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