The Swastika Tattoo

by | Oct 23, 2023 | Aging Posts, Antisemitism

By Rabbi Barbara Aiello

“It’s always a good day when my grandson comes to visit!” Lillian’s smile said it all as she gave a quick wave to her friends. “I’ve got to rush. Kyle loves kugel so I’m making it for him and his friend, Joe.”

Lillian got to work and just like clockwork, when the oven timer signaled the kugel was done, the doorbell chimed signaling that Kyle and Joe had arrived.

Kyle let his nose lead the way to the kitchen. “Sure smells great, Grandma.”  Joe nodded in agreement and asked to use the bathroom to wash up.  Pushing up his sleeves, Joe made his way to the sink just as Lillian observed his forearm. She gasped.  In bold black and red, Lillian saw the unmistakable drawing of a swastika.  How could it be that Kyle, her grandson, the great grandson of Holocaust survivors, was friends with someone who displayed the hated Nazi symbol as a tattoo on his arm?

For the first time since they’d been sharing Shabbat lunch together, Lillian was strangely quiet. When it came time to leave, Lillian stiffened when Joe offered her a hug. Kyle noticed and whispered, “Gram, is there something wrong?” Lillian lied. “It’s nothing really. Just a little indigestion, that’s all.”

For the next several weeks Lillian obsessed about Joe’s swastika tattoo. She didn’t know what to do. Joe seemed nice enough but how could she tell Kyle that his best friend was no longer welcome in her home? How would Kyle react? Did he know that Joe was an obviously antisemitic? Would speaking up damage the special relationship that she and Kyle shared?

Reluctant to turn to her friends for advice, Lillian engaged “Mr. Google.” Whenever she wanted to know something, learn something or understand something, Lillian powered on the computer and asked “Mr. Google” her question.  On this particular sleepless night Lillian asked for “Ideas to combat antisemitism.” Kyle had called to say that he was coming for lunch on Saturday and bringing Joe as well. Lillian knew she needed to do something but what could one individual do?

To her amazement Lillian found hundreds of sites, including one that offered ninety suggestions for responding to antisemitism (WordstoAction – Empowering Students to Address Antisemitism). In  the section titled “In Your Home and Personal Life,” Lillian found several guidelines that addressed her dilemma, among them item 7: “Speak out against antisemitic…slurs. Silence can send the message that derogatory remarks… are acceptable.”

“Well,” Lillian said aloud. “A swastika tattoo is a symbolic slur. If I say nothing, it’s like I’m saying that the swastika is ok.”  Lillian clicked on “compose” and wrote to Kyle.  “I’m looking forward to having you and Joe join me for lunch.”

“No kugel?” Kyle sniffed and opened the oven door. “What’s up?”

Lillian smiled and brought out three deli- wrapped sandwiches. “I’m having computer problems. My I Pad is on the fritz. Kyle, could you work on it?  Joe and I won’t disturb you. We’ll be out on the lanai.”

And so it was that Lillian took Joe’s hand, offered him a chair and closed the sliding doors.  Through the glass Kyle could see Joe as he pushed up his sleeve, uncovering the Nazi symbol. He could see his grandma’s animated expressions as she spoke about her family’s experience in Nazi Germany.  When Lillian opened the door and invited Kyle to join the conversation, Kyle heard Joe’s explanation. It was several years ago when he turned eighteen, that his buddies dared him to get the tattoo. At first Joe thought it was cool – “edgy,” he said. “I didn’t really know what it meant.” Joe looked at Lillian. “Now I do.”

Joe had been thinking about having the swastika removed and had investigated tattoo removal procedures.  “For a tattoo like this,” Joe said, “It will cost me about eight hundred dollars to have it taken off. I want to do it but I can’t afford it.”

Lillian smiled.  “If you’re serious, I’ll help you. We can make a deal. I’ll advance you the money if you pay me back by washing my car, painting my bathroom and helping me clean and organize my storage bin!”

When Joe said “Deal,” Lillian smiled. When Joe hugged her, Lillian didn’t freeze and when Joe said, “I’m sorry,” Lillian cried.

Rabbi Barbara has lived and worked in Italy for 19 years. She shares her expertise on the rise of antisemitism in Europe through virtual and in person presentations.