The New York Times and CBC Radio have reported on a controversial trend among some children and grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors who are tattooing their parent/grandparent’s concentration camp number on their own arms.
Those who are doing this, from their perspective, believe that they are honoring their survivor relative. For them, the tattoo is not only a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust and a tribute to their memory of their Survivor relative, but also an act of remembrance, a reminder that they will never forget their relative’s Holocaust nightmare, and a mark of respect.
As social workers who run a support group for Holocaust Survivors at Baycrest Health Sciences, we recently discussed this issue with our clients. Although they understand and accept that this particular act is meant to express their children’s/grandchildren’s love and respect towards them, group members expressed great concern over this trend.
In their minds, not only is the act of tattooing one’s body a violation of the principles of Judaism, but the tattoo for many survivors is a graphic constant reminder of the dehumanization and barbaric cruelty of the Nazi regime. Holocaust Survivors and particularly those Survivors who were interned in concentration camps were subjected to the most severe and horrific experiences one cannot even imagine. As Survivors struggled to rebuild their lives and raise families following the Holocaust, their main concern was not to “scar” their children with their horrifying experiences. Survivors from our support group told us they wanted to protect their children and ensure that the trauma they had lived through would not knowingly be transmitted to their children. Their greatest wish, they told us, is not to upset and emotionally damage their children.
Consequently, this growing trend of seemingly honoring Holocaust Survivors with camp number tattoos actually negates and is contrary to what many Survivors hope for, said those in our group. For Survivors, their greatest accomplishment is their grandchildren, a constant reminder that Hitler did not succeed. To see a grandchild with their own concentration camp tattoo number on their arm feels like a reminder of Hitler and his quest for the extermination of Jews. Frequently seeing such a tattoo would only trigger painful memories of their Holocaust experience.
For any children or grandchildren of Survivors who are contemplating replicating their relative’s concentration camp tattoo on their own arm, it is critical that they have a discussion with their Survivor relative and other family members before doing something that may serve only to cause panic, alarm and terror in those they are paying tribute to.
Shoshana Yaakobi and Elaine Kohn co-lead a support group for aging Holocaust Survivors in the Apotex Centre, Jewish Home for the Aged at Baycrest Health Sciences.