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Holocaust Tattoos on Survivor Families
Yesterday's The New York Times featured the article "Proudly Bearing Elders' Scars, Their Skin Says 'Never Forget'", which talks about Holocaust survivor families getting tattoos of the numbers etched into the chests and forearms of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who were prisoners at the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps. The families do so as a way to honor their elders and also to remind others of the atrocities. This method of doing so has caused some of controversy.
The Times article is inspired by the documentary "Numbered," directed by photojournalist Uriel Sinai and Dana Doron (a doctor and daughter of a survivor) who interviewed 50 tattooed survivors. These survivors discuss their horrific experiences and what they carry with them, beyond the numbers in their skin. Their descendants who seek to keep their stories alive through their memorial tattoos face strong reactions, particularly by those who feel that wearing a "scar" or a mark that dehumanized people should not be a form of Holocaust remembrance.
The article describes the experience of 21-year-old Eli Sagir who got her grandfather's number on her forearm:
Ms. Sagir, a cashier at a minimarket in the heart of touristy Jerusalem, said she is asked about the number 10 times a day. There was one man who called her "pathetic," saying of her grandfather, "You're trying to be him and take his suffering." And there was a police officer who said, "God creates the forgetfulness so we can forget," Ms. Sagir recalled. "I told her, 'Because of people like you who want to forget this, we will have it again.'"
Another reaction is the misconception that one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if tattooed. [Read Craig Dershowitz's post on tattoos and Judaism here.] Then there are those who just find it "tacky," as I read in comments on the article.
In London, Fuel Design, publishers of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia series, will be exhibiting a selection of 120 original drawings by Danzig Baldaev who documented the art and meanings of criminal tattoos--in over 3,000 sketches--during his time as a prison guard between 1948 and 1986. The exhibit also includes photos by Sergei Vasiliev, whose prints will be for sale, including the images shown here.
You can see a sample of the drawings and photographs on Fuel's site.
The Guardian has an article inspired by the exhibit called "Russian Criminal Tattoo: Breaking the Code," which gives some background on Baldaev's life and work, and how Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell of Fuel came to acquire his drawings. It's a pretty compelling story, albeit only touched upon in a short article. I wish the reporter had replaced the few "tattoos of the world" meanings at the end with more on Baldaev and what motivated him to come home to his small apartment after a long day at work and just draw, into the night, the tattoos he saw.
In effect, the tattoos formed a service record of a criminal's transgressions. Skulls denoted a criminal authority. A cat represented a thief. On a woman, a tattoo of a penis was the kitemark of a prostitute. Crosses on knuckles denoted the number of times the wearer had been to prison, and a shoulder insignia marked solitary confinement, while a swastika represented not a fondness for fascism but a refusal to accept the rules of prison society.
A criminal with no tattoos was devoid of status, but to have a tattoo when you hadn't earned it - bearing the skull sign of a criminal authority, for example - often resulted in the tattoo being forcibly removed with a scalpel by fellow prisoners. And "grins" (depicting communist leaders in obscene or comical positions) were a way for criminal to put two fingers up at the authorities.