Posted by: Steve Coplan | November 10, 2006

Jew Tattoo

A few weeks ago I was out with a friend in an East Village bar when I noticed the guy sitting next to me had ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ tattooed on his arm and below it a Magen David. While I’ll defer for the moment my immediate reaction, it did remind me of the web site for the documentary of Jews With Tattoos I came across while researching the exact content of David Beckham’s tattoo of a Hebrew quote from the Song of Songs. As I’ve noted elsewhere, tattoos are expressly forbidden in the Torah, presumably because they were an integral element of competing cults in Biblical times. Since the injunction is an explicit one in the primary text (or ‘revelation’, theologically speaking) that can’t be parsed or massaged in the halakhic literature, getting a tattoo is tantamount to rejecting orthodoxy. That said, I’ve always wanted a tattoo. I’ve consoled myself with the less than pious thought that anything I engrave my skin will inevitably decline in symbolic value as times goes on.

The idea of tattooing specifically Jewish symbols is, therefore, a counterintuitive one but also logical: if you are going to mark yourself up like an old blotter, it may as well be something that defines your identity. Still, even when the tattoos are beautiful like the one above with the Hebrew for the divine presence complete with ‘keters’ or crowns that have a mystical significance, something visceral rebels. For some, the issue is even more emotional since Jews were tattooed with numbers in the Nazi concentration camps as one of the steps in the dehumanization process. Which brings me back to the guy in the bar with the tattoo. My initial reaction was to put my pint glass through his face, but then thought better of it, assuming that he was just misguided not malicious. Instead the following conversation ensued:

Me: Hey — why do you have that tattoo on your arm?

Him: Which tattoo?

Me: Arbeit Macht Frei

Him: Well, I’m Jewish –

Me: So am I.

Him: Well, I am very culturally Jewish, and it’s out of respect for a uniquely Jewish tragedy.

Me: You realize that it can be easily misinterpreted or misunderstood?

Him: It’s out of respect

Me: I think it’s a very bad idea to have that tattooed on your arm

At which point I turned and left. I’ll have to assume this guy is sincere, but I can conclude that he is not very well informed. The phrase ‘arbeit macht frei’ or ‘work will set you free’ stands over the entrance to Auschwitz. The phrase was along with the orchestra that greeted the new arrivals, was part of the Nazis’ self-serving fiction that the concentration camp was a “reeducation” center for political subversives and various other undesirables, rather than a camp where its inmates would gradually starve to death and fight for every second of survival. What is notable, however, is that Auschwitz was not entirely Jewish – in fact a large number of its inmates were Polish, from Soviet prisoner of war camps and Gypsies. Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, was created specifically as a death camp, and the victims were overwhelmingly Jewish. The Nazis initially exterminated only those that were unfit for labor, but towards the end of the war would unload Jews from the cattle cars arriving at the railhead and dispatch them directly to the gas chambers.

I would like to suggest a few more constructive ways of paying respect to the victims of the Shoah:

1. If you want to pay respect their secular culture, learn Yiddish or Ladino (spoken by the Jews of Salonika but not by the Romaniot community, which still maintains a synagogue on the Lower East Side).

2. If you want to honor the memory of their specific experience, read Victor Frankl or Primo Levi.

3. If you want to honor their religious heritage, read Joseph Soloveitchik, Louis Jacobs or Jonathan Sacks

4. If you want to honor the universal lesson, get involved with Save Darfur.



  1. I’m a student majoring in history with a deep interest in the Holocaust. Recently I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo of “Arbeit Macht Frei” on my back (fairly small lettering). First let me make it clear: I am not Jewish (I’m a black Canadian male), I am not a Neo-Nazi, nor am I ignorant of the tremendous suffering that went on across Europe at the hands of the Nazi’s. One of my primary concerns about getting the tattoo was that it would be taken out of context or be considered to be offensive. To me, getting the tattoo is out of respect for those who toiled themselves to death (or near death) at work camps and those who were slaughtered at death camps. Not only that, but as a descendant of slaves who were brought to Barbados I too feel the need to honour those who have suffered in ways I cannot even imagine. I want to do it so I never forget.

    I realize your blog hasn’t been updated in awhile, but if you see this and have something to say, please email me back or leave me a post at my blog.

