I have my paternal grandfather’s six-digit Holocaust number, 184203, tattooed on my wrist. What was done to him in hate, I do in love.
My grandfather, Gilbert Metz, was known in Auschwitz and Dachau as inmate 184203. To him, these numbers were not just a reminder of his own tribulations during and after the Holocaust—he and his cousin were the only survivors in their family—they were a warning to others not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Living in Jackson, Mississippi, he would visit local high schools and colleges, talking to students about his own experiences, what had happened to the Jewish people, and the dangers of forgetting the Holocaust.
He passed away when I was 13 years old, but in the time I had with him, he taught me so much. He told me, “No matter what people do to you, they can beat you, they can stab you, they can shoot you, but they can never take away your knowledge and life experience.” And he would always say, “When something bad happens in life, look for the good in it.”
My tattoo in his memory grew out of a terrible experience during my freshman year of college, when I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and falsely accused of something I did not do. Several people doubted and judged me. While all this was happening, I thought about what my grandfather used to tell me, You are a Metz, and we Metzes can get through anything.
After the ordeal was over and I was proven innocent, I had my grandfather’s Holocaust numbers tattooed on my left wrist. I got the tattoo on December 17, 2012—exactly five years to the day he died. For me, this tattoo will always remain a reminder of him and the unforgettable lessons he stood for.
People have asked me what my grandfather would have thought of my tattoo. I think he would be honored that I am honoring him and his legacy, because, just like him, I now go to schools and talk about the dangers of forgetting the Holocaust. At the same time I think he might not want me to have it, because the numbers are associated with the agony of losing your family. Overall, though, I’m fairly sure he would be OK with it.
My family is OK with it. My dad actually thought about getting that same tattoo when he was younger, but decided against it. He thinks it’s cool.
I recognize that not all Holocaust survivors might feel this way about my tattoo. I’ve only met one other survivor, who told me, “It’s a great show of respect to your grandfather.” Some people might react negatively to it. But, to me, having this tattoo is continuing the goal of Holocaust survivors to teach young people of today about the tragedies of yesteryear. That is why I talk, why I teach, and why I have this tattoo: We must never forget.
Joseph Metz, 19, attends Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, MS.