Holocaust Tattoos: Isn't There a Better Way to Educate?

I don’t want to criticize anyone’s form of grief or remembrance, but the trend of tattooing oneself with a survivor's number to raise awareness of the Holocaust makes me uncomfortable.

Yael Miller
Yael Miller
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Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler shows the prisoner number tattoo on her arm.
Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler shows the prisoner number tattoo on her arm. Credit: U.S. Navy
Yael Miller
Yael Miller

The New York Times recently published an article detailing the trend of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tattooing themselves with their ancestors’ numbers. The article has garnered a significant amount of responses around the web, from tattooed Jews wondering about their (non-Holocaust) tattoos, to questions about whether Holocaust tattoos truly commemorate those lost.

While I don’t mean to criticize anyone’s form of grief or remembrance, the process of tattooing oneself with a grandparent or parent’s number to raise awareness makes me uncomfortable.

Probably the first time I heard about such a practice was in Claire Danes’ 1996 movie about anti-Semitism, called "I Love You, I Love You Not." While Daisy (Claire Danes’ character) doesn’t get her grandmother’s tattoo, I remember a scene in which the girl writes the number on her arm in temporary ink. Daisy is fascinated by her grandmother’s story, and by tales of the Holocaust.

It was quite a disturbing scene, and I think my grandparents would think so, too. As survivors, they never spoke about their experience until much later in life — my grandmother, in particular, didn’t speak about her experience until the release of the 1993 film, "Schindler’s List." As a young woman saved by Oskar Schindler, my grandmother experienced unspeakable horrors, too difficult to explain to her children. My grandmother just wanted to forget; to forget the horrors of her life and to create a family, which she did, in Israel. To see me with a tattoo would serve as a constant, screaming reminder of her inability to escape what had happened to her.

A tattoo by the Nazis was horrifying, as it both violated Jewish law and made one feel like a branded animal. While my grandmother didn’t have a tattoo herself, I believe that she, and the other Holocaust survivors in the family, would be shocked and saddened if I would tattoo myself with a number. Not only am I utilizing their sorrow to alter my body, but I am also, in a way, “marking” myself for life. Finally, especially considering that the New York Times article reports on Israelis making this choice, the idea of tattooing oneself with a Holocaust number seems like a play for attention: in Israel, I believe, there would be scarcely a person who wouldn’t recognize what the number was and comment on it in some way.

How best can we educate people about something as horrifying as the Holocaust?

I don’t think there is one best answer, but I certainly don’t think that education about the Holocaust is served best by tattooing oneself with a number. Education, however, is key. From meeting with survivors to watching movies or documentaries on the Holocaust, the best way to remember is to continue funding organizations that help others understand what genocide is and how to prevent it from happening.

When I was about 12, my school hosted a “wax museum” event. Every student dressed up as a different person who had an effect on the entertainment, political, cultural, or scientific world. I chose someone “parve”- Mary Tyler Moore. During the museum, each person had a “button” of sorts that one could press, and each person would then give a mini-monologue explaining who he or she was.

My grandmother, who was visiting from Israel, came to the event. When she and my mother approached the boy acting as Oskar Schindler, my mother pressed his “button,” and the boy gave his mini-monologue. After he was finished, my grandmother told him eloquently that Schindler had saved her and told him her story. About five years later, this boy would tell me that this was one of the most incredible experiences of his time as a student - he even wrote his college admissions essay on the topic.

Experiences like these are the experiences that educate. Seeing, hearing, and talking about the Holocaust is what makes others understand what happened during those horrible years of the Second World War.

Again, while I won’t criticize the way others understand and remember the Holocaust—whether it is with a tattoo or otherwise—perhaps we are better served through more direct methods that speak to people across boundaries and regions.

I think my grandmother would agree with me.

Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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