An article appeared in the New York Times last week which I found fascinating and deeply troubling. The article concerned young Jews who are having numbers tattooed on their arm as a reminder of the Holocaust. Many of these young people are grandchildren of Holocaust victims or survivors and while I realize that it really isn’t my place to comment on how an individual should react to this most tragic story in our history, I have some strong opinions concerning the story.
I find the entire idea troubling for two different reasons.
First, let me make a comparison. Often, people come into my office and ask me about cremation. Sometimes they have very good reasons for wanting to be cremated and ask me why we won’t bury cremated remains in our synagogue cemetery and why I find it so disturbing when Jews want to be cremated. I have several answers but I save my most emotional one for last. Imagine, I tell people, the Jews who were killed and bodies burned in the crematoria. It was the ultimate indignity that after all the suffering they endured, they did not have a proper Jewish burial. In the face of this, how can we, willingly, deny ourselves that proper burial that Jewish tradition dictates.
I feel the same way about the number tattoos. Tattooing is against Jewish law and while some people may not really care about this fact, I would ask them to imagine how those who held that law dear felt upon being tattooed by the Nazis. While obviously no one could even for a moment blame anyone for submitting to the tattooing when ordered so and while no one would accuse these individuals of transgressing Jewish law willingly, at the same time, for many this was not only a matter of persecution and a sign of great danger but also was the indignity of being forced to go against the law they respected. In memory of those individuals, for that reason alone, I would counsel people against taking this step.
Then, there is the more general issue. What does it mean to remember the Holocaust? Are we, today, two or three generations later, serving history or the victims by this serious but only symbolic gesture? Those who feel it is critical to honor the victims or remember the agony would, it seems to me, be doing so in a more effective way by standing up for our people or by working for peace and justice and human rights for all rather than to engage in this symbolic gesture.
I don’t question people’s seriousness in making this choice. And, we each need to remember in our own way. But,for those who live in freedom to voluntarily choose to mark their bodies in this way seems inappropriate. We can remember without imitating, we can mourn without defacing our own bodies and we can work for better times for our people and for the entire world.