Holocaust Tattoos for Teens on Remembrance Day: Innovation or Just Bad Taste?

What started as a well-intentioned attempt to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive for youth is now facing a backlash.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler shows the prisoner number tattoo on her arm. Credit: U.S. Navy
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Does the Holocaust need a gimmick in order to engage a young generation far removed from the historic tragedy? One Israeli advertising agency seems to think so.

What started as a well-intentioned attempt to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive for youth is now facing a backlash. Opponents believe the campaign targeting youth for upcoming Holocaust Remembrance Day is tasteless and disrespectful to the painful memories of the survivors.

Advertising agency Baumann-Ber-Rivnay, the local affiliate of giant Saatchi & Saatchi, has devised a bold plan for the upcoming annual observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 7: they intend to distribute cards with temporary number tattoos affixed - replicas of the numbers that the Nazis had tattooed onto prisoners in concentration camps. The cards are intended to be distributed by youth groups like the Israeli scouts and other organizations at ceremonies. The card would also bear a code that when scanned with a phone or other device or when entered into a computer, would bring them to an on-line site that would tell the story of the living survivor who bore that number.

In an interview with Army Radio, the CEO of the company Yossi Lubaton, said that “tens” of survivors had already endorsed the plan, volunteered their numbers and experiences, and insisted that the campaign was being launched in a careful and sensitive way. The campaign had been inspired, he said, by the internationally successful 2012 Israeli documentary, "Numbered," which portrayed the complex relationship of Holocaust survivors to their number tattoos, and introduced the world to the phenomenon of some Israeli children and grandchildren of survivors voluntarily tattooing themselves with their aging or late relative’s numbers, as their way of honoring and preserving their legacy.

When the plan went public this week, as the agency reached out to organizations they hoped to partner with, there has been a swift backlash.

It’s hardly surprising. In “Numbered” and the articles in the press that followed the film, even when it occurred privately within their families, elderly survivors felt deeply ambivalent and sometimes disturbed over seeing the skin of their descendants imprinted with the number that had haunted them throughout their lives. So the opposition to young people tattooing themselves with concentration-camp numbers, even temporarily, on a large scale, is naturally sparking controversy and opposition. Professor Yizhaq Kashti, a survivor, and deputy chairman of the Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocausttold Army radio that the tattoos were a “humiliating” and “degrading” symbol of treating human beings like animals and that they should not be commemorated or perpetuated in any way. “Tattooing numbers on people’s arms is not something that we should be recreating. It was a horror that was forced on us ... Doing this is a deeply negative legacy. It is a worthwhile effort to try to strengthen connections between today’s youth and Holocaust survivors, but not like this.”

Another survivor, Moshe Elyon who was interviewed on the same show said that his tattoo represented “a traumatic experience” in his life and that he would find it “painful” to see young Israelis bearing numbers on their arms. The campaign “disrespects our privacy, our experiences, and our memories, and it needs to be reconsidered,” he said.

Indeed the plan seems fraught with risks. Some of the youth movements have already spoken out against the plan in the media, saying that the assumption that it would take a tattoo to engage their interest in the Holocaust represents an insult to their intelligence. And once the number tattoos are distributed, who can guarantee that children and teens too young to truly understand will treat them with the necessary seriousness and that they won’t be applied frivolously or joked about?

And yet, at the same time, there is something positive about an effort - even if misguided - to try and innovate in order to spark the interest of Israeli teenagers who, year after year, have been sitting through the same ceremonies, watching the same sad films and documentaries and hearing the testimonies of survivors in school. Not that they aren’t moved every year, but there have been signs that they are in danger of becoming numbed into compassion fatigue (as have adults, for that matter).

This campaign, at least, is actually something new, something they haven’t seen before, something fresh and innovative. In my unscientific survey of friends and family, teenaged ears perked up when they heard about the idea. “Really? Cool. If they do it, can I try it?” was the response I heard more than once.

But is it worth the risk of opening the wounds of even one survivor by forcing them to see, once again, children with tattooed numbers imprinted on their young flesh? Would engaging our youth be worth inflicting that pain?