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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 (94)
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!!
elizabeth charles
albuquerque new mexico
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.
Anonymous
USA
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.
Feigele
Boca Raton FL
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.
Marilee
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.
elizabeth charles
albuquerque new mexico
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.
Anonymous
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.
Michael Kucewicz
January 20, 2015
Right!
and very well said!
Feigele
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.
Jack
seattle
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
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