Carole Priven's tattoo is a copy of the one that was forced on her late husband at Auschwitz.
Carole Priven's tattoo is a copy of the one that was forced on her late partner at Auschwitz.

Your tattoo was forced on you at Auschwitz. Mine honors your memory.

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It was a tattoo parlor on Judah Street and 40th Avenue, but it felt like the Sistine Chapel. A long, sad stencil of Mother Mary greeted me as I crossed the threshold. There were angels and praying hands and sad faces of Jesus hanging on the walls. I was the Jew of Judah Street that day, uncomfortable and a little afraid.

Her name was Hannah. She wasn’t Jewish, but she had heard the testimony of Holocaust survivors who came to her school when she was a child. She came in early that day to see me.

Hannah studied a photograph of your number under a studio light. She noted the European “7” and the “9” with the tip of its tail curving inward in a slight oval. The dot between the “B” and the “1” wasn’t quite centered, so she placed it on the stencil a little bit higher than midpoint. No Nazi ever spent so much time preparing to tattoo an inmate. I’m sure your inner arm wasn’t lightly shaved with a razor. You didn’t get disinfectant to prevent infection. You just got punctured with dye and branded like a farm animal. Hannah held my arm like a Torah.

I expected pain, but it didn’t hurt at all. I did not look at my arm. Instead, I imagined you in line on the Judenrampe in Auschwitz. Transports arriving, people pushing, guards shouting. I was transported from the quiet tattoo parlor on Judah Street to the frenzy of selection on the platform. I did not watch her work, but I felt her breath on my skin. Hannah and Franta and I joined together, part of each other, time traveling.

You would hate what I did. But people do this all the time in Israel. It is considered a badge of honor to wear the Holocaust tattoo of a loved one.

I want to carry your legacy. To say to people who stare at my arm, “You can ask me anything,” just like you would say. So far, no one has asked me anything. People noticed you. You were regal in the way you moved through the world. No one could ever touch your dignity, not even in the camps. But I am not you. I’ve grown timid and insubstantial since your death. I am easy to miss.

So I find I wear your tattoo mostly for myself. I did not design it to mirror the one you wore. My numbers face inward instead of out. Mine is not as large as the one you got in Auschwitz.

And mine is close to the bend of my elbow, where I can cradle it, like a child.

When I looked at your tattoo, I saw death and hunger and dehumanization. When I look at my tattoo, I see love. I feel you so near me, I can almost touch you. Your number before me like a stem of blue grapes. I wear you on my skin now. And I remember how safe it felt to lie beside you, inside the circle of your arms.

Carole Priven
Carole Priven

Carole Priven is a resident of San Francisco. She is an attorney and gerontologist and volunteers as a traumatic grief and loss counselor.