dead. Later explanations of the law (the mishna and Talmud) clarify that the reason “I am God” is added at the end is to strengthen the prohibition, as tattoos are considered a form of idolatry.
It is not uncommon in some cultures to mark oneself after the death of a relative – to disfigure oneself in some way. In Judaism, it is not considered acceptable to do this. First, the body is not “ours,” but God’s. We are obliged to treat our bodies with care, and we are given our bodies to take pleasure in them in many ways (within the boundaries of Jewish law). But the human body is not ours to do with as we wish in all circumstances. We are expected to be moderate in our appetites, whether for food or sexual pleasure; we are expected to keep the body clean and healthy; we are required to exercise our minds and use our bodies in the service of the right and the good.
Secondly, marking oneself for another person raises up that person to an inappropriate level. It claims them to be more valuable than oneself. Marking oneself for also implies that the ones so being memorialized are nothing more than that body, and that in order for them to survive and be remembered beyond their death, we must literally inscribe them upon our bodies.
When one thinks through the reasoning behind getting a tattoo to memorialize the tortures that one’s family member – be it a parent, grandparent or whomever, it becomes clear that one needs to ask the question, “What , exactly, is being memorialized?”
The Nazis placed those numbers there to turn human beings into objects, to make them think of themselves as objects. But Judaism demands that we remember at all times that we are souls. In addition, as Jews, we have a purpose, and part of that purpose is expressed and fulfilled through our faithfulness to the obligations we were given as Jews.
It is honorable and touching to love one’s elders and to try to turn an attempt to shame and degrade them into a badge of honor. However, by deliberately tattooing oneself - contrary to Jewish law- instead of honoring them, one is harming the very thing that the survivor’s life represents, the thing that they were picked out for this treatment because of –their Judaism. Furthermore, it is indeed a kind of idolatry to memorialize a mark to the body as the central facet of that person’s life, more important than anything else they have done. Judaism rejects the idea that the body is perfection, or that it is the most important thing that we are, and instead asks us to look higher.
My take on the article is that Jews in Israel, as in the United States, faces a problem of memory of the Holocaust. As time passes; as survivors, liberators, and righteous Gentiles die; as we neglect the meticulous records the have been preserved in places of memory and veneration, and in places of past horrors as well; as all of this happens in these post-Holocaust years, the personal and the communal lessons gleaned from those unspeakable experiences will be lost. And that can yield the possibility of forgetting the lessons, and repeating mass murders.
Despite the obvious prohibitions of the Torah found in Leviticus, these tattoos stand – in my mind – almost in protest to forgetfulness. As one might wear the wedding ring of a deceased relative, or display a photograph on the wall of someone dear in the family, I can see how these numbers become holy reminders of what transpired, and they call to mind the individual memory of a loved one.
The fact that some may be offended by these tattoos stems from the known proscription of body defacing that we find in the Torah. And for some, that is enough to end the discussion. But for those who wear these particular tattoos, it is, perhaps, a fitting memorial to a loved one who suffered the ultimate degradation of the body: mass murder based on prejudice.
Regarding the remarks from Primo Levi, here is an excerpt from his book, “Survival in Auschwitz” (1947), page 28: “To the old hands of the camp, the numbers told everything: the period of entry into the camp, the convoy of which one formed a part, and consequently the nationality. Everyone will treat with respect the numbers from 30,000 to 80,000: there are only a few hundred left and they represented the few the survivals from the Polish ghettos. It is as well to watch out in commercial dealings with a 116,000 or a 117,000: they now number only about forty, but they represent the Greeks of Salonica, so take care they do not pull the wool over your eyes…”
When I read these words, I think this was his tongue-in-cheek way of chiding the way that the Germans may have classified people: for the Nazis, those with tattoos represented the scum of the earth. And for him, he simply saw them as a way of knowing the nationality of a landsman.
As to the number of survivors alive today, it is difficult to say, but as the number dwindles, we must find creative and concrete ways of remembering them.
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