This describes a pretty ghastly, though thankfully rare, way that a some descendents of Holocaust survivors are paying tribute to their aging relatives: having the elderly survivors’ camp numbers tattooed on their own arms.
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.
It seems repellent and almost ghoulish, a form of histrionic appropriation of another’s suffering (and also a violation of the Jewish prohibition on tattooing the body), although on reading the entire article I could also see it as a form of love, and a desire to not let the world forget. But the world will forget—in fact, a great deal of the world has already forgotten, or never was outraged by the Holocaust in the first place.
And the Nazis knew that this would happen. I remember reading several books about the Holocaust—including, if I recall correctly, Primo Levi’s masterpiece Survival in Aushwitz, which I highly recommend—that mentioned that one of the ways the Nazis running the camps used to torture the inmates was through constant reminders that in the unlikely event the prisoners managed to survive, no one would ever believe their story, or care.
One of the tattooed young people says that among the comments she’s gotten is “a man who called her ‘pathetic,’ saying of her grandfather, ‘You’re trying to be him and take his suffering.’” I don’t know what the man who said that was thinking, but it struck me that he could have been using the word “pathetic” not in a negative sense, but in a more archaic way, as in the expression “pathetic fallacy”:
The pathetic fallacy is the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations. The word ‘pathetic’ in this use is related to ‘pathos’ or ‘empathy’ (capability of feeling), and is not pejorative. In the discussion of literature, the pathetic fallacy is similar to personification.
So yes, her tattoo is “pathetic” in the sense of empathic. And “You’re trying to be him and take his suffering” is merely descriptive.
It’s not possible to do so, of course. History moves on, the Holocaust generation will die out, and young people cannot appropriate what was not their experience, despite their love for their relatives and their fears for the future.