Numbered forearm tattoos are closely associated with Holocaust survivors. This practice originated at Auschwitz, the largest and most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps.
Incoming prisoners went through the infamous selection process where a Nazi security officer, or Schutzstaffel (SS), would determine who would be killed in the gas chambers and who would work in the forced labor camps. The prisoners who would live and work were registered with a tattoo. Each prisoner was assigned a specific five digit Hollerith number, which was part of a custom punch card system designed to track prisoners with in the Nazi concentration camps, similar to our social security system in the United States in that each person was reduced to a number for purposes of identification. The punch card number would follow each prisoner from labor assignment to labor assignment as Hollerith systems tracked the prisoner’s availability for work and reported it to a central inmate file.
These tattoos were only one of the ways the Nazis dehumanized their prisoners, and Jews were not the only prisoners who bore SS tattoos. Homosexuals, the mentally ill, Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, blacks and the Roma were also tattooed in forced labor concentration camps. Only ethnic Germans and police prisoners escaped the degrading registration tattoos.
Tattoos evolved quickly at Auschwitz. When the Nazis initiated the tattooing program in mid-1941, the tattoos were placed on the left breast of the prisoner. Later that year, the tattoo location was moved to the inner forearm. Before long, the number system bore no further relation to the Hollerith number. The Hollerith number was designed to trace a working inmate, so when the number of exterminated inmates surpassed the number of living inmates, the Hollerith numbering system was unnecessary.
Instead, the Nazis introduced ad hoc numbering systems tailored to each division of the extermination camp. For example, Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed inhumane scientific experiments on prisoners, tattooed his own distinct number series on those assigned to his division.
Nevertheless, Nazi officials in Berlin continued to use the numbers to track prisoners. In late 1943, the extermination of more than six thousand working prisoners was delayed for two days. The SS was under orders to spare the lives of any Jews with traces of Aryan parentage, and the prisoners’ execution was postponed until each of their tattoos could be checked against the records in Berlin.
However, tattoos took on an even more gruesome significance in the concentration camps than just simple identification. The inmate who entered a Nazi concentration camp with tattoos was targeted from the moment he or she arrived. Tattooed inmates were immediately catalogued, and their skin was marked for the collection after death. The skin of dead prisoners was used to make lamp shades, saddles, riding britches, gloves, house slippers and ladies’ hand bags. Elaborately tattooed specimens were kept in a Nazi museum