The Cultural Politics of Progenic Auschwitz Tattoos: 157622, A-15510, 4559, … 

Daniel C Brouwer & Linda Diane Horwitz. Quarterly Journal of Speech, Volume 101, Issue 3. 2015.

Insofar as the losses of the past motivate us and give meaning to our current experience, we are bound to memorialize them (“We will never forget”). But we are equally bound to overcome the past, to escape its legacy (“We will never go back”). — Heather Love

The brave, stupid gesture of emblazoning Auschwitz on her arm …  — Rob Baum

He is number A-7713. He explains:

In the afternoon we were made to line up. Three prisoners brought a table and some medical instruments. With the left sleeve rolled up, each person passed in front of the table. The three ‘veterans,’ with needles in their hands, engraved a number on our left arms. I became A-7713. After that, I had no other name.

He is Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz concentration camp prisoner, author of Night, and bearer of a faded, fuzzy sign of Nazi atrocity. She bares 157622 on her forearm. It is both her number and not her number. She is Eli Sagir, grandchild of Holocaust survivor Yosef Diamant, and she has marked his number on her body. She explains: “I decided to do it to remind my generation: I want to tell them my grandfather’s story and the Holocaust story.” She continues: “It’s shocking when you see the number on a very young girl’s hand. … It’s very shocking. You have to ask, Why”? Another Israeli, Ayal Gelles, copied his grandfather’s tattoo, A-15510, on his arm, observing: “It’s provocative, I guess. Everyone is kind of appalled at first, kind of shocked by it.” Profiled in a 2012 New York Times article alongside other Israeli grandchildren and a few children of Holocaust survivors who have recently and visibly tattooed themselves with a family member’s Auschwitz number, Sagir, Gelles, and others claim that the marking of their bodies is a response to the loss of the generation of survivors. The timing of this practice in the face of such impending loss and the complicated and controversial circulation of a sign seemingly out of place, and perhaps out of order, call for careful analysis.

We investigate the practice of progenic tattooing and the controversy it generates as a “diffuse text” constituted by various news accounts, online message boards, websites, and public places. Currently, this diffuse text evidences thirteen different progeny, most of them grandchildren, choosing the progenic tattoo, with several other descendants announcing their intentions to acquire them in the near future or publicly asking whether they might ethically and efficaciously choose them. Progeny articulate several different reasons for their choices. They focus on their connection to their grandparent or their need to remember, but also their own sense of identity in relation to the Holocaust. Amit Weisbrot notes, “my tattoo symbolises for me … [—]this [is] where I came from and this is the reason I’m here. Without that number I probably wouldn’t be here so this is important for me to always remember it and always see it.” In a similar vein Daniel Philosoph explains, “I think that our generation … [,] you can say it knows enough about the Holocaust but it’s about how we remember it. Okay, [it] … symbolises the dark but it symbolises that we got out of the dark and that’s what I want to remember.” U.S.-born Joseph Metz reports about his grandfather that “what was done to him in hate, I do in love.” He continues, “to me, having this tattoo is continuing the goal of Holocaust survivors to teach young people of today about the tragedies of yesteryear. That is why I talk, why I teach, and why I have this tattoo: We must never forget.”

To illuminate what we discern as this memory practice’s rhetoricity, we perform our rhetorical analysis in three distinct but related registers: semioticaffective, and pedagogical. In a semiotic register, we argue that progenic use of the Auschwitz tattoo disturbs our sense of the direct experiential relationship between the sign and the signifying person. For Auschwitz survivors, the tattoo indexes a direct experience of Nazi atrocities. For progeny of survivors, wearing the tattoo retains a poignant but altered indexical function while newly activating other functions and effects of signification. When progeny retain the content, style, medium, and familiar placement (on the left forearm) of the sign, yet drastically change its meaning through the sign’s historical circumstance, they suggest how resignification can be a powerful rhetorical strategy. An affective register discloses complex relations among signs, bodies, and the politics of emotion. As wearers express emotional warrants for their practice and as others respond to the practice in ways that often exceed the reasonable reason-giving of logos, affect emerges as a key element of our analysis. Public memory scholars Blair, Dickinson, and Ott compel us to investigate how memory texts like progenic tattoos “inflect, deploy, and circulate affective investments.” In that vein, we query: Why does the old tattoo on the too-young body provoke disparate, dissonant, and sometimes contradictory emotions among those who view it? What sorts of politics are propelled by the affects activated by the progenic tattoo, and what sorts of politics are elided or concealed? In a pedagogical register, we argue that the progenic tattoo, as a memory text, practices the imperative to “Never Forget” while inducing others to engage in active memory of the Holocaust. Writing about a joint Holocaust/South Africa Reconciliation conference, Marianne Hirsch notes how some Holocaust scholars resisted a strategy of putting things to rest, arguing instead to “‘keep the wounds open’ so as to warn against forgetting and oblivion, to underscore the injunction ‘Never again.’” Understanding the practice of progenic tattooing as a form of embodied pedagogy that enacts familial and public memory of the Holocaust, we investigate its promises and perils as a strategy for remembering the tragedy of the Holocaust in what will soon be the fourth wave, or phase, of Holocaust memory—a time without living eyewitnesses.

Attending to all three of these registers funds our two primary arguments: First, shifting conditions of discourse across time (chronos) alter decorum (specifically, kairos) about the Holocaust. That is, the passage of time alters the conditions for a new understanding of what type of response counts as timely. A third generation of grandchildren participates in and invites others to participate in “never forgetting” in the face of losing the last generation of survivors, yet the manner in which they do so confounds assumptions of a second generation that scarcely could imagine the practice as a legitimate form of memory work. In this sense, the third generation’s practice disturbs fundamental expectations about what can be said by whom and in what way. The repetition of an old trauma sign challenges a classical and still common understanding of rhetorical acts as distinct responses to particular exigencies, and studies in the rhetoric of social protest help us to anticipate and assess tensions endemic in intergenerational movements—what was once radical as a rhetorical act now seems tame, for example, or what now seems possible was once unimaginable. As Rabbi Rochelle Kamins writes about Jews and tattoos generally, “what one generation deems mutilation, another deems beautification.” Further, extending the work of Barbie Zelizer on three waves of visual representation of the Holocaust and Annette Wieviorka on three phases of witnessing the Holocaust, we argue that these tattoos are fruitfully understood as preparatory for and transitional to a “fourth wave” of memory texts, a wave yet to come whose contours and specific practices will be enacted and catalogued by future activists and scholars.