  2. I have been thinking the same thing about getting a tattoo. My father was prisoner #18778 in Auschwitz 1941-1945. He died in 2004. I can think of no better way to honor his survival of the Holocaust than to get his number tattooed on my arm, so my children can look at it in wonder, as I did. He wanted to forget his suffering. I can’t help but remember it and the suffering I received as I watched him deteriorate from the Nazi’s after-effects: depression, guilt, alcoholism, PTSD. What am I waiting for?

  3. I don’t question the stated motivations of those contemplating getting tattoos, but “Arbeit Macht Frei” was a Nazi slogan: using it absolutely begs for misinterpretation. (In general, I’ve learned that irony – if that’s what this is – does not travel well in any non-verbal medium.)

    Might I suggest “Never forget” or some version thereof as a more fitting, unambiguous and very traditional sentiment?

  4. Thanks Grant — I am pretty much in agreement with you. The Shoah is a human tragedy, and we shouldn’t forget the lessons of the risks of creeping intolerance but it is wide open to misinterpretation.

    @Fraser: I find it very difficult to comprehend what it is in human nature and Western society that lies at the root of the Shoah, but we should keep asking the question.

  5. shalom im tatto men from israel,i like yours tattoos!!!

  6. The post from Fraser, who is my brother, rings true. My own son, Christopher, has tattooed my father’s POW number on his back with a very large cross out of respect for his grandfather and the horrors of concentration camps. We shall never forget what happened to millions of people because of oppression,hate, and ambiguity and how it affects us even today.

  7. I agree with Grant about the “Arbeit Macht Frei” tattoo. Although it is an indicator that you recognize Nazi evil, the fact that you chose that particular tattoo makes it look like you are in favor of the destruction of the Jews. “Work will make you free” is such a hideous lie that whomever tattoos it on himself appears to support its evil intent.

    I think the Holocaust is important to remember because, of all the genocides in the world, this one was the most industrially-engrained one.

  8. P.S. Hi Jan!

  9. see this…

  10. 1. Jewish tradition and law prohibit tattoos.
    2. While is is extremely important to remember the horrors of the holocaust, remembering is not enough. Remembering should lead to action and the action should lead to ensuring that our human community gets rid of the notion of “the other”. In every generation we are given the opportunity to make the world a better place for all, and yet we rely on symbols instead of deeds. Slavery and ethnic butchery exist today, and we have not learned that a person enslaved, or an individual butchered because of ethnicity, diminishes us as human beings.
    3. Rather than rely on tattoos and symbols, maybe we should be joining groups which fight hatred, bigotry, and butchery. There are many such groups in the world, and if all well-meaning humans joined together in such groups, much more could be accomplished in the task of making this world beautiful-for all.
    I realize that the above sounds like pie-in-the-sky idealism, and that the fight against secular and religious exclusivity is not easy, especially when fought against fiercely defended religious dogma, but this struggle must continue until all humans understand that we are not different races, but all members of one family, the human race.

  11. The prohibition on tattooing is an issur d’oraitha – stated in the text of the Torah – not derived through subsequent interpretation (an issur d’rabbanan). Tradition is exactly that – tradition – and is only binding to the extent that community norms mandate it. Unfortunately, many people misinterpret tradition (minhag) as law (halachah). This is a long-winded way of saying that whether tradition “permits” or “prohibits” is largely immaterial in the context of the principles of halachah. Tradition is nice and all, but it’s not an expression of Judaism’s underlying theology, as articulated through halachah.

  12. I am a nineteen year old male living in Washington State, starting college this fall and looking forward to everything I will learn as a student. But an extremely valuable lesson I learned already, was during my visit to Germany last July. As part of my school group, we each stayed with a host family in Stuttgart for three weeks studying at the Gymnasium. And for one other week we traveled to Berlin to visit Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Hitler’s Bunker’s remains, and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. I have been deeply involved within study of the Holocaust, WWII, and events during the era. I have researched concentration camps extensively and know a great amount of what happened within them, but stepping into this historic beginning of events transformed my whole mentality on the subject. From the first sight of the gate, marked ARBEIT MACHT FREI, to the second I stepped onto my bus to go home, I was horrified. Once you step through that gate, everything seems to come to life. I felt something beyond interest in a tour, beyond the grief one feels there when their knowledge is fulfilled. It wasn’t normal. Seeing the layout, gun nests, walking the path the POW’s did to Station Z, to the gas chambers. Seeing the disgusting conditions of which they lived. Day, to day, to fucking day.

