Reappropriating Holocaust tattoos: probably not a good idea

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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