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Honor a Holocaust Victim by Tattooing Her Number?

Honor a Holocaust Victim by Tattooing Her Number?

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Dear Rabbi,

My 98-year-old mother is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp who was separated from her mother by Dr. Mengele. We honored my murdered grandmother by naming our daughter after her. In turn, my now teenage daughter would like to honor my mother by getting a tattoo of her Auschwitz number.

My daughter and I are quite divided on this issue. Can you please help?

Answer:

Never Forget

The message of “Never Forget” is clearly a very important one. Let me start by telling a story that happened shortly after the Holocaust which demonstrates a very positive way of transmitting that message:

A few years after the Holocaust, an influential Jewish leader made a request of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory: “We need your help and cooperation to perpetuate the memory of the millions tragically killed in the Holocaust. We decided it would be most fitting for each family to set aside one empty chair at their Passover festive Seder meal. The chair will commemorate the millions who sadly cannot attend. Rabbi, would you encourage your followers to join in this campaign?”

The Rebbe responded (paraphrased), “Your idea is a nice one, but with all due respect, instead of leaving the chair empty, let us fill that chair with an extra guest. Invite a Jew who would otherwise not participate in a Seder. This would be a true living legacy and a victory for the Jewish nation.”

This action, the Rebbe suggested, would be the best tribute to those who perished, and the best way to express the truth that am yisroel chai, the Jewish nation is alive.

In other words, symbols are nice, but it is far more effective to do something that will achieve a transformation. This is how Judaism has survived until today. After each tragedy, we manage to channel our grief into something productive and positive.

This story also demonstrates that children need to get the message that Judaism is alive and well, and that it is a life of joy (not only a life of oy). Museums and memorials are incredibly important, but children should also be taught to be excited about the future of Judaism; they should feel a sense of purpose and pride as Jews. We need to show our children that they need to live the kinds of the lives that would make the six million souls proud, and that they will be the ones to pass on the torch to the next generation.

The Tattoo

Perhaps encourage your daughter to think about the following: How would a tattoo impact a positive change in the world? Certainly it would give the person who has it a sense of solidarity with those who were in the camps. However, it doesn't truly do anything positive, or do anything to elevate the souls of the six million who perished in the Holocaust. In fact, if you had asked someone who was forced to get that tattoo in the camps if they'd want a Jew 70 years later to get one as well...what do you think would be the reply?

It would most probably be the same response that Elie Wiesel gave when some people affixed yellow stars to their clothing. He said that it was a desecration of “the memory of the Holocaust.”

This is why it is so important to stress, even within Holocaust education, how the survivors managed to rebuild their lives, raise families and pass Judaism on to the next generation. Building Jewish institutions in the name of those who passed away, naming our children after them and raising large Jewish families are the most appropriate ways to honor the holy souls that perished.

Some Ideas

Kids are looking for tangible ways to channel their pain when seeing holocaust survivors, learning the material in their class and watching programs that recount the horrific acts. This is especially true for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Here are several ideas of how young people can channel that pain in positive ways:

  1. Organize trips for friends and classmates to a Holocaust museum, followed by a lecture by a survivor who turned around his or her life from tragedy to blessing.
  2. Work on creating a library of books about the Holocaust and Judaism.
  3. Interview local Holocaust survivors and their children about how they express their Judaism after the Holocaust.
  4. Create an art project expressing responses and feelings about what the Holocaust means to the third generation of Holocaust survivors.
  5. Create a campaign in your community to make people aware of how we should not let anyone else go through what our grandparents went through at the hands of the Nazis:
    1. The Nazis publicly shamed Jewish-looking Jews. They denigrated rabbis, making them clean the streets. We should refrain from embarrassing anyone. And we should not be ashamed of appearing Jewish in public.
    2. The Nazis gassed and incinerated our bodies. We should be respectful of our bodies and, after death, have them buried in the ground.
    3. The Nazis did not want the continuation of Jewish tradition and would murder anyone who tried to do a religious act. We need to be proud of our traditions, and keep them alive and well.
    4. The Nazis cold-bloodedly murdered small children, doing horrific acts to their bodies. We need to perpetuate life, give love to small children and create a warm and caring environment for them.
    5. The Nazis etched into our ancestors’ bodies’ numbers and other symbols. We should respect our bodies and recognize their holiness, and refrain from damaging them or having ink etched into them.

Response:

Very well put. I like the addition of a non-participating Jew at the Seder. You brought many interesting rebuttals, and I will be proud to pass this along to my daughter. Thank you for opening up my eyes and mind, and for you time, wisdom and patience.

See Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos? and our section dedicated to the Holocaust.