Second, constituting a distinct form of trauma tattoo, the progenic practice enacts a mode of postmemory through a resignification of the original sign that makes visible the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust. Distinct from traditional Holocaust memory practices like visiting museums and memorials, distinct from keeping scrapbooks or signing guest books or handing out passports of concentration camp internees, and distinct even from James Young’s interventionist “countermemorials” which make novel demands on audiences but still take physical form in public and material space, we argue that the memory texts under our scrutiny are best conceptualized as trauma tattoos. Recognizing multiple types and functions of tattoos, we argue that both the Auschwitz tattoo (a brutally imposed wound inscribed upon unwilling prisoners) and the progenic tattoo (a chosen sign of collective wound) are trauma tattoos, even as the conditions for their existence radically differ. With trauma understood broadly as “wound,” we define the trauma tattoo as an inscription upon the body that signifies a wound. The wound can be individually experienced or collectively experienced. Importantly, the tattoo can be imposed or chosen. Further, the tattoo can itself be the index of trauma—itself the brutal act (or one of many brutal acts) committed upon a physical body—or the tattoo can signify, more broadly, a psychological, social, and/or political abuse.

Our investigation of the rhetoricity of these public memory texts makes additional use of the concept of postmemory, which Marianne Hirsch characterizes as “a structure of inter- and transgenerational return of traumatic knowledge and embodied experience. It is a consequence of traumatic recall … at a generational remove.” For the generation after and, in the cases that we feature, the generation after that, postmemory attends to “experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. … Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” Defined in this way, we argue that the progenic tattoos work as memory texts that recall (not directly, of course, but “imaginative[ly]” and only “at a generational remove”), memorialize, and resignify the trauma of the Holocaust as a mode of response to contemporary exigencies. Hirsch describes her own concept of postmemory as activist, a claim that we stretch into the realm of the pedagogical in a later section of this essay. As a form of activism, this practice certainly engenders controversy within families, among members of the broader Jewish community, and among scholars of public memory.

These are Holocaust memory texts, but they are not like any others. Joseph Roach’s theory of surrogation draws our attention to “how culture reproduces and re-creates itself … as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric.” As a sort of substitution for a dead body or an impending substitution for a soon-to-die body, progenic tattoos conjure “the very uncanniness of the process of surrogation.” They are uncanny in their effort to make sense of and represent what has been described as nonsense or unrepresentable. They are uncanny in that they forward a kind of chosen abjection. They are uncanny in that they confound familiar and conventional distinctions between, for example, imposed and chosen stigma (progeny repeat the vile mark on their bodies), subject and object (progeny turn their own bodies into objects as expressions of their subjectivity), and authenticity and inauthenticity (progeny repeat a real Auschwitz number on their bodies but they never directly experienced Auschwitz). These uncanny conditions of the progenic trauma tattoo can seem or be both unhinged and unhinging.

In the sections that follow, we first elaborate a context for considering the Auschwitz tattoo as a Nazi sign potentially open to resignification by contemporary Jews. We then proceed through each of our three registers of analysis, providing examples and illustrations from our diffuse text to bolster our claims about the semiotic, affective, and pedagogical dynamics of progenic tattoos. We conclude with a series of claims about this (in)appropriate modality of remembering, specifying what we believe makes it distinct from other Holocaust memory practices, attending to issues of (in)authenticity that it raises, and elaborating key dynamics of the rhetorical transaction between tattoo wearer and viewer that impact its efficacy, particularly its legibility.

Signification and the Cultural Politics of Holocaust Memory

In a semiotic register, we employ vocabularies of index, icon, symbol, and resignification to unpack the workings of the progenic tattoo. Borrowing Charles S. Peirce’s famous distinctions, we understand an index as a type of sign that expresses a direct relationship to something else, an icon as a type of sign that bears a resemblance to something else, and a symbol as a type of sign that expresses a more arbitrary relationship to something else. In our view, the progenic tattoo expresses simultaneous indexical, iconic, and symbolic functions. Additionally, the chosen progenic tattoo of the grandchild, copying the content, style, and placement of the grandparent’s Auschwitz tattoo, is an example of a type of communication theorized as resignification. Broadly conceived, resignification refers to “the capacity to recite language oppositionally so that hegemonic terms take on alternative, counter-hegemonic meanings.” Through familiar examples like “queer” and “bitch,” we see how “hate-speech can be turned against its tainted past; … [i]ts interlocutors can ‘talk back’; they can resist.” Not only language (including specific words) but bodies, too, can be sites of resignification. As a capacity to talk back through the recrafting of signs and the recoding of bodies, resignification is a profoundly rhetorical process.

To understand the trauma tattoo as a practice of resignification, it is necessary to understand both the complicated place of tattoo signs in Jewish culture and the conditions of production of the original sign. The explicit prohibition against tattoos in the Torah, the “urban legend” that prohibits people with tattoos from being buried in Jewish cemeteries, and the over-determination of the meaning of “Jewish tattoos” via the Nazi experience render tattoos a strange medium of public memory in this particular case. Together, these conditions threaten to delimit the communicative context (and thus, the meanings and the political potentialities) of the progenic Auschwitz tattoo. We note in brief passing that the Torah’s prohibition against tattoos is contested and not vigorously enforced, and the burial myth is easily dispelled. However, important questions about the efficacies and ethics of using a seemingly overdetermined sign remain open.

