2nd and 3rd generation Holocaust survivors display their honorary tattoos.  Photo: Uriel Sinai for The New York Times.












Rolling Stones reference aside, many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are getting replica tattoos of their relatives’ prisoner identification numbers, permanently etching history — a very personal one at that — onto their arms.

New York Times reporter Jodi Rudoren writes in today’s paper how the kin of Auschwitz survivors “are memorializing the darkest days of history on their own bodies.”

Rudoren writes, “Only those deemed fit for work were tattooed, so despite the degradation, the numbers were in some cases worn with pride, particularly lower ones, which indicated having survived several brutal winters in the camp.”

I never knew that. My mother-in-law’s mother was deemed fit to work and did so at a slave labor camp in Freiberg, Germany. She also had a number, but it was never tattooed on her body. I’m not sure why but when I inquired my mother-in-law told me she believes it was because it was the very end of the war and the Nazis were just trying to process the prisoners as quickly as possible. Tattooing, apparently, slowed them down.

I learned a few other things in Rudoren’s article: Auschwitz was the only camp to employ this method of identification. Also, they started out branding chests but eventually moved to the left forearm.

“After the war, some Auschwitz survivors rushed to remove the tattoos through surgery or hid them under long sleeves,” writes Rudoren. “But over the decades, others played their numbers in the lottery or used them as passwords.”

Some Jews find the act of tattooing a relative’s number on one’s forearm offensive and disrespectful.

Rudoren writes, “The 10 tattooed descendants interviewed for this article echoed one another’s motivations: they wanted to be intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative. And they wanted to live the mantra ‘Never forget’ with something that would constantly provoke questions and conversation.”

In July 2011 I wrote about a grandson who has his grandfather’s number inked on his bicep, a gesture I am just now realizing shows strength rather than subservience. In the accompanying photo he is flexing his tattooed bicep, proving his point.

Thanks to my friend Liv Nilsson Stutz for bringing this article to my attention.