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Discussion (85)
November 28, 2014
Tattoos
For me I never knew the scripture in Levit..I was raised in a closed society christian cult. My tattoos were a rite of passage and a reminder of never being able to go back (even if I wanted to) I'm embarrassed by them at times but I still hold my head up when asked about my rare tattoo. I'm reminded daily about the blood that was shed, the endless abuse, the murders, and brainwashing that I endured. I'm no longer part of this past but I use my 'embarrassing tattoos' as a strengthening aid to "Never let anyone control me" "Never again". It is strengthening for me in a small way but I can't always hide them either. So people judge me on sight alone and it hurts to be judged when events were not in my control. Be unique don't get a tattoo, if you have the choice.
Anonymous
November 11, 2014
memorial rimg
I know a woman who was in Auschwitz and Bergen- Belsen. She wonderful strong woman who had had her share of grief decades later. I wanted to honor he so my daughter is going to make a silver ring for me with her numbers on it. Her numbers were very small and faded so I may have to do some research. She approves so it will be my Christmas present. I grew up in a Jewish section of Minneapolis' Jewish suburb and have always had Jewish friends and been part of their families. Now I'm surrounded by senior citizens and couldn't be happier. I'm still in the same city.
If anyone knows how I can find her number I'd appreciate the help.
Colleen Garland
St. Louis Park,MN
October 29, 2014
I got my tattoo
I got my tattoo - I've had the Yiddish in Hebrew characters from Dachau that loosely translates "Never Again" placed on my left forearm. And if someone asks me "What's that?" I will tell them the story about the Nazis and the Concentration Camps and how every repetition of that experience in other places and other times dishonors the memories of the millions who died at the hands of Hitler alone. It is my idea, I had help from a real Yeshiva student coming up with the exact design and it probably is a violation of Leviticus at least in spirit but, then, so is eating "turkey ham."
Lynne Walker
Troutdale
September 23, 2014
No comparison with burning human flesh
A train in itself is not a crime, it doesn’t burn your flesh for ever. There is no comparison to burning someone’s flesh in order to identify them, as it is done to cattle. Yes people love to have any kind of tattoos, but it is their creation, not replicating what the Nazis did. A memorial, or any other monuments or shrines, doesn’t burn human’s flesh. And yes, they all do remind us of all the atrocities the Nazis did. Hearing planes or trains passing by do also remind us of war, that is if you have personally experienced the casualties of war. So do the cemeteries… etc. These places are in memory of all who died in vain, you don’t carry them with you on your body.
Feigele
Boca Raton FL
September 19, 2014
@ Feifele The Nazis used trains to transport people to death camps. Should we not travel by train because that revives and prolongs their evil endeavor? When one has chosen to have a multitude of tattoos commemorating other interests and relationships, how would a tattoo to provoke memories of what-should-not-be-repeated be any different than a memorial wall or a stained glass window?
Lynne Walker
Troutdale
September 18, 2014
Don’t let the Nazis punish you too!
We should never forget all the crimes the Nazis executed, and branding humans was one of their crimes, which also shouldn’t never be forgotten as such, it should never be repeated in any ways. It is like recurring crime, reviving and prolonging their evil endeavor. Nothing will alleviate these crimes not even you branding yourself.
Feigele
Boca Raton FL
September 16, 2014
I still have not gotten my tattoo - never rush into a tattoo, right? I want a second opinion on what the translation I purchased says, so I don't end up with "No Parking" in Hebrew on my arm. As to continuing the Nazis objectification and humiliation, I think the Nazis branded all sorts of folks like cattle, removing choices regardless of religious or ethnic beliefs about tattooing. Choosing to apply my own tattoo to spark others' thinking about how only a state that is very evil forces permanent marks on people without their choice does not continue Nazi intent. I don't know anything about the culture of Norway and the role of religion there, but I do know that, years before Kristallnacht, Jehovahs Witnesses had their books destroyed and were sent to prison. I pay close attention to how a country treats Witnesses...
Lynne Walker
Troutdale
September 12, 2014
I have actually thought of getting a tattoo of someone’s number myself. My father is Jewish , though not practicing and I was baptized as Episcopal. My family lived in Norway during WWII and fought the Germans. MY great great uncle died in a camp . My family were Baptists in Norway . When they lived in Norway they were discriminated against due to the sole fact they were Baptists. There were actual laws that actually forbad them from certain jobs , like teaching, just because they were Baptists. My family fought the Nazi’s in part of solidarity with those being persecuted. My great Uncle was captured and died and my great grandfather was gassed by mustard gas and died at a young age.
I was thinking of getting someone’s number with the quote under it “ …then they came for me” I have been contemplating getting this for several reasons’ : 1. Today I see a backlash against Israel , people are blinded by Hamas, the anti-Israel protests are growing stronger. Russia is in disarray and I see a backlash against Judaism occurring soon . There is a real possibility of another holocaust. 2. People are quick to allow others to be persecuted in hopes they will be left alone, such as the Sikhs in India or the Coptic’s in Egypt, what people don’t realize is if we don’t protect the minorities after a while they will be the minorities that are persecuted. 3. I look at the tattoo not as a thing to be ashamed of or something that dehumanizing them , but instead a way OF humanizing them. The tattoo would instead show the Nazis that others identify with the holocaust victims and we will not be silenced. I would wear that persons number with pride because even after what the Nazi’s did and how they tried to wipe that persons memory from the earth, I have now taken it up so that they may live even longer . It in a sense changes the number from what the Nazi’s ment it to be to in fact become what they were trying to erase. I would learn about that person’s life so that I could keep their memory alive
Anonymous
August 25, 2014
The tattoo is continuing the Nazi's objectification and humiliation.
Anonymous
Sf
August 2, 2014
So that others "Never Forget"
I am planning to commemorate all those who lost their lives to genocide by having my third Jewish tattoo done. It will not be an individual's number; it will be the Hebrew for "Never Forget." I am 59 years old, retired from employment and watching the Jewish identity vanish from society in preference of assimilation. Assimilation may help individuals avoid overt anit-Semitism but it does nothing to honor the Jewish identity or perpetuate the message that the obliteration of a culture for political reasons is an offense to humanity.
Lynne Walker
Troutdale
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