The fact that tattoos have been powerfully framed as foreign to Jewish culture is one reason that the forced identifying tattoos of Auschwitz have been seen as so horrible and emblematic of the Holocaust. Primo Levi offers a poignant description of the process:

[B]eginning in 1942 in Auschwitz … prisoner registration numbers were no longer only sewed to the clothes but tattooed on the left forearm. … [M]en were tattooed on the outside of the arm and women on the inside. … The operation was not very painful and lasted no more than a minute, but it was traumatic. Its symbolic meaning was clear to everyone: this is an indelible mark, you will never leave here; this is the mark with which slaves are branded and cattle sent to slaughter, and that is what you have become. You no longer have a name; this is your new name.

Importantly, although only a fraction of the people impacted by the Holocaust were forced to bare tattoos since “concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at one location, the Auschwitz concentration camp complex,” the tattoo has become a representative image of the Holocaust. In Derrida’s terminology, the survivors themselves function as a remainder that is a reminder; their tattoos made them visible in the post-war era.

Auschwitz tattoos have come to stand in for the atrocities of the Holocaust and for humanity’s disapproval of the Nazi’s dehumanization and genocide of the Jews. Edwards and Winkler explain this function in rhetorical terms: “A representative form transcends the specifics of its immediate visual references and, through cumulative process of visual and symbolic meaning, rhetorically identifies and delineates the ideals of the body politic.” Along these lines, M. E. Cohen drew a cartoon in response to the 2006 International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust, an event held in Iran. The cartoon hails “all those who think the Holocaust is a myth … [to] raise your hand,” showing a single man raising his hand leaning on a sign which reads “Holocaust Denial Conference.” The next frame’s header hails “all those with proof that the Holocaust was real, please raise your hand.” The frame is filled with six arms raised, all revealing numbers tattooed on the inner forearm. This representation reflects the fact that while the placement of Auschwitz prisoner tattoos changed over time, from the left chest to the outer or inner left forearm, it is the left forearm that has come to stand in as the iconic, familiar placement. The cartoon’s enthymematic meaning relies on the notion that the tattoos are indexical proof of the Holocaust. Further, the cartoon suggests the synecdochical function of the tattoos as memory texts, the local numerical inscriptions standing in not just, or even primarily, for individuated people but for “the Holocaust” writ large. As a representative form, this memory text conjures the ideal of a global body politic collectively practicing imperatives of remembering the past for its own sake and remembering the past as an antidote against future, similar atrocities against humanity.

The Semiotics of Progenic Tattoos: Signs of Remembering

Our foray through the conditions of production of the original Auschwitz sign and the complicated place of tattoo signs in Jewish culture provides context and warrant for understanding the progenic tattoo as a memory text and a practice of resignification. We argue that progenic tattoos constitute one particularly distinct and controversial practice that is preparatory for and transitional to a fourth wave of Holocaust remembering. Public memory scholar Barbie Zelizer charts three distinct waves of visual Holocaust remembering practices: (a) directly after the war, when in the pursuit of prosecution and justice there was a need to gather evidence of facts and “bear witness”; (b) from the late 1940s through the late 1970s, a period of “amnesia” during which visual imagery narrowed the range of remembering and supplanted discourse as survivors were generally not willing to talk about the trauma and others were generally not interested in hearing about it; and (c) from the late 1970s to the present, during which “memorialization took shape as a concerted undertaking, the Holocaust newly established both as an academic subject and in more popular cultural representations.” In this third wave, official memorials, monuments, and museums have proliferated, and survivors have shared their stories in overwhelming numbers in person and across a wide range of media productions. In a parallel study of Holocaust memory, historian Annette Wieviorka discerns three “phases” of Holocaust remembering; however, her first phase of testimony begins during the Holocaust instead of during liberation. Traces of life and existence left by those who did not survive, including diaries and archives created in the ghettos and camps, constitute the first phase. Eyewitness testimony during the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem constitutes the second phase; beginning at the end of the 1970s, survivors’ testimonies shared primarily for posterity rather than for specific audiences constitute the third phase, what Wieviorka calls “the era of the witness.”

While Zelizer focuses on photography as a technology of memory in a U.S. context, and Wieviorka focuses on eyewitness testimony in a global context, the two scholars converge in their discernment of patterns of Holocaust memory, and, more importantly, they both implicitly invite us to imagine the contours of an emerging fourth wave of remembering in which Holocaust survivors are no longer with us. It is our conjecture that the exigence of survivors’ deaths will usher in a fourth wave or phase of visual witnessing practices related to Nazi atrocities. Writing in 2012, fourteen years after Zelizer, Hirsch reflects upon this exigence noting “most of this book’s chapters were written during a period when anxieties about the death of the generation of survivors and the responsibilities they were transferring to their descendants were at a peak.” Representing a break from the third wave’s emphasis on direct experience and survivor testimony, progenic tattoos remind us that the Nazi crimes were crimes against humanity in that the pain and suffering will not end with the survivors’ deaths and our memory of that time should not die out with them. In the fourth wave, whose commencement we are temporalizing in relation to the death of all Holocaust survivors, all testimony will be in the form of secondary, mediated texts—the photographs, writings, and recorded stories of survivors but not their living, enfleshed, co-present testimony.

To respond to the question of what the fourth wave will look like, we suggest that progenic tattoos anticipate the fourth wave as especially the third generation works to prepare for the loss of all survivors by finding their own way to participate in witnessing the impact of the Holocaust on themselves and their families. Third-generation progenic tattoos are personal in that each grandchild commemorates or imagines her own grandparent’s demise; the tattoos are public in that progeny perceive their acts as part of a larger social movement to Never Forget. Progenic tattoos necessarily diverge from Zelizer’s and Wieviorka’s projects: they are visual but not photographic; they are forms of witnessing, but not through survivors’ own testimony. They disseminate iconic images, and they leave physical traces. Significantly, their distinction as memory texts is largely constituted through their investment in resignification. Practicing resignification, the progenic tattoo performs a kairotic intervention and alters what is decorous in conditions that have changed across time. This memory text is perhaps emblematic of the sorts or styles of remembering that we might see more of in a fourth wave of visualizing and visually remembering the Holocaust.

