Growing up, one of the major rules of Judaism that was hammered into my head over and over and over again was: Jews do not get tattoos.
I’m not sure how much of that was true observance on my parents’ part, or convenient tradition that provided the perfect parenting excuse, but either way, it wasn’t something that was easily forgotten.
That didn’t stop me, however, from thinking about tattoos. As a young child, markers found their way upon my body more often than not, with freestyle drawings of red and yellow and green weaving their way up and down my arms and legs. When I entered my teens, the idea of an actual tattoo held a lot of appeal–a way to express my individuality and creativity. Thankfully, the familiar mantra of Jews do not get tattoos had apparently sunk in, and saved me from a Lisa Frank-inspired butterfly on my shoulder. What? It was a brilliant idea at the time.
Throughout college and young adulthood, I found other ways of expressing my individuality and creativity that did not have me permanently marking up my skin, but the thought was never far from my mind. Despite knowing the background of why tattoos were forbidden, I still kept a mental catalogue of tattoo ideas spurred by various life events: when I met the man who would become my husband, graduating college, my first job, the birth of my son, the death of my grandfather.
The last one hit me hard, and I still find myself reeling from it, two years out. So when I recently read this New York Times article about family members getting tattoos in honor or memory of relatives that survived the Holocaust, I started to think: would I do that in memory of my grandfather? Could I do it?
My grandfather’s tattoo was never a secret. He never hid it, but it wasn’t something he talked about often. But his past, his history, was also something that needed to be repeated so we never forget, and he understood that. Over the years, he and my grandmother spoke at various events–at schools or synagogues–sharing their stories of what happened to them during the Holocaust. My grandmother was a young girl in Poland and survived with most of her family intact by sleeping in bunkers carved out of dirt in the woods, or in the barns of compassionate Polish gentiles. My grandfather’s family, however, was forced into the concentration camp system, some of them spread out, never to be heard from again. He made his way through a handful of camps, before finally being liberated from Dachau, the number 85705 forever etched into his forearm.
As survivors, like my grandfather, continue to pass away, we’re left with fewer people to share their lived histories. Yes, we have books and documentaries and audiotapes, but there’s nothing quite like being in the presence of somebody who was there. As Holocaust survivors die out, we’re one step closer to boxing up this time in history as one more lesson, something never to be repeated again for sure, but while doing so, I fear we lose the personal stories and connections that make this part of history so much more tangible.
And so, for some, tattoos–something traditionally forbidden in Judaism–has become the answer. Many of those who have tattooed concentration camp numbers on their body in honor or memory of a loved one have done so in hopes of not only preserving their family member’s memory, but to consciously live out the oft repeated phrase: never forget. Yet as much as I can see the value in tattooing concentration camp numbers as a way of strengthening our connection to the past and this horrific event, I just don’t think I could do it. It’s not so much that it goes against halacha (Jewish law)–trust me, I’m someone who has no trouble massaging parts of the Torah to fit her own practice of Judaism. It’s more to do with wondering what right do I have to claim the forced upon number of somebody else? This was not my lived history.
My son was only 3 1/2 when my grandfather passed away. He wasn’t quite old enough to question the blurry, blackish-blue numbers permanently marked into his great-grandfather’s skin. By the time he is old enough to wonder, who will he ask? Will he even think to ask without a daily reminder, etched into skin so soft and tan, you would never dream of the horrors it experienced?
What purpose would it serve if I got tattooed my forearm with 85705? Just thinking about it splits me in half. I feel sick at the thought, picturing my grandfather being branded against his will, while his family was ripped from him. Why would I want to take on that memory as a permanent mark? Then I think of my son, who will never see his grandfather’s arm again, and will never have the opportunity to ask him questions about what happened to him in the camps. Would my getting a tattoo help us talk more easily about the enormity of the Shoah?
And then…then I think of my grandfather, who would see it less as an honor and more as a “shanda,” a shame. Because… Jews don’t get tattoos, not on purpose, anyway.