    Almost one year later, the tattoo “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” is in my mind. I will see the same phrase they saw day, to day, to day. For myself, it is a reminder of the atrocities that happened in the concentration camps and during the Holocaust itself. It is my respect to those who were victimized during this time, to those who were/are effected directly by the terrors of the Holocaust. And selfish yes, but a sign to tell me even though I have it hard, and bad at times, that I can never have it bad enough. To wake up every morning for the rest of my life and see this phrase, it’s more than a symbol or sign, it’s a reason.

    I can understand a pint of glass to the face, I can understand the begging for misinterpretation, I can understand how it can be symbolized for the exact opposite reasoning, and I can also understand how getting this tattoo isn’t most people’s ideal way of showing respect. But the cards fall into place for me, and I am sure Damian has some of these same feelings as well as anybody else who is thinking about getting this tattoo.

    So this is my input, I had to say something. Thank you for reading, very much.

  13. The sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” was just stolen from the gates at Auschwitz. Jews, Rabbis are up in arms over the theft, calling it an “act of war” and a replacement sign was made and installed.

    There is great interest in maintaining this site that has become a monument to death and rememberence of suffering.

    I found this post by accident, after an random search. After reading the post about how the author wanted to throw a pint in the face of the owner of this “Arbeit Macht Frei” tattoo, I had to write something.

    Although ” Arbeit Macht Frei ” was used by the Nazis, and is a well known saying, to my knowledge, Germans nor Jews, have a copyright to this saying.

    Tattoos are very personal things. Why couldn’t the author see that maybe the owner of the tattoo had his own reasons for putting this saying on his arm.

    Maybe the author is the ignorant one.

    His reaction was based on an assumption that the owner of the tattoo was shallow and stupid.

    Having “Arbeit Macht Frei” tattooed on his arm will create future dialog with people who may not know anything about the Holocaust. They will ask about his tattoo, and he will inform them, and then there will be one less person who is ignorant about the Holocaust.

    Also, it can be applied, in an ironic way, to many futile and/or oppressive situations.

    It can be applied to some destructive corporate cultures, where, the culture demands many many hours of overtime, robs a person of time with thier family, robs them of time to recover from indignities, doesn’t provide health care, and people end up dying from heart attacks or cancer that has ravaged their bodies.

    Work will set you free…by way of killing you, and when you die, then you are free.

    It’s meant to be ironic. If I were to get a similar tattoo, I would do it as a statement about the human condition, a commentary on impermenance, life, death, and the illusion of freedom. Because, you’re never really free. Only the dead are “free.”

    • Freedom’s just another word for ‘Nothing left to lose.’

  14. […] Today found this great post, here is a quick excerpt : While I’ll defer for the moment my immediate reaction, it did remind me of the web site for the documentary of Jews With Tattoos I came across while researching the exact content of David Beckham’s tattoo of a Hebrew quote from the Song … Read the rest of this great post Here […]

  15. great site appreciate for a lot information special thanks

  16. […] Jew Tattoo « NoodnikNov 10, 2006 … By: Fraser Czajkowski on September 16, 2007 at 1:52 am. Reply. I don’t question the stated motivations of those contemplating getting tattoos, … […]

  17. Felt the need to say thanks on this wicked post. I’ve already listed a link on my Facebook Page because I enjoy your attention to detail. Peace Out!

  18. How about this? It’s none of your business what his tattoo means, how it is interpreted, or why they decided to get it. How about you take your own suggestions, go read those great books, and keep your suggestions on how to honor the dead to yourself because again.. ehem.. it’s none of your business! Good luck with your tattoo. Don’t ever talk to me about mine.

  19. I was out just reading across the net and came upon your article. Now I can understand your issues with the tattoo, but at the same time, things that mean one thing to you may mean something to someone else. Choose your poison on it really, but how about this: You know it’s a phrase….. correct? So why not take that at face value and let it be? What if he had a clown tattooed on his arm and you were molested as a small child by one? Would you still be in the same boat? Or is it just phrases pasted above gates on internment camps?

    How about this? I have both that tattoo and “jedem das seine”. My life is like this. I work 10 hrs a day 5 days a week. I work and work to pay Bill’s and stay in a cycle……… I’m lied to every day and “work will set me free” ………. when I die. Also…….. “(to)each his own”. Yep…… mind you own business. Sums it up on all levels. Like it or not……. one way or another….. we are all in the same boat.

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