While some members of the second generation are also acquiring progenic tattoos, the preponderance of practitioners is members of the third generation who have a different relation to the Holocaust and Holocaust memory than the second generation. As a controversial memory text, the progenic tattoo enacts a form of postmemory. Crafting her concept of “postmemory” in direct relation to trauma and the Holocaust, Hirsch references “a certain historical withholding” between Holocaust survivors and their children, a kind of unilateral or transactional silence within the family about the survivor’s traumas. In the texts under her scrutiny, Hirsch invites us to read the wound on the body (in the form of an Auschwitz tattoo or in the form of scars from the whip-lashes of slavery) as “a sign of trauma’s incommunicability, a figure for the traumatic real that defines the gap between survivors and their descendants.” Such withholding and incommunability contribute to our account of the broader conditions for discourse in which we must understand the contemporary practice of progenic resignification—and the utter incomprehensibility of such an act by many direct progeny of Holocaust survivors.

Yet amidst these conditions for discourse, Hirsch and others emphasize the process of transgenerational Holocaust trauma, a trauma “witnessed by those who were not there to live it but who received its effects, belatedly, through the narratives, actions, and symptoms of the previous generation, trauma [that] both solidifies and blurs generational difference.” Through various narratives, actions, and symptoms, progeny of Holocaust survivors receive the trauma of their ancestors. In light of our focus on tattoos, children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors may likely have had a personal relation to the tattoo—most likely they glimpsed or even regularly saw the parent’s or grandparent’s tattoo, may have heard stories about it, may have asked about it, may have touched or caressed it. In conditions of withholding, for the second generation the parent’s tattoo might have been a very visible sign of all that went unspoken.

In our view, progenic adoption of Auschwitz tattoos enacts postmemory work by remembering the Holocaust in a dual sense, witnessing and testifying to a direct familial experience of Holocaust trauma and placing oneself within an unfolding historical trajectory. The complex, potentially dangerous enactment of postmemory “is a question of adopting the traumatic experiences—and thus also the memories—of others as experiences one might oneself have had, and thus of inscribing them into one’s own life story. This form of identification means the ability to say, ‘It could have been me; it was me, also,’ and, at the same time, categorically, ‘but it was not me’.” On the body of the Auschwitz survivor, the tattoo produces a kind of testimony apart from anything that the survivor says; it enduringly testifies to and broadcasts that person’s trauma. And yet, “a person’s testimony is not the same if repeated by another.” Thus, when progeny adopt the tattoo, such communication activates a dialectical tension between the critical potentialities of testimony and the dangers of appropriating others’ testimony. The progenic act of adopting the trauma of Auschwitz into one’s life story through inscription of the KZ, or concentration camp, tattoo on one’s body risks “annihilating the distance between self and other.” To mediate this tension, progeny may warrant their tattoos through claiming direct genealogical access to ancestors who were forcibly tattooed (e.g., “I just wanted the number. Etched onto me. After the Shivah ended, I drove to a tattoo shop downtown. I walked in and asked to have my dad’s number tattooed on my leg”). They may further warrant the act through seeking and being granted explicit permission from their ancestor (e.g., “my father told me right away that there was no reason to wait and that we could go and ask grandpa right now what he thought about it”). More broadly and additionally, progeny may warrant their act through the assertion that Jewish trauma and history are their trauma and history (e.g., “this [is] where I came from and this is the reason I’m here”). Transgenerational witnessing is not the same as personal testimony, but progeny endeavor to witness the effects of the Holocaust through the resignification of one of its most familiar indices.

In short, shifting conditions of discourse across time (chronos) alter decorum (specifically, kairos) about the Holocaust. Certainly, survivors who refuse to remove their tattoos, who wear clothing that reveals them, and who actively show them and tell stories about them engage in intentional acts of public memory. The progenic tattoos, as they both extend the life of the original sign and resignify it, are also acts of public memory. Recognizing that the political valences and efficacies of resignification are never guaranteed in advance, we follow Lloyd in her call for scholars to attend to the particular historical conditions that constitute the possibilities for resistance or counter-hegemony through resignification. Here, the specter of loss through the natural deaths of the last remaining Holocaust survivors (their fleshy evidence) produces an exigence; this exigence calls for a set of remembering practices, of kairotic responses, one of which we feature here. A practice that might be largely unimaginable among second-generation survivors thereby becomes intelligible and understandable as a chosen signifier of collective wound.

In these altered historical conditions, this particular form of resignification works in distinct ways. Interestingly, the progenic tattoo retains rather than rejects key meanings of the original: that while in the camps the bearer was not a free human; that after the liberation of the camps the bearer’s number was an icon of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. Alongside this tactical retention of particular meanings stands active rejection of another meaning: that the bearer belongs to a class of subhumans who deserve extermination. Thus in this case resignification works through a combination of tactical retention of some prior meanings and active denial of another. On the bodies of progeny, the sign additionally communicates that Jews survived and continue to thrive: the new body recites the old sign oppositionally to talk back against the framing of Jews as subhuman and to talk back against the plan to commit genocide, and the new body stands as living proof of the failure of genocide. In these ways, the “hate-speech” of the original sign is “turned against its tainted past” in a call to “Never Forget” it.

Related, the hegemony of signification of the KZ tattoo is characterized by an assumption that this is an unrepeatable sign, one whose meaning as a violent gesture of victimization and dehumanization is over-determined by the enduring power of the Nazi ideology, thereby narrowing (if not fully disinviting) the process of interpretation—in effect, the Holocaust is over when the survivors die. In these conditions, progenic tattoos practice counter-hegemony in part by rejecting the lockdown of meaning and calling for a more active process of interpretation through the repetition of the ostensibly (un)repeatable sign. This more active process recognizes that progenic tattoos are an index (that the Holocaust happened and that its impacts and effects are still felt and experienced); they are iconic (or a representative form with synecdochical functions, as we have argued); and they are more broadly “symbolic” (in the sense that they aspire to render increasingly “conventional” a sign that was already arbitrary in its original form—the number expressed no necessary or natural relation to the prisoner—and that seems exponentially arbitrary on the new body). Importantly, to affirm their indexicality requires a careful parsing: on progeny’s bodies, they index not their lived experience of the Holocaust but the fact of the Holocaust, and they index not the wearer’s ability to recall directly but to recall their mediated memories of the Holocaust through “imaginative investment, projection, and creation … at a generational remove,” as Hirsch explains. As such, the (re)placement of the Auschwitz number on a progenic body alters the number’s indexical function.

