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The Symbolism of My Tattoos

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A grandson who had his Grandmother's Auschwitz number tattooed on his inner left forearm, in her honor, to remember her experiences during the Holocaust.

If you’d told me when I was younger that I would have tattoos one day, I wouldn’t have believed you. Not that I have anything against tattoos: I just never saw myself as having any. To my surprise, as my 48th birthday approached, I found myself wanting a tattoo — or two — but it was imperative that any tattoo I chose be symbolically important to me.

On my 48th birthday, I got my first 2 tattoos: one on my left shoulder, one on my right. Since I am a practicing Buddhist and a published author (having wanted to be a writer since I was six years old), I wanted something that related to my identity as an artist. My Buddhist practice, especially with its meditation, has, over the years, opened up the pathways to my intuition, including my artistic intuition. I’ve learned to meditate — either sitting or walking — whenever my writing seems to be temporarily “blocked” and it opens the door to my intuition. It was important to acknowledge that connection with one of my tattoos.

On my left shoulder is the Sanskrit “Om” (pronounced as two syllables when chanting it during meditation: A-um), and on my right shoulder is the Hebrew letter Aleph. In Buddhist and Hindu traditions, OM represents the “eternal sound of the Universe.”

OM: Considered by Buddhists and Hindus to represent the “Eternal Sound of the Universe”

The matching or corresponding tattoo on my right shoulder was important to me as an artist and as a Jew. I chose something from the Kabbalah tradition of Jewish mysticism, which somewhat resembles Buddhism, and so has always drawn me to its principles, though not necessarily its practice of interpreting Hebrew letters as “signs.” On my right shoulder is the Hebrew Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet. Though it has a name, it makes no sound. In Kabbalah mysticism, Aleph represents “the moment of stillness and silence before Creation.”

Aleph

Aleph: The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet

 And I stand between.

On my 50th birthday, I decided to get another tattoo, on the back of my left wrist. I chose to get the Magen David (literally “Shield of [King] David” but often called the “Star of David”) within a Buddhist circle with the colors of the Buddhist chakras, which are the vortices of energy within the human body, and which connect the body to the energy of the Universe. Since I can feel the chakras, after years of practicing Buddhism, this tattoo, combining my ethnic heritage and my spiritual practice, was very important to me.

Magen David (literally “Shield of David” but also known as the “Star of David”

Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamt that I was in the Nazi Concentration Camps and that I died there. When I got older, I decided to write about the Holocaust. Though my Great-Grandparents were German Jews, we had always been counseled to keep our Jewish heritage a secret — to protect us from Anti-Semitism — and my Great-Grandparents, who lost all their family in Germany during the Holocaust, got their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren baptized, and send them all to Catholic schools. Again, this was intended to protect us from Anti-Semitism.

It didn’t.

Despite my red hair and green eyes, which was passed from my Great-Grandparents to all their descendents, along with the “Hirsch nose” as everyone in the family referred our “matching noses”, I was called a Yid and a Kike in those Catholic schools, from the time I was in the 1st grade. (In part, no doubt, because my family spoke Yiddish, though they claimed it was merely a German dialect, and not a German-Jewish dialect.)

In honor of my Great-Grandparents, and because I wanted to explore the dreams I kept having of dying in the Nazi Concentration Camps, I wrote a book of poetry and my first novel on the Holocaust. While researching the Holocaust — which was never spoken of in our family except in whispers when the adults thought the children weren’t listening — and writing the novel, the dreams ceased. Never to return.

During the Holocaust, to further degrade, humiliate, and dehumanize the Jewish inmates of the Nazi Concentration Camps, the Nazis tattooed meaningless numbers on the arms of the Jews. Even on those of the young children. The practice began in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp, but soon spread to the other Nazi Concentration Camps.

Recently, the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have started a movement, asking people to draw a Star of David along with the Hebrew word Yizkor (“Remember”) on their inner left wrist or forearm. Some grandchildren of survivors too that request to “Remember” further: they had the Concentration Camp numbers of their surviving relatives actually tattooed on their inner left forearm.

A grandson who had his Grandmother's Auschwitz number tattooed on his inner left forearm, in her honor, to remember her experiences during the Holocaust.

A grandson who had his Grandmother’s Auschwitz number tattooed on his inner left forearm, in her honor, to remember her experiences during the Holocaust.

Last year, for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial), I asked my friend, Anna Brunn Ornstein, who was in the notorious Auschwitz at the age of 16, if I could get her Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with the Hebrew word Yizkor (“Remember”). She commented that it “must be a trend” since several people, none of whom she knew, had asked if they could get her numbers tattooed on their left forearms. She declined all their requests.

But when I was writing my first novel, Anna was one of the major sources of information for me about the things that happened in the Camps which I could not find in any of my research materials. She always answered all my questions, and the story of her getting her 2 tattoos, on subsequent days, is in my novel. In her honor.

Because of our long relationship, she said I’d be getting the tattoo “for the right reasons.” With her permission and blessing, I got the tattoo. Along with the word Yizkor (“Remember”), she suggested that I add Zachor (“Remind”).

Anna Brunn Ornstein's Auschwitz Tattoo: she was in Auschwitz when she was 16. Her numbers, tattooed on my inner left forearm, are accompanied by the Hebrew words YIZKOR ("Remember") and ZACHOR ("Remind")

Anna Brunn Ornstein’s Auschwitz Tattoo: she was in Auschwitz when she was 16. Her numbers, tattooed on my inner left forearm, are accompanied by the Hebrew words YIZKOR (“Remember”) and ZACHOR (“Remind”)

It was the most emotional tattoo I ever got: I cried while getting it done, and not just because the young tattoo-artist was crying while doing it because he’d wanted to know Anna’s story — and the story of the Holocaust, which he knew only as “something that happened to the Jews during World War II.”

He asked me to thank Anna for permitting him to do the “honor” or tattooing her Auschwitz numbers. He said he would always remember it since it was the most important tattoo he had ever done. He said he would tell the story for the rest of his life to help me remind others of what happened during the Holocaust.

I also told everyone else in the shop her story, because while preparing the transfer, which took him a few hours, he’d told his co-workers what I was doing. After it was complete, they all wanted to see it and hear Anna’s story.

It was a very moving experience, and I feel most proud of this tattoo.

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