These days, almost everyone’s body sports a tattoo somewhere. My son has an angry Sun covering his back. His wife has tattoos on her legs. It wasn’t always so.
In the 50s and 60s, tattoos signified two things. The first was service in the United States Navy.
The first tattoo I recall seeing graced the arm of Judy’s dad. I don’t remember what it was, but I’d hazard a guess it was an anchor. Navy men prided themselves on their tattoos.
Grace Church members frowned at tattoos. They knew the book of Leviticus had something to say against them. I noticed that Mr. Phillips and his son, also a Navy vet, always kept their arms covered in church. I suspect the Church on the Rock, which is what Grace became in the 2000s, is more tolerant of body art. Pretty little crosses, fish symbols, and tough guy Jesus faces are all the rage among twenty-first century evangelicals.
The other kind of tattoos I grew up with were not pretty, were not obtained voluntarily, and conveyed a message not of pride but of humiliation and degradation.
About half the residents of the part of Canarsie in which I lived were Jewish, mostly of Eastern European descent. By the time they arrived in America, they’d shorn the spellings that reminded them of the “old country.” Rabinowitz became Robins; Nahinsky turned to Nahins. But some things you can’t change.
I remember the first time I met one friend’s grandfather. He reached out to shake my hand and say, “pleased to meet you” in Yiddish-accented English. I saw a faint number tattooed on his forearm. Grandfather noticed my eyes drawn to that spot.
“From the camp,” he said, a tear moistening his eye.
That was all I needed to know.
Those were the years I was heavily into World War II, as my stepson is now. I watched TV shows like Combat and The Gallant Men, and wished I’d been allowed to see The Longest Day at the movies. I was ecstatic when Uncle Freddie gave me the German helmet and belt buckle he’d brought back from the war. But he never talked about the war. I only knew he’d landed in France just after D-Day and fought his way across Europe and into Germany. That’s where he got his nickname: Fritz.
Maybe Uncle Freddie met some of my friends’ grandparents back then. He’d have remembered. Oh, not the names but the looks. That’s something American soldiers had no words for. How do you describe walking skeletons? What do you call the level of hell below horror?
Holocaust they named it. A word with origins in burning and sacrificial offerings.
The grandparents with tattooed arms survived that indescribable hellfire. Many of their parents and siblings did not. They came to an America that refused to welcome them in the 1930s but suddenly opened its borders to them after the war. Too late for most.
They found work here, and they built for their children the kind of lives they’d had taken away in Poland and Hungary and Germany. And when those children became successful and bought homes in Canarsie, they moved downstairs and lived quietly into an old age their parents never reached.
Uncle Freddie, the liberator, had no words to describe the things he saw during the war, but the grandparents with tattooed arms did. Just two words: never again.
I do hope you’re enjoying Tales of a Canarsie Boy. I’ll be adding new episodes in the months to come. By the way, if you’re from Canarsie and have a story to share, please contact me via this blog or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d love to include you as a guest blogger.
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