Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Numerology of Totalitarianism

A brilliant photojournalist, Lindsay Beyerstein, captured a stream of pictures documenting events outside the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN.

One picture in particular caught my attention.

What is the number on this unidentified woman's arm?

Lindsay explains in an inline comment.
That's probably the number for the National Lawyers Guild, the ColdSnap Legal Collective, or some other contact that can bail her out of jail if she gets arrested. I wrote a number on my arm, too--I didn't expect to get arrested, but it seemed like a good idea.

Anyone who grew up studying the Holocaust recognizes the archetype.

The Jewish Virtual Library explains the tattooing of Auschwitz prisoners.

After their heads were shaved and their personal possessions removed, the prisoners were officially registered. Beginning in 1941, this registration consisted of a tattoo, which was placed on the left breast of the prisoner; later, the tattoo location was moved to the inner forearm. It was not only Jews who were marked: all prisoners other than ethnic Germans and police prisoners were tattooed. These tattoos were just one of the ways in which the Nazis dehumanized their prisoners. Despite the perception that all Holocaust prisoners were given tattoos, it was only the prisoners of Auschwitz after 1941 who were branded this way.

Rabbi Lerner explains the extended historical problem, the children of survivors ask if propagating these numbers by acquiring the identical tattoo of the father or mother is allowed.

The question:
Would I be allowed, under these circumstances, to tattoo my left arm with the number of my father, who recently passed away. I know tattoos are contrary to the Torah, but this kind of tattoo could be a reminder to the world to not forget the Holocaust.

Rabbi Lerner responds,
I've never considered such a question and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. It is tragic that we even have to think about such a topic.

I would urge you not to have the number tattooed on your body, and I believe that most of those who endured the camps and the tattoos would also wish that their descendents not be tattooed, and davka with a number from the camps.

There are other ways perhaps to insure that the members of your family never forget his number, just as they will never forget him. Consider sculpture, paintings, commissioning a print for each member of the family, a special mezuzah built from those numbers, etc.

Even though your intention is good, this tattooing would still be contrary to Torah tradition.

Even though the numbers written on the bodies of protesters had a practical value, one has to ask what has driven our government to this extreme of fear.

The numbers are unimportant as digits but the mythological archetype of citizens who will be so dehumanized by any system that they require such measures is an important signal that our society is heading into very troubled territory.

The Jews are not alone in recognizing that you will be forgiven for doing those things that you have no choice but to do. The government that forces such choices will receive no such forgiveness no matter how many flags it hides behind.

1 comment:

recycleme2 said...

The number on her arm is the Coldsnap Legal Collective jail support hotline (more info at She was a member of our street team (identified by her yellow arm band), which was a group of activists who were helping Coldsnap give out our number, teach people about their rights, document police abuse and brutality, and communicate with our legal support office.

Jude Ortiz
Coldsnap Legal Collective