In a semiotic register, we have considered the indexical, iconic, and symbolic functions of the progenic tattoo, and we have framed the progenic tattoo as a memory text, one particular and controversial effort to craft a message for audiences in relation to the imperative “Never Forget.” In this register, we have endeavored to unpack the communicative force of the tattoo once it has been relocated and represented from the bodies of actual survivors who were forcibly marked in the 1940s in Auschwitz to the bodies of progeny who choose to have their bodies tattooed with the same sign. We now turn our attention to affective and pedagogical registers of analysis, registers which have been implicit throughout but which we now directly engage.

The Affects and Emotions of Progenic Tattoos: Feelings of Remembering

Under the banner of affect studies appear many different types of work. One salient trajectory in the literature is the effort to make careful distinctions among affect, feelings, and emotions. Rather strenuously, for example, Masters defines affect as “an innately structured, non-cognitive evaluative sensation that may or may not register in consciousness; feeling is affect made conscious, possessing an evaluative capacity that is not only physiologically based, but that is often also psychologically (and sometimes relationally) oriented; and emotion is psychosocially constructed, dramatized feeling.”

To many, affect is “embodied, visceral, preconscious, but also relational, [a] tuning of bodies of various kinds.” In turn, for Grossberg, “emotion is the articulation of affect and ideology. Emotion is the ideological attempt to make sense of some affective productions.” Because progenic tattoos do interesting things with and to bodies and because they are public and political, we find these definitions, distinctions, and relations between affect and emotion to be particularly salient to our project. Progeny understand their tattoos as disturbing, as “shocking” and “provocative,” and they report that some who see their tattoos are “appalled.” We have argued that the tattoos are provocative because they alter the indexical function of the tattoo while simultaneously validating iconic and symbolic functions. We anticipate that progenic tattoos are disturbing to those who view the Auschwitz tattoo as so over-determined by its brutal Nazi imposition that it is simply not subject to revision through resignification. Yet their semiotic disturbance explains only part of their impact; additionally, their visceral, embodied, and psychosocially constructed dynamics perform additional disturbances. In that vein, we attend to the social, public lives of affect and emotions about progenic tattoos as “form[s] of cultural politics.”

If affect is “non-cognitive” or “preconscious,” then efforts to explain it risk a sort of violence against the concept. Recognizing this, we begin with an indirect approach to the affect of progenic tattoos—through the reporting of symptoms in response to encountering them and the dynamics such symptoms seem to disclose. Alongside the “appalled” viewer above, we note that as we have reported our visceral responses to each other and as others who have witnessed presentations of this work have reported their responses to us, we feel something but often find those feelings difficult to express. Bodily responses of widened eyes, quiet gasps, and head nodding (whether up-and-down or side-to-side) express something about the unease cultivated by the uncanny surrogation. For some, to witness a progenic tattoo is akin to a punch in the gut: the bearer did something painful and strange to her body, and I am having a bodily response. This sign is out of order on this body, perhaps a disorder that inspires revulsion or marvel. I may carry remnants of my visceral response as I move through the world and may seek to massage the force of this blow through talk with self or others. The progenic version is not a monumental spectacle but a quiet jaw-dropper. In a sense, it aspires to make a statement about what some view as the inexpressible. Perhaps the very effort to make a calm, quiet statement about the Holocaust, through resignification of this sign, is itself repugnant.

Investigating the relationship between bodies and affect, Sara Ahmed poignantly notes:

A good scar [that marks the wound of injustice] is one that sticks out, a lumpy sign on the skin. … A good scar allows healing, it even covers over, but the covering always exposes the injury, reminding us of how it shapes the body. Our bodies have been shaped by their injuries; scars are traces of those injuries that persist in the healing or stitching of the present.

We affirm Ahmed’s configuration with an emphasis on the particular qualities of the Auschwitz scar: the Nazis dehumanized their victims through a brutal, illegitimate de-naming process, a process that extended from the marking of passports, to the marking on clothing, to the marking on skin, to the production of corpses. As a scar, the Auschwitz tattoo represents all of these parts (and more) of the Nazis’ strategies of dehumanization. As progeny iterate a grandparent’s tattoo on their own bodies, they make visible a trauma that is already there for them and express an affective investment to “Never Forget.” “[F]orgetting would be a repetition of the violence or injury,” Ahmed notes:

To forget would be to repeat the forgetting that is already implicated in the fetishisation of the wound. Our task might instead be to “remember” how the surfaces of bodies (including the bodies of communities …) came to be wounded in the first place.

Exploring the fetishization of a wound, Baum attends to the politics and poetics of Auschwitz tattoos. While she treats a theatrical staging with an actual survivor displaying his KZ tattoo and a fictional account of non-progenic acquisition of the tattoo rather than the non-fictional progenic tattoos under our scrutiny, we believe that she intimates affective criteria through which we might assess the propriety and efficacy of their repetition and circulation. Specific ethical commitments generate a series of tensions. On one hand, Baum is deeply invested in actual survivors’ “living testimony,” and she features the affective power of a stage performer’s display of his real Auschwitz tattoo as an act that bursts apart the conventional experiences of theater. Addressing the unveiling of the left forearm tattoo as a convention of the genre of “Holocaust theater,” Baum describes the power of the reveal to generate “sensory recognition of an event.” Audience members participate enthymematically to co-create the meaning and the feeling of the event. Outside of the theater and in the streets, encountering the tattoo of an actual Auschwitz survivor can take one’s breath away. In this way, we are led to imagine the primacy and singularity of direct experience of trauma; and if the trauma of the Holocaust is in important ways incommunicable, then we can imagine that the resignification of the tattoo would be at minimum ridiculous and perhaps at most taboo or forbidden for its extraordinary hubris. On the other hand, Baum affirms (with Hirsch and others) the legitimacy and experience of transgenerational trauma, and she argues that the bankrupt acquisition of an Auschwitz tattoo by the titular, fictional, Catholic protagonist of the novel Eve’s Tattoo is “not to be confused with Jewish, especially descendants’, attempts to make peace with their own histories.” In Baum’s moral economy, then, we are seemingly invited to imagine progenic tattoos as plausibly ethical remembering acts. What Baum tensely describes as Eve’s “brave, stupid gesture” aptly distills the affectively controversial dimensions of the act. In real life, progenic tattooing performs a “ritual effervescence” (to borrow a phrase from Durkheim) that, as Narvaez argues, “highlight[s] the embodied and collectively shared dimension of affect—and hence the social construction of affect and the affective construction of social meaning.” Amidst this controversy, we are invested in exploring the collective and affective potentialities of this memory text, as a text that descendants acquire and a text that others encounter.

