The body as a canvas: Memory, tattoos and the Holocaust

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This article explores the decision amongst the children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors to replicate the concentration camp number of their survivor family member on their own body. The article sheds new light on the complex intergenerational legacy of the Holocaust and on memorial practices. By focusing on the tattoo as a form of memorial practice, the article captures the intersections between the contemporary trend of tattooing and the concentration camp number as the visual symbol of the crimes of the Nazis. Drawing on data from qualitative interviews with 13 descendants of Holocaust survivors, the article considers motivations for getting the tattoo, conversations with the survivor parent or grandparent about the tattoo (if they were still alive), as well as the design and placement on the body. The decision to replicate the number was a statement about family relationships and was often a way of expressing love, legacy and continuity and pride. Some descendants who replicated the number, which had dehumanised and stigmatised their ancestor, saw it as a way of reclaiming. The tattoo also had a dialogical function, keeping family stories and histories alive as we enter the post-witness era. The sociological analysis is this article shows how personal lives are shaped by memories, as well as secrets and silences, and how they connect with history, relationships and identity. This article contributes to our understanding of the legacy of the Holocaust on families and family relationships and the corporeal impacts across generations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1
Number of pages18
JournalThe Sociological Review
Early online date30 Jan 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Jan 2024


  • Holocaust
  • generation
  • memory
  • tattoos


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