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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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Clara Fischer Indiana April 24, 2017

Passing on the story without a tattoo Perhaps you could put her name and number on a unique piece of jewelry. This could be passed down with the relative's story. A tattoo is only as permanent as the body it resides on. With jewelry if it is admired the story can also be shared keeping the story going and honoring and never forgetting. Reply

R C April 23, 2017

Get a bracelet with the number on it. When someone asks what the number is, educate then. Reply

Anonymous Aventura March 29, 2017

My Mother's number adds up to the number 18. Life. When she had the number tattooed on her arm in Auschwitz, she added the numbers up and realized that with this deplorable and demonic action by the Nazis, it was a sign from Hashem that she was going to live through the death camps. She wound up being there for almost 2 years. I have tattooed her number on my arm so that her story will continue to be told. When people ask me about the number on my arm, I tell them my Mother's story. I can tell you that their reaction is remarkable as the state at the number while I explain why it's on my arm. I realize there are other ways, but there is nothing more effective than when people see it and ask rather than begging them to listen! Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org January 16, 2017

To Andre Just because something is also wrong is not enough reason to ignore an existing prohibition. Of course, we are commanded to care for our bodies just as we are required to do so for our soul. In fact, a healthy body is very often an indication of a healthy soul. Reply

André Gorelkin Scottsdale January 15, 2017

Hypocrisy still reigns supreme And why do I see so many Jews desecrate their bodies with cigarettes, excessive alcohol, and more? Cigarettes alone are far more damaging to ones health-- as well as the health of others --than a millions tattoos. So is the continued oppression an subjugation of women. Thanks for continuing the tradition of hypocrisy. Reply

debra Lynne katz Phelan November 11, 2016

Your daughters heart knows best Why doesn't your daughter ask her grandmother? If she is not capable of responding at her late age or this is not an option then I think you should leave it up to your daughter. This is about what she feels she can do for her part. The pain of the Holocaust is no longer just the pain of those who were there and we all have to deal with it in our own ways (not that the pain is equal by any means but it is there for us to deal with). Ultimately it is your daughter's own body. She bares the history from her name and that is no small thing. She has a right to choose for her own sake as much as for what ever her mother feels. Further, everyone will have a different opinion, no one person can speak for all the victims and it's an insult to them to try to do that. Im sure they would have had many different responses. A horrible event bound them but otherwise they were diverse in thought. Let your daughter follow her heart, the tattoo is for her and her soul relations with others. Reply

Feigele oca Raton FL February 4, 2016

Stop the evil's work You don't have to be part of survivors to believe that it is wrong to continue the work of evil. By tattooing numbers on your arm is keeping the Nazis alive and it is not the way to not forget and by the way I am a survivor too who grew up with not grandparents no family left from the destruction of evil. Reply

windigo Rocky Mountains February 1, 2016

Regarding Leviticus 19:28 and its prohibition: The Torah is some 3300 years old but "tattoo" as a term only entered the Western lexicon (courtesy of the South Pacific Polynesians) in the 1800s. Among the many Anglicized versions of the Bible, "tattoo" is used some of the time (though never in publications preceding the 19th century), while the "printing" of "marks upon you" is the specific proscription to be read in others, which might or might not be the same thing. Scholars suggest the terminology in the Hebrew text is best rendered in English as an "etching" into the skin.
If the ancient Hebraic cultural/linguistic idiom of 'printing marks on the body" is the identical phenomenon to tattooing today in terms of rationale and purpose, I assume a literal application of Leviticus 19:28 is warranted. But I believe that people got "tattooed" mostly for very different reasons then from now, that culture was profoundly determinative. Does that matter in the Judaic context? Should it? Reply

Anonymous London April 23, 2017
in response to windigo:

We do know that prehistoric peoples, both west and east, marked their bodies with patterns, dots etc., often with woad dye, that is, indigo.
I was brought up and told by my family that we should not pierce our bodies or have tattoos. Reply

MT Brooklyn,ny September 30, 2015

90 years young My. Father, my hero, celebrated his 90'th birthday this past August.
Between my two sisters and myself, there are 9 grandchildren.
We all converged at my parents summer cottage in Sullivan County to honor our dad.
Being a first generation survivor, I did not grow up with much family. Many were murdered in WW II.
Having this many family members was a sight to behold.
Tears of joy streamed down his face knowing that he and my mom have raised a tight knit family that will continue to celebrate our heritage when they are gone.
I too have struggled with wether I will honor my dad by putting his branding on my arm.
I was going to wait until he passed on (til 120)
But I've decided to have it done while he's still here to see it.
To my surprise, he has no objection to it.
Mom...is another story.
I visited the holy land in June. I was shocked to see how many young people have tattoo's there!
That helped with my decision.
If you're not part of a family of survivors, please don't judge. Reply

elizabeth charles albuquerque new mexico June 25, 2015

Recently I had the number A25379 tattooed on my left arm. My research indicated this was the first number in this series issued to women in Auschwitz that was not assigned to anyone. When asked about it, I explain that no one had this number, and it is my way of celebrating the end of this system. My father helped liberate the concentration camps and I believe it permanently scarred him. He talked of having to keep the prisoners in the camp until they were healthy enough to leave. That was too hard for many and every morning the GIs would go outside of the camp to gather the bodies of those who tried to escape during the night. Never again!! Reply

Anonymous USA June 25, 2015

In 1970 I lived in Newton Ctr, Ma. My friends and I would walk down to Bernie and Ruby's Deli for lunch frequently. Working behind the deli was a man with a tattoo of five or six numbers on his, I think, left arm down low near his wrist on the palm side. I asked him why he had the numbers there because I thought they looked like a telephone number. He explained very calmly with no anger or embarrassment that it was from the concentration camp in WW2. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL May 1, 2015

Marilee Thank you for sympathizing with all these murdered human beings under the hands of other human beings with evil souls. Yes, the world should be made aware of such crimes, passing it on to their next generations, that no one can ever forget what humans are capable of. Reply

Marilee April 26, 2015

60 years old white, non Jewish female and I am drawn to the idea of a tattoo on my left arm after realizing the survivors will all be gone soon. I can still engage and discuss genocide and The Holocaust, but I want something tangible. I want to add, Never Forget, Never Again to the number. Reply

elizabeth charles albuquerque new mexico April 18, 2015

I'm a shiksa sympathizer. I have no constrictions against tattoos. With all of the Holocaust survivors leaving us, I'm alarmed how little the younger generation knows about this history. After discussing this with two rabbis and one lay Jewish man, I got no negative input about getting a number tattooed on my arm. I plan on getting the first number not issued at Auschwitz tattooed on my arm. I am 61 and have many young friends. I know this will stimulate discussion and I am eager to educate. Reply

Anonymous February 23, 2015

A lot of the comments talk about how the Nazi's reduced people to numbers, so why not get a tattoo of the persons number with a line through it and then the persons name underneath. Turning the numbers back into a person. Then under that if you wanted you could even put the Hebrew for remember or never forget. Reply

Michael Kucewicz February 10, 2015

My father survived Auschwitz.He was Polish,from Poland.Upon his death in 2002,I tattooed his left arm tattoo # on my arm(66830)
Michael K. Milford,CT. Reply

Feigele January 20, 2015

Right! and very well said! Reply

Jack seattle January 19, 2015

If you want to honor someone with a tattoo, great, but why would you tattoo their number and not their name? Or their likeness? Or some other symbol that represents them? Reducing a person to a number (as the nazis did) is degrading. The person you want to honor is more than just a statistic. Reply

Anonymous 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. Reply

Colleen Garland St. Louis Park,MN 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. Reply

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