The Pedagogies of Progenic Tattoos: Lessons of Remembering

Progenic tattoos perform a multi-faceted, embodied pedagogy. Within families and among the broader Jewish community, this memory text works intergenerationally, reminding, commemorating, carrying information, and triggering conversations and debate about proper ways of remembering people and events. In online “Ask the Rabbi” and “Ask Rabbi Lerner” exchanges that constitute part of our diffuse text, for example, we witness deliberation about the appropriateness of progenic tattoos in the context of Judaism. In one case, a child of a survivor asks on her own behalf, while in the other case a child of an Auschwitz survivor asks on behalf of her daughter. In both cases, we witness the rabbis, invested with religious authority, suggesting that those interned at Auschwitz would not support the practice, arguing against it, and advocating other means for honoring and remembering Auschwitz prisoners. Nevertheless, as the examples we report indicate, progeny are choosing this memory text. Arik Diamant reports that his grandfather was initially shocked by the idea, “but then he stopped me and said, ‘When you have a grandchild and he asks you what it is, will you tell him about me?’” In this exchange, we witness an intrafamilial pedagogy: the third generation will need to teach the fourth and later generations, who will not directly encounter their Auschwitz survivor ancestors, how to read the sign. Although the preponderance of cases involves the third generation of grandchildren, even some members of the second generation of survivors are choosing tattoos, thereby demonstrating an intergenerational contestation between the religious authority of an older generation and the desire of younger generations to actively, creatively commemorate.

This memory text also carries intergenerational lessons for social movement rhetorics. We have been arguing that these memory texts necessarily exceed the family as their scene of meaning-making. Because they address broader collectives, they function as activist rhetorics. Advocates and activists have enfolded tattoos into their rhetoric and activism. When we hear Joseph Metz claim “having this tattoo is continuing the goal of Holocaust survivors to teach young people of today about the tragedies of yesteryear,” we see in progenic Auschwitz tattoos a kind of political activism. Remembering-the-Holocaust is a political project as much as it is a commemoration project, tied not just to support for the formation and continued existence of the State of Israel but also to national and international projects like responding to genocide or the impending threat of genocide. We are called upon to never forget this particular past so that we might intervene against contemporary versions of genocide and ethnic cleansing. As progenic tattoos practice never forgetting the Holocaust, they carry that lesson into the present and the future. Scholars in social movement rhetoric have attended to the shifts in goals and tactics that occur across generations of activists and the subsequent tensions and conflicts that emerge. Shifts in goals and tactics may follow from repeated failures, certain forms of compromising success, leadership crises, changing material conditions, “catalytic events” that demand new ways of thinking and doing, and much more. In the case under our scrutiny, the exigence of the impending loss of all Holocaust survivors—the irreversible changing material conditions, if bodies are material—warrants the new tactic. Changing times call for changing strategies: if political actors care to Never Forget, then they would be well served to recognize that what collectives feel to be politically salient now will change and to anticipate what collectives might feel in the future in changed and changing conditions. Because soon survivors will no longer be alive to share their stories in their flesh, a younger generation committed to the same principle of never forgetting and inspired by the power of the flesh places the sign of the KZ tattoo on their bodies to continue its circulation. Progeny mark their bodies to present themselves as a remainder that is a reminder. The existence of grandchildren, especially as visually marked, evidences that the Nazis failed, and Jews continued to live and thrive.

In a broad sense of conjuring ideas, ideologies, and practices about how we want to relate to each other as political, religious, social, and human beings, progenic tattoos also perform a sort of civic pedagogy. Wieviorka claims the Eichmann trial in 1961 was categorically different from the Nuremberg trials: “For the first time, a trial explicitly set out to provide a lesson in history. For the first time, the Holocaust was linked to the themes of pedagogy and transmission.” Zelizer includes in her list of events that catalyzed the third wave of Holocaust imagery the 1977 threat by the Ku Klux Klan to march through Skokie, IL, a city with a sizable Jewish and Holocaust survivor population. The threat of swastikas being proudly displayed in a U.S. suburb awoke the survivors to the notion that their silence had allowed the world to forget what had happened. The threatened march was also the catalyst for the state of Illinois to become the first state in the U.S. to require teaching the Holocaust in its public education system. Neither as spectacular as the Eichmann trial nor as formal as a K-12 curriculum, progenic tattoos perform an embodied pedagogy; progeny stand in as surrogates for actual survivors and invite others to silently complete the enthymeme (a tattooed number … on the left forearm … is of the Holocaust) or to interact with them to learn about the Auschwitz survivor who was given that KZ number, to learn about the larger family network, the wearer’s motives, the wearer’s relationship to Jewish history and politics, and more.

Progeny practice an embodied pedagogy through acquisition of progenitors’ KZ tattoos. And yet because this specific practice performs complex operations of signification, resignification, representation, and memory, we believe that its implications and salience extend beyond a contemporary population of younger Jews who participate in the imperative to “Never Forget” the Holocaust. By laboring to render the progenic tattoo intelligible as a rhetorical practice that enfleshes public memory, we hope to generate discussion (in classrooms, in families, on the streets, and elsewhere) about other political uses to which tattoos might be put, how the broader strategy of tattooing the body might be sharpened into specific tactics by and for other particular constituencies as enactments of their political and affective commitments. In that vein, we locate progenic tattoos within a broader category of trauma tattoos alongside other examples such as tattoos of mastectomy scars by breast cancer survivors, tattoos that disclose a person’s HIV or AIDS diagnosis, and semicolon tattoos that signify the choice not to succumb to suicide or self-harm.


We discern the act of acquiring a progenic tattoo—of opening up the skin and bleeding—as a ritual manifestation of the original trauma. The body of the tattooed progeny is her individual body, but not just hers; it is of her family, genetically, synecdochically, and semiotically. But even still, her body is not simply individual and familial; it is also collective and public, for it cannot speak only about an individual or familial trauma or tragedy. What we are calling the iconicity of the Auschwitz tattoo pulls any individual act of progenic tattooing into collective articulation about the Holocaust. In this light, “bodies are thus mnemonic media for the social.” By foregrounding the body as the site of memory practice, progenic tattoos forcefully argue that collective memory is not reducible to “disembodied psychical faculties.”

As a modality of memory, progenic tattooing is a repetition with an astounding set of differences. Through more than the difference of brutal imposition versus reflexive choice of this sign, this set of differences nominates itself as both authentic and errantly inauthentic. The criterion of authenticity holds an enduring and significant place in Holocaust remembrance. In her analysis of three distinct types of Holocaust pilgrimage, Natalie Polzer reminds us of the compulsion for the presentation of and encounter with authentic texts (particularly “sites, witness/survivors, human bodily remains and accessories”) through which pilgrimage experiences are choreographed in order to achieve an efficacious remembering. As Zelizer, Wieviorka, and others note, in the lead-up to the Eichmann trial, in the face of Holocaust denialists, in the face of skepticism about the accuracy of witness testimony, and against rationalizing nations, collectives, and individuals who claimed they did not know the situation was so terrible, authentic texts did the work of evidencing atrocities and their consequences.

Progenic tattoos mediate complex dynamics of authenticity and inauthenticity; additionally, they draw our attention to the ways in which “a sense of authenticity is a rhetorical effect,” not just or primarily a process of historical validation. In important ways, they are authentic as they circulate a real person’s number and index that the Holocaust happened and has enduring effects: Hanna Rabinovitz, daughter of Auschwitz internee Leon Klinger, number 65-640; Oded Ravek and Daniel Philosoph, daughter and grandson of Livia Ravek, number 4559; Joseph Metz, grandson of Gilbert Metz, number 184203; Caleb Lush and Nick Lush, grandsons of Max Rodrigues Garcia, number 139829. Further, the fact that this is a permanent tattoo (not a temporary tattoo or a swatch of fabric, for example) matters: for some, the pain of tattooing communicates a form of authenticity. Pain in the body is typically a warning that something is wrong; in most cases, to invite the pain of a tattoo is to communicate a deeply felt investment in the sign. Through purposeful wounding of their bodies, progeny make visible the invisible trauma of the Holocaust on their psyches and their bodies and, by extension, the trauma of the Holocaust to collective Jewish history. Opening up their flesh and making the sign a part of their bodies, progeny actively accept the historic connection of the KZ number, and tattoos generally, to stigma—“a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Opening up the body and opening up to the residue of stigma carried by the number (even as the stigma is rejected and reworked through resignification) communicate the wearer’s earnest, honest relationship to the authentic sign.

In other ways, the progenic tattoo is confoundingly inauthentic or non-credible. Most jarringly, the wearer did not directly suffer the number’s imposition by the Nazis at Auschwitz. More than that, however, we find in some of the examples of progenic tattoos dynamics that raise the specter of inauthenticity and contribute to the tattoos’ uncanniness. We highlight two dynamics here: the pursuit of permission and the alteration of placement and style.

For those whose ancestors died in the camps or have died subsequently, they are not able to seek permission to repeat their ancestor’s number on their bodies. For others, however, seeking permission serves to warrant the authenticity of the act. Not all of them received permission or believed their grandparents would want them to have the tattoo. Arik Diamant asked his grandfather for permission: “I told him that if it bothered him at all, I wouldn’t do it. At first, he was really shocked and asked me why I would want to do something like that,” recalled Diamant. On the other hand, Ayal Gelles did not tell his grandfather about the tattoo before acquiring it. He speculates, “maybe he guessed when my mother took a photo of his arm to send to me. … Today he says that if I had asked him, he would tell me not to do it. But it doesn’t bother him today. Maybe he objected because of religious reasons.” His grandfather’s post hoc acceptance and implied authentication of his grandson’s tattoo are illustrated by a picture of the two men side-by-side presenting their tattoos. Is it enough if your grandfather says ‘yes’? Are you forbidden if your grandmother says ‘no’? The choice to acquire a progenic tattoo is more complicated than this pursuit of (and affirmation or rejection of) permission, but we find in the controversy about the act that some wearers affirm their grandparent’s permission as a mitigating rationale for their controversial choice.

Alteration of the placement and style of the KZ tattoo raises different questions about the authenticity of the progenic tattoo as memory text. Auschwitz survivor Yosef Diamant’s two grandchildren chose different fonts for their progenic numbers, with his granddaughter choosing curved lines quite atypical of KZ numbers; in a similar vein, Caleb Rush chose an unusually large font for his repetition of his grandfather’s KZ number. In addition to altered fonts and font sizes, we see in some cases grandchildren’s choices to rezone the KZ number to atypical places on their bodies—the wrist for Joseph Metz, the bicep for Caleb Lush and Nick Lush, and the ankle for Hanna Rabinovitz. We discern in these graphic and spatial alterations an amplification of personal dynamics over collective dynamics. (And yet, as we argue above, they cannot not be collective.) Further, if we encounter these altered versions in public, we may not read them so readily or so quickly as Holocaust memory texts. Their strained relationship to authenticity may thus diminish their efficacy.

In our view, what pulls progenic tattoos back into the realm of authenticity are the politics of resignification. Indeed, if we miss the idea of resignification, then we are seemingly obliged to judge the progenic tattoo as inauthentic. But if resignification has political efficacy, then we are at least caught in the uncanny space of the inauthentic authenticity of this memory text. Roach’s theory of surrogation, with its investigation of “the three-sided relationship of memory, performance, and substitution,” discloses the processes and complications of progenic tattooing. Marking Roach’s formulation of the concept in relation to slavery and circum-Atlantic flows of people, goods, and ideas and noting his caution that surrogation is not “a universal, transhistorical structure,” we discern the process of surrogation via progenic Auschwitz tattoos in the specific context of the exigence of survivors’ deaths—increasing and soon-to-be-complete vacancies in relational networks and the social fabric. Intriguingly, Roach asserts, “the very uncanniness of the process of surrogation, which tends to disturb the complacency of all thoughtful incumbents, may provoke many unbidden emotions.” When others find progenic tattoos to be “shocking” and when they are “appalled,” and when rabbis warn Jews away from the practice, we find evidence of the uncanniness of surrogation-by-progenic-tattooing—the wrong body circulating the sign out of place and out of order, or an inauthentic use of an authentic sign.

Progenic tattooing is also intriguingly transactional in a rhetorical sense, with the qualities of the transaction, including its efficacy, shaped by (at least) the intelligibility of the message and the reading skills of potential viewers. In the field of Holocaust memory studies, James Young has famously crafted the concept of countermemorials as a counterpoint to traditional forms of monumentality. Concerned that traditional Holocaust monuments actually cultivate forgetting rather than remembering, he extols alternative practices of memorial production and audiencing. “Once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember,” he argues, and “in shouldering the memory-work, monuments may relieve viewers of their memory burden.” In the face of this specter and its consequences, Young advocates the production of memorials that “forc[e] visitors into an active role,” rendering memorial “a process, not an answer, a place that provides time for memory reflection, contemplation, and learning.” Through examples like the Aschrott Brunnen Fountain and the Monument Against Fascism, War, and Violence—And for Peace and Human Rights, Young shows how particular design choices call upon visitors to activate their knowledges, memories, and bodies to co-create or complete the act of remembering.

We do not share Young’s pessimism against the static and monologic nature of traditional monuments, and we note that all of his examples of countermemorials are physical and locational. Nevertheless, we find notable rhetorical salience in his concept and its relation to progenic Auschwitz tattoos, particularly the critical criterion that effective memory practices are ones that move the audience to actively remember, to actively perform memory work. “It’s about how we remember it,” progenic tattoo wearer Daniel Philosoph avers on behalf of his third generation. In our view, the progenic tattoo presents a memorial text that is literally embodied and that moves through space unlike the countermemorial which has a physicality in a particular location, but both work by activating audience members’ participation in a rhetorical transaction. Progenic tattoos are a kind of writing on the body, and it is their location on the body (not on the page, not in the plaza, or in the museum) that matters to the work they do. For progeny, writing—someone else’s number, on their bodies—is necessary for remembering. The viewer who encounters a progenic tattoo is not necessarily already remembering the Holocaust but is inspired to actively remember in a kairotic moment when they were not perhaps intending to remember.

We have argued that there is a certain legibility or intelligibility to the iconic KZ number placed on the left forearm, but “rhetorical legibility is predicated in publicly recognizable symbolic activity in context.” Indeed, the efficacy of this resignifying practice depends in part on what viewers bring to the transaction and where and how that transaction occurs. Viewers of the tattoos are called upon to be readers or decoders in ways that are unpredictably allegiant to the potentialities generated by the act. The progenic tattoo invites the viewer to witness; to experience the tattoo as a call to witness, however, relies upon a certain level of literacy. It invites you to remember your memory of this sign; it does not tell you specifically what to remember. It might prompt you to pose questions to the sign’s “owner” in order to get more information. While the wearer might have a personal, familial relationship to the specific number, the invitation to the viewer is not primarily or exclusively to remember the specific person indexed by the number; the invitation is to remember the Holocaust, and one textures that remembering with content in accordance with one’s Holocaust literacy. This participatory dynamic invites the viewer to do memory work to generate a rhetorical transaction. In her analysis of the novel Eve’s Tattoo, for example, Baum features two divergent scenes of an ignorant reader (a man who recognizes the tattoo as an index of the Holocaust but misrecognizes the too-young Eve as a survivor) and an astute reader (an Auschwitz survivor who playfully but bitingly reads Eve in the sense of decode but also dress down). While we believe it is highly unlikely that someone would misrecognize grandchildren with a KZ tattoo as actual survivors, our belief presumes that the viewer will bring to the transaction (through formal or informal study, through engagement with cultural forms such as film or novels, etc.) enough familiarity with historical context—not just recognition that the tattoo is of the Holocaust but also the ability to place the Holocaust and the progenic tattoo wearer in proper alignments of time.

Whether this practice stalls among “a handful of children and grandchildren” or becomes a “trend” with a “growing number” of practitioners, we believe it will continue to be a topic of conversation and controversy. We return to the stage as an analog for the theater of public life. Premiering in New York City in October 2012, the play Bad Jews works to open up conversation about the practice. In the aftermath of their grandfather’s death, three Jews in their early 20s argue about proper ways of mourning, proper ways of being Jewish, and the rightful distribution of their grandfather’s chai (life) necklace. Along the way, their grandfather’s KZ number is pronounced, and the ostensible prohibition against tattooing is circulated. Amidst repeated requests to be left out of the biting interactions and the difficult decision-making, the character Jonah ends the play with the physical revelation of a progenic tattoo on his forearm. The character Daphna asks, “Is that real? Why did you do that?” The play ends without Jonah answering. By posing questions but withholding answers and by withholding a moral judgment about the progenic tattoo, the finale reveal shows us how the practice in real life might open up conversation about proper ways of remembering the Holocaust.