Reappropriating Holocaust tattoos: probably not a good idea

by Emma Teitel

The Beth Tzedec Congregation’s 12th Annual Jewish Film Festival in Calgary aired an Israeli documentary yesterday about Holocaust survivors who were branded with number tattoos in the Nazi concentration camps. It’s called Numbered. (trailer below).

Israeli Director Dana Doron, who is also a doctor, (she co-directed Numbered with her friend, a well-known Israeli photojournalist named Uriel Sinai), says she was inspired to make the film while working at a hospital in Northern Israel, when an elderly woman came into the ER one day complaining of chest pains. The chest pains turned out to be a ruse; the woman just wanted someone to talk to–someone to tell her story to. Doron noticed the numbers tattooed onto the woman’s arm. She was a Holocaust survivor.

The filmmakers interviewed about 50 survivors for their documentary about what their numbers mean to them: one man played his in the lottery, others chose to have theirs removed. But it’s the children and grandchildren of some of those survivors who have generated the most publicity for the film, because of their controversial decision to brand themselves with the same numbers gouged into the skin of their parents/grandparents. They’ve done so, they say, in remembrance of the tragedy their family members endured, and they believe that getting the tattoos themselves will in some way, honour that tragedy. And ensure that the next generation of Jews “never forgets.”  Imitation, however, isn’t always a form of flattery…

In an interview on CBC’s The Current on Tuesday, Doron said that some of the film’s footage that didn’t make the final cut, captures a group of survivors’ horrified reactions when they see one of the tattoos etched fresh into the skin of a young man. It’s easy to see why they were horrified. The numbers were used to dehumanize the Jewish people, and their return, no matter how well-intentioned–is probably offensive to the majority of Holocaust survivors.

Tattoos are also strictly forbidden in Judaism. From the bible:

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”

Baruch S. Davidson, writing for chabad.org, argues that God forbids tattoos for three reasons:

1. It was common for pagan worshippers to tattoo themselves in honour of whatever particular deity they worshipped, and Jews weren’t and aren’t supposed to do anything that pagans do. “On many occasions the Torah forbids practices that emulate pagan customs,” he writes, “considering that following their traditions is the first step towards ascribing to their idolatrous beliefs.”

2. Circumcision is apparently the only body modification a man needs. “The covenant of circumcision is unique in its being a sign in our bodies of our relationship with G‑d,” Davidson writes. (some relationship). “Making other signs in one’s body would weaken and cheapen this special sign.”

3.  ”The human body is G‑d’s creation, and it is therefore unbefitting to mutilate G‑d’s handiwork,” he writes. “It is especially unbefitting for members of G‑d’s chosen nation to mutilate their bodies.”

It’s number 3 that solidifies for me, what is so fundamentally weird, and wrong about getting your own Auschwitz ink. God’s “chosen” people (my people too) may have been forbidden to mutilate their bodies, but history shows that the only thing they’ve been chosen for is exactly that: the systematic mutilation of their bodies, at the hands of the Egyptians, the Spanish, the Nazis, etc. Holocaust tattoos are scars of that mutilation, and there’s something bizarre and frankly, disgusting, about reapproprating another person’s scar. Especially when it’s linked to an experience that is–fortunately–worlds away from your own.

Or as Jonathan S. Tobin writes on the subject in Commentary Magazine:

“Drawing a number on your skin may have meaning to individuals (or, as in one case, serve as a reminder to a young man to call his grandfather) but Jewish identity can’t be rooted in a vain attempt to relive a tragic past. Judaism is an affirmation of life not death. Seen in that light, the attempt by some secular Jews to grab onto a symbol of the slaughter as a way to connect with the past seems more like a futile provocation than a method of perpetuating the memory of this great tragedy.”

Tobin is right. It is a provocation. Worse: it’s a talking piece. Imagine the exchange between a survivor’s freshly tattooed grandson and a girl at a party. Girl: “Cool tattoo. What is it?” Guy: “Oh it’s my bubie’s numbers from Auschwitz. I thought it would be a good way to remember what she went through.” Girl: “Cool. Can I touch it?”

I understand and know the impulse to remember, but I think we can come up with something better–and already have– than the cheap and provocative re-imagining of an atrocity we’ll never understand.

 

 




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Reappropriating Holocaust tattoos: probably not a good idea

  1. Gotta admit that at best, my eyes glaze over when people devote sizable chunks of an article to “proving” their interpretation of the trappings of arcane ritual is the proper way and that the alternates are “strictly” forbidden. The author should have written: “Many adherents of judaism believe it is against biblical teachings to get tattoos”, and just left it at that. A synagogue panel rather than a national magazine might have been the appropriate forum.

    (And at worst, I become upset because it’s Tarek Fatah disingenuously uncle-tomming islamic dress codes once again)

  2. I am not sure if getting your “bubie’s numbers from Aushwitz:” stamped onto your arm is the right thing for a grandson to do or not. However, the decision to do so really is between the bubie and the grandson is it not? Obviously the survivor described in the first paragraph of your article still needs to talk about her experiences in the concentration camp if she feigns a heart attack and comes to hospital to talk to strangers because she has no one else she feels will listen Maybe these bubies and their grandchildren are spending alot of time talking about Aushwitz and the grandchildren want their bubies to know that they are listening and they will ALWAYS remember. I think you are selling the grandchildren short when you mock them in your description of what you think will happen at a party, Emma. Maybe the grandson will tell the girl of the horrors his bubie lived through and how he would not be here if she weren’t such a brave and resiliant woman. “Wow”, she will say, “THAT is really cool!”

  3. Unfortunately it is / has been circumcision that has MADE
    for no end of anti-semitic sentiments. Freud found that it
    was the chief reason for unconscious anti-Semitism. And
    the myths surrounding it are at the core of the “blood
    libel.” Thus, It’s time to eliminate the Brit Milah
    because if that is the chief reason for being anti-Semitic
    or anti-Abrahamic [Islam too practices the rite] then why
    hang on to this left-over of human sacrifice? that
    traumatizesthe child, cutting off 5,000 nerves, that is
    the equivalent of female circumcision in the sense that it
    eliminates everything but the clitoris,and only serves the
    UltraOrthodox to maintain their power? After all, reform
    Judaism sought to eliminate the rite in the 19th century,
    and Jewish identity depends on being born by a Jewish
    mother, or converting. Here a link to an archive of the
    entire German and then some debate, note especially
    Michael Wolffsohn’s two pieces . Circumcision has been
    controversial also within Jewry forever. Making it a taboo
    to compare male with female sexual mutilation is the
    biggest scandal of the controversy. In both instances the
    most sensitive and most erogenous zone of the human bod is
    amputated and severely damaged. In both instances, what
    counts primarily is the cutting of human sexuality. The
    imposition of control by the patriarchy.

    http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name

    http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html

    Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society

    ======================================================================================

    Making it a taboo to compare male with female
    sexual mutilation is the biggest scandal of the
    controversy. In both instances the most sensitive and
    most erogenous zone of the human body is amputated and
    severely damaged. In both instances, what counts
    primarily is the cutting of human sexuality. The
    imposition of control by the patriarchy.

    Also, unfortunately it is / has been circumcision
    that has MADE for no end of
    anti-semitic sentiments. Freud found that it was the
    chief reason for unconscious anti-Semitism. And the
    myths surrounding it are at the core of the “blood
    libel.” Thus, It’s time to eliminate the Brit Milah
    because if that is the chief reason for being
    anti-Semitic or anti-Abrahamic [Islam too practices
    the rite] then why hang on to this left-over of human
    sacrifice? that traumatizesthe child, cutting off
    5,000 nerves, that is the equivalent of female
    circumcision in the sense that it eliminates
    everything but the clitoris,and only serves the
    UltraOrthodox to maintain their power? After all,
    reform Judaism sought to eliminate the rite in the
    19th century, and Jewish identity depends on being
    born by a Jewish mother, or converting. Here a link
    to an archive of the entire German and then some
    debate, note especially Michael Wolffsohn’s two
    pieces . Circumcision has been controversial also
    within Jewry forever.

    Die

    Tabuisierung jeglichen Vergleichs von männlicher
    mit weiblicher Genitalverstümmelung ist der große
    Skandal der Debatte. In beiden Fällen wird der
    empfindsamste und erogenste Teil des menschlichen
    Körpers amputiert oder schwer beschädigt. In
    beiden Fällen geht es in erster Linie um die
    Beschneidung menschlicher Sexualität.

    http://evidentist.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/beschneidung-ignoranz-und-sexismus/

    Wenn der Gesetzentwurf verwirklicht wird,
    darf ich meinen Sohn kastrieren, meine Tochter
    verstümmeln lassen, solange das AERZLICHST gemacht
    wird! Wie man – die Deutsche Politik – sich durch
    Schuldgefühle ad absurdum führen lässt!

    http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-circumcision-debate-links-and.html

    Eine Diskussion über das Thema, mit drei
    Deutschen + einem Amerikanischen Psychologen.

    http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/08/psychotherapeutenyahoogroupsde.html

    http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/10/michael-wolffsohns-foreskin-of-heart.html

    http://www.welt.de/print/die_welt/debatte/article108847257/Die-Vorhaut-des-Herzens.html

    http://www.tagesspiegel.de/meinung/andere-meinung/gastkommentar-zur-beschneidungsdebatte-danke-deutschland/7160872.html

    AND

    DONT FORGET THE ARCHIVE!!! http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-circumcision-debate-links-and.html

    http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name

    http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html

    Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and
    Society

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