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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.

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    1. Khaled Cheema

      I dread to think where this will end up: A Fashion Show with cat walk models in Auschwitz attire?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      As Norman Finklestein rightly called it, it’s the Holocaust Industry. And a profitable industry it has been for Israel over the years. From German restitution payments (and submarines!) to political backing for a 45-year military occupation – the holocaust has served Israel very well. So much so, that Israel has absolutely no intention of EVER giving it up. The sad thing is that all Israel was ever interested in was memorializing the dead, not taking care of the survivors. So, sending impressionable kids to Poland for these disgraceful sob fests – check. Care for elderly survivors in their last few remaining years – don’t make us laugh please. Time to extract the monopoly of the holocaust from Israel’s greedy fingers and put an end to this shameful business of holocaust profiteering.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Well, this year we’ve seen the first Miss Holocaust Survivor Contest in Haifa. What’s next? Together with the trips to the camps, everything is done to prevent the horror of becoming a universal warning.
      As you wrote some years ago, still at the JP I believe:”The 6 million were powerless Jews three generations ago; we cannot wrap our abuses of power in their tragedy.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Khaled Cheema

        Miss Holocaust Survivor Contest…My brain went numb when I read about that. I thought I was in some Bizarre Nightmare Carnival with east European folk music pumping out of an accordion.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      It’s not the Holocaust industry, it’s Holokitsch. The two are distinct phenomena.

      Seems to me that Israeli Youth have a history of exporting bad taste to the world. Think of all the tasteless Youth kitsch after the Rabin assassination: the candles, the songs, sheesh, give me a break. And the rest of the world even picked up on it for their own tragedy entertainments. Anyway, I hope these tattoos don’t catch on with the diaspora.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        I like to call it the hollow cost. Or if you really want to get creative: The shoah must go on!

        Reply to Comment
      • Erich

        “And the rest of the world even picked up on it for their own tragedy entertainments” – don’t worry, it was not such an issue in Western Europe… so the outreach to the world was rather limited…

        @Larry: “shtum” – is this the Yiddish word for “silent”? Interesting, it’s written “stumm” in contemporaneous German. By the way: interesting thoughts you develop here.

        Reply to Comment
    5. miker

      this will save someone some time someday…sigh

      Reply to Comment
    6. Fred

      Aaron is right, this is very kitschy. I found the film “Defamation” extremely disturbing, these Auschwitz trips appear to be damaging the psyches of Israeli youth.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron the Fascist Troll

        I liked Defamation, and I thought the Auschwitz part was pretty disturbing, too. Holocaust porn.

        I just hope my kids don’t want to go on one of these crying vacations when they get to be that age, but they probably will because all their friends will go. Still, I don’t think the kids’ psyches are damaged. Auschwitz is just one more piece of a degraded entertainment culture.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Birthright for the Diaspora and trips to Auschwitz for the jewish Israeli youth have one in common: both is used to produce a national feeling, a connection to Israel. But: It’s the same everywhere in the world. States shape their people and make them think that the ‘their” state is ‘special’ and the institution made especially for them. Pure Nationalism. Crying is the way, the goal is to produce ‘workers’ and ‘soldiers’, who place themselves into the service of the nation without recognicing that they turn the world upside down by doing it.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Jeff

      “These people obviously feel strongly about what they’re doing; what right do I have to judge them?”


      Reply to Comment
    9. Albert Linder

      I am a survivor and you are grotesque in your imbecilic hatred of Israel and Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Skeptic

      Well, Mr. Derfner is correct. We should, instead, memorize the holocaust by reminding everybody how “Zionists ran the death camps” and how Gaza is “worse than Auschwitz”. This is what Ms. Berlin, of the “Free Gaza” movement, declares, and predictably Derfner rushed to her defense against those who “slander” her by showing the world what she wrote.

      Reply to Comment