Eli Sagir got a tattoo, which is not so uncommon when you’re an 18 year old high school senior on a class trip out of the country. However, getting a tattoo is very uncommon when your religion bans tattoos and when your tattoo matches one the Nazis gave to thousands during the Holocaust.
A new generation of Jews is taking a bold step to remember the Holocaust as survivors of the genocide have dwindled by 50 percent in the last ten years. Only 200,000 survivors remain, only 200,000 stories of individual, first-account memories of those terrible years. While there are those who wants to forget the past, young people like Eli Sagir feel as though remembering is the only way to make sure her people never go through the same torture and loss again. With the number 157,622 newly tattooed on her smooth forearm, Sagir returned from a high school trip to Poland and held her left arm up to her grandfather’s wrinkled one. Yosef Diamant, who was branded with the number during his childhood days at Auschwitz, bent his head to kiss it, a sign of respect.
As survivors dwindle, “individuals and institutions” struggle to find ways to remember the painful history of their people. Sagir is one of the handful of descendants of Holocaust survivors who have branded themselves in remembrance and respect. After Sagir’s statement, her mother, brother, and uncle followed suit. Now, five member of the family permanently wear Diamant’s number.
While the Nazi’s branded the Jews as the ultimate dehumanization, taking away one’s name to reduce people to numbers, this new generation carrying on the act as one of respect. The fact that tattoos are banned by Jewish law makes the act even more profound. When asked why she would defy her religion to honor her grandfather, Sagir, now 21, responded:
“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust. 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.”
Still, there are those who think replicating such a symbol of shame is not an effective way to respect the nation’s loss. “To me, it’s a scar,” says 31-year-old Dana Doron a doctor and daughter or a survivor, “The fact that young people are choosing to get the tattoos is, in my eyes, a sign that we’re still carrying the scar of the Holocaust.”
With the nation of Israel “increasingly isolated” with its Cairo embassy ransacked, the Turkey ambassador expelled, Palestine seeking independence, and rumors or nuclear weapons in Iran and their own nation of Israel, there is much for the Israeli people to be concerned about. For young people like Sagir, there is concern that as Holocaust survivors pass away, there will be no one left to remember the event that was so integral to their nation’s formation and history.
Schools attempt to educate students by a “rite-of-passage” trip to the death camps, and Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum are using individuals’ stories and special effects to make history more accessible. Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the American Jewish University in L.A., is one of the foremost scholars on the memorialization of the Holocaust. “We’re at that transition [of moving from lived memory to historical memory], and this is sort of a brazen, in-your-face way of bridging it,” he says.
Eli Sagir works as a cashier at a minimarket and is asked about the tattoo often. A police officer told Sagir, “God creates the forgetfulness so we can forget.” Sagir responded: “I told her, ‘Because of people like you who want to forget this, we will have it again.’ “
Here is a video clip from the 2012 documentary Numbered, which follows family members who have honored their ancestors with brand tattoos.
What do you think? Is the tragedy of the Holocaust something that should be actively remembered? Or is it better to forget such tragedy and move on?