Tattoos: Taboo?

(Photo of Herman Shine’s arm, 86 at the time of the photo, via Google images.)

I was born in the Eighties. By the time I was 6, my nation was the lone super-power on this planet. I was a child who knew no threat. I wasn’t aware that it was possible to be snatched, by the state, from your bed in the middle of the night for any reason, as a child. As if, the child were some sort of criminal.

I went through public school, being taught about the events of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, like most people my age did. I went on to college and learned even more, through books and lectures. However, it wasn’t a book, a professor, or a documentary that made the Holocaust real for me. It was four old ladies, Ruth, Beth, Martha, and Sarah, who loved to drink Old Fashions on Monday nights after their bridge game in Creve Couer, Missouri.

I worked as a bar tender at an Italian place, that has long since gone out of business, but the ladies liked it at the time, because it was close and quiet. I would talk to these ladies for hours–about everything. They all had a niece or a grand-daughter I should meet, because I seemed like a nice boy. One lady, Ruth, even gave me her cheesecake recipe, and it is still amazing. They were full of wisdom, one of my favorite sayings they had was “don’t date those whores south of forty four” (which is a St. Louis thing). These ladies were always dressed well, tipped well, and smelled amazing, which I feel is worth mentioning, as most old ladies smell somewhat unpleasant. I developed a report, a familiarity, some might say a friendship, with these ladies.

One night in February, as I was closing up the bar, a young waitress brought the four ladies their customary lentil soup starter. Typically, the restaurant required we always kept our sleeves rolled down, to hide tattoos and for other reasons, I’m sure. This night, the waitress in question had her sleeves rolled up, exposing the beautiful, colorful lotus flower inked on the inside of her forearm. Beth noticed it immediately. The waitress saw that the guests were aware of her tattoo and apologized profusely, as she rolled her sleeves back down. The waitress apologized once more and scurried away in mortification.

Seeing, that something irregular had occurred, mainly tipped off by my patron clearly holding back tears, I came out from behind the bar to the table, in order to investigate. “Everything okay?” I asked. “Yes.” Ruth said in a reassuring tone. Ruth continued “We were just reminded of something, that’s all.” I tentatively interjected, “That server is new…I’ll make sure she remembers to keep her sleeves down.”

(Photo via a Google Images.)

“No! Don’t do that!” Beth firmly asserted, bringing her emotions under full control. She blew her nose delicately and dabbed her mascara that had ran, ever so slightly. “It’s not her tattoo that bothered me”, she said, as she started to roll up her own sleeve, “it’s mine, that’s the problem.” And that’s when I saw the Holocaust for the first time–with my own eyes. On this 70 year-old women’s skin were 5 numbers tattoo’d upon her arm, they were very old and faded, but you could clearly make out each digit. It was a sobering moment, one that was hard to wrap my head around. What really compounded my befuddlement, was when the other three 70 year-old ladies showed me their tattoos, of the exact same kind. They insisted I touch those digits tattoo’d on their bodies. “I did not choose this ugly thing, the Nazi’s put it there” Beth said, the three others shaking their heads in accord with Beth’s deceleration. “That girl”, Beth pointing to the kitchen where the waitress had retreated to in haste, “chose to express something she thought was beautiful. She’s shouldn’t hide it. No one should hide who they are.”

Ruth interrupted immediately and firmly, “That’s enough of that talk..”. The others seemed to agree, each mumbling something to themselves, and readjusting their napkins and silver wear.

It was this night, that they told me their stories. How they were rounded up as small children, shipped far away from their home, and never saw their families again. How they were all lucky to find a person from their old neighborhood, who kept them alive through their time in the different concentration camps. They told me how after being liberated, they all met American service men, fell in love, came to America, and had big successful families. “That’s real revenge…” Ruth said, as a matter of certain fact, returning to the horrors spoken of earlier, only briefly. And that’s when it hit me… In their minds, they had already won. I couldn’t argue with that with that reasoning and logic, nor would want to. Their cold, calculating revenge came in the form of being happy and prosperous.

The ladies spent the rest of that evening telling me about all their adventures around the world and their story book marriages. How they had all met as young wives. How they formed a bond learning English together and through motherhood, that had lasted 50 years. That night in the winter of 2007, was such a formative moment in my life. To sit and hear how just living was the coldest and most effective form of revenge.

That was the night this western kid had a brief, fleeting brush with the realities of the holocaust. My fortune is that I saw it through the lens of survivors, not through the pictures of those who didn’t.

This recent flair up of the tensions in Israel and the subsequent rhetoric coming from Hamas supporters who see it as “ethnic cleansing”, have made me think of that night more and more. When I see things like this, prominent Jewish writers being told to kill themselves , I think of those four ladies. How they chose to just live. To live with joy and in defiance of those who wanted them removed from this planet.

I know the issues facing the Middle East are complicated and nuanced–and I certainly don’t have the answers–but the tattoos on those ladies arms were not, in fact they were pretty cut and dry.

I know the use of terms like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” aren’t going to stop coming from pro-Hamas supporters. Frankly, I’ve given up on trying to correct or understand what they’re even talking about anymore. When I’m bombarded with misinformation and blatant anti-semitism, I just think of the ladies at my bar and how they chose to exact their beautifully blessed revenge.


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