Quiet! They’re memorializing the Holocaust

When Israeli bad taste meets Holocaust consciousness, the polite thing to do is nod your approval.

When I read this week’s New York Times story about Israeli grandchildren (and some children) of Holocaust survivors who have tattooed their elders’ concentration camp numbers onto their forearms (and in some cases ankles), I wasn’t sure what to think. Who am I to put down a memorialization of the Holocaust? These people obviously feel strongly about what they’re doing; what right do I have to judge them?

Mention of the Holocaust, of course, has a tendency to paralyze one’s critical faculties, and it happened to me upon reading this story. But something didn’t sit well. Young, modern Israelis tattooing themselves like Auschwitz inmates? (If you look at the photos, you see that the numbers, which were inscribed at Israeli tattoo parlors, are done much more aesthetically than the Nazis did the originals.) Isn’t this a little … over the top?

The young people interviewed said they did it to remember their grandparents and to remind people of the Holocaust.

“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust,” said Ms. [Eli] Sagir, 21, who has had the tattoo for four years. “You talk with people and they think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history. I decided to do it to remind my generation: I want to tell them my grandfather’s story and the Holocaust story.”

I imagine being at a party and seeing some young person with a long number tattooed neatly on his or her forearm or ankle. A conversation-starter it would definitely be. And if I were throwing the party, nobody with a neo-Auschwitz tattoo would be allowed in.

What is this weirdness about? It’s about commemorating the Holocaust, but it is also about Israeli bad taste, which unfortunately tend to go together. Reserve, subtlety – these are not well-known Israeli traits, and especially not when it comes to the Holocaust. With all things, and definitely with the Holocaust, the Israeli style is more along the lines of “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

If people want to remember their grandparents who went through the camps, if they want people to remember the Holocaust, let them find a less garish, grotesque way of doing it. (At this point we’re talking about a microtrend. The article says only a “handful” of Israelis have gotten the tattoos; 10 were interviewed. But with such a big story running in the New York Times, along with a series of arty, shadowy photos of young, hip-looking, numbered Israelis, who knows? It could catch on.)

A related Israeli trait that the tattoos represent, one that also meshes perfectly with popular Holocaust consciousness, is emotionalism. Give people a jolt, yank their heartstrings, make them cry. Obviously, this is not only an Israeli thing, but Israel, given its preoccupations with death, heroism and victimhood, has taken to it fiercely. The Israeli media runs on emotionalism; the biggest, longest-running story of recent years, Gilad Shalit, was strictly a tear-jerker. And now, so is the legacy of the Holocaust.

My son, Alon, went with his high school class this summer to Poland, to the concentration camps, like all Israeli high school classes do. I was afraid the trip would be an exercise in nationalistic brainwashing, but Alon says that was not the emphasis. The emphasis was on getting the kids to cry.

He said once they went to a forest where Jews had been slaughtered, and the guide told a story about a girl who lost her mother there. Then the guide told the students to form a circle and hold hands. Then the guide turned on a disc player and played a song by Zehava Ben (who always sounds like she’s crying), called “There Is No Love Like a Mother’s Love,” which is one of the great weepers in the Israeli canon. On a Holocaust study tour in the middle of a Polish forest.

But who’s going to say it’s wrong, it’s gross, it’s embarrassing, please stop? Nobody. If it’s supposedly in the name of the Holocaust victims, anything goes – third-generation concentration camp tattoos, Zehava Ben cry-a-thons, it doesn’t matter. Whenever and however the Holocaust is being memorialized, shtum is the word.