Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An inappropriate Holocaust memorial?

Two descendants of a woman who survived Auschwitz have decided to commemorate her suffering in an unusual way: by having her camp number tattooed on their own arms.

"The idea to tattoo grandma's number from Auschwitz has been in my mind for a few years," said Daniel Philosof, from Ramat Yishai. "Grandma's stories from the concentration camps were part of my life and always will be. The connection I feel to my grandmother is immense and the tattoo is a way of making that real... The memorial on my body will ensure that we will never forget what happened." (My translation - MS)

He got the tattoo together with his uncle, Oded Rabak from Canada.

Leaving aside halachic questions about tattooing, is this a good idea?

I was initially against. In the first draft of this blog post, I wrote:

Clearly, these gentlemen (and this survivor's son, who did the same thing in 2008) are, in a sense, reclaiming the Auschwitz tattoos and turning them into something they control, even something positive - much as African-Americans reclaimed the 'n-word' and Jews reclaimed the slur 'Yid'. But by putting the number on their arm, it is still something by which they are being defined. Do we really want Hitler to be so utterly central to our identity, his actions to be literally engraved onto our bodies? For how long are we to define ourselves primarily in relation to Hitler, as his victims?

Writing those words, however, it occured to me that for these second- and third-generation survivors, Hitler and his actions are perhaps already "utterly central to [their] identity", in a way that I - who had no direct ancestors killed in the Holocaust (though many more distant relatives) - simply cannot appreciate. What might have been a grotesque and provocative gesture coming from a random Jew takes on a different meaning coming from a child or grandchild of a survivor. Perhaps this is just a physical expression of something they already feel emotionally or mentally, anyway.

What do you think?

FYI - the grandson is yet to tell his grandmother that he has had her number tattooed on his forearm "in order not to upset her".

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