I remember the first time someone about my age showed me his Holocaust tattoo. It was 2007. I had just met the guy, yet he was eager to show me his new ink: a number on his right forearm; big, black, new and still slightly swollen – barely a week old. It wasn’t faded or blurred, like Holocaust tattoos usually are. The arm that bore it wasn’t the frail arm of an elderly survivor, but that of an athletic 25-year-old.
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Back then, my new acquaintance was so excited he was showing his new tattoo to everybody. Since then, he’s been doing it a lot. Over the years he’s done TV, radio, newspapers. Sometimes, his grandfather – the “owner” of the original tattoo – would join him for the interviews.
“You’re insane,” I remember telling him at the time. “You’re a young, healthy guy from a well-to-do background. You didn’t survive the camps. You weren’t branded like cattle. You were never treated inhumanely in your life. This is a mark of suffering, of fortitude in the face of unspeakable horror – one you haven’t ‘earned.’”
“It’s so I never forget what my grandfather’s been through,” he replied.
I told my new friend there were ways to remember that didn’t include an appropriation of someone else’s suffering. “I’m sure you love your grandfather and did this out of the utmost respect,” I said, “but this cheapens what he’s been through. Holocaust numbers were an act of dehumanization, not self-definition.”
“It’s so other people remember, too,” he replied. “Too many forget.”
“You know, every Jew is affected by the Holocaust,” he added. “We all carry the scars.”
That is undeniably true, I agreed. But the problem was, he got this specific, physical scar in a sanitized, well-lit, swanky tattoo parlor. “You had a choice. Holocaust survivors and victims, no one asked them. By doing this, you’re co-opting their suffering, their pain, and essentially saying, ‘I’m a Holocaust survivor too!’ You’re not. And it’s an insult to the ones who were there.”
“You have tattoos,” he retorted. “At least mine means something.”
“This is a fashion statement?”
“I love my grandfather. And when I think of what he survived, I can draw from that strength and be inspired in my own life.”
“So,” it dawned on me, “it’s really about you.”
I thought this phenomenon would never take. Eight years later, though, what was once an unusual act reserved for very few eccentrics – and mostly rejected by tattoo artists – has become a trend among “third-generation” Israelis. So much so that, two years ago, the Israeli advertising firm Baumann Ber Rivnay handed out temporary tattoos, of real numbers belonging to real Holocaust survivors, to students and members of youth movements. In just a few years, the epitome of tyranny – reducing human beings to numbers – had become an act of self-attainment as well as a marketing tool.
Of course, most of the people who get Holocaust tattoos don’t do it as a fashion statement or to get attention. They do it because they feel deeply affected by the knowledge of what their forebears went through. Yet there is something profoundly self-centered about getting a Holocaust tattoo in 2015. A phenomenon that began, and persists, with “third-generation” descendants, it suggests that millennials have trouble relating to Holocaust remembrance without casting themselves in the role of protagonist.
Holocaust tattoos are only an extreme – yet poignant – example of a bigger issue. Tired of the old, formal ways of commemorating the Holocaust, many young people in Israel and abroad have searched for new ways to remember and pay tribute. But venturing outside of conventionality, many simply stumble upon something familiar – themselves.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day (“Yom Hashoah”) in Israel, most Jewish Israelis mark the day in one of a few ways: attending memorial ceremonies; watching the televised official state ceremony, held annually in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum; observing the two-minutes silence when the air-raid siren sounds at 10 A.M. Young people, though, can find it difficult to relate.
Many third-generation Israelis feel at least slightly detached from the formal ways of remembering the Holocaust. In 2013, a survey conducted by Israeli research firm Meida Shivuki found that 18-29-year-olds here are generally “respectful” of Holocaust Remembrance Day, but try to avoid any related content on TV, radio or online.
In a way, it’s understandable. Surrounded by Holocaust imagery since childhood, bombarded with it at home and school, most young Israelis learned to stand for the air-raid siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day even before anyone explained to them what the term “Holocaust” really meant. Many have been to the camps, or volunteered with Holocaust survivors as part of school-required community service.
This may explain why so many youngsters find it hard to relate to the conventional ways of commemorating the Holocaust. In a way, they feel they’ve “heard it all.”
Last year, the Israel Defense Forces tried to get young people more engaged with Holocaust remembrance by communicating with them in a language they understand: it called upon soldiers (and young Israelis in general) to take selfies with “a Holocaust survivor who is special to you,” then upload the photos to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Hashtag #WeAreHere.
The army’s “Holocaust selfies” caused outrage, and rightly so, but they were only mimicking something that’s been happening without official encouragement: Selfies with Holocaust-surviving grandparents have become commonplace in the social media feeds of young Israelis in recent years. They essentially turn survivors into nothing more than Instagram filters, there to enrich the lives of the young. Like Holocaust tattoos, they are not really about the people who were there.
I hereby call on people of my generation: stop making the Holocaust about yourselves.
I know where you’re coming from. We share a certain generational saturation with the old forms of remembrance – didactic, propagandist and ceremonious as they are. But there has to be a way to remember, and commemorate, that doesn’t turn the Holocaust into merely an event in your own life.
Yes, sometimes it’s hard to conceive of the incredible horror people have been through. It’s easy – and natural – to retreat into ourselves. But there are ways to honor the Holocaust without imagining ourselves to be the center of it. It just requires putting the phone down for once and having an actual conversation with another human being – one in which we actually listen, and not necessarily wait for our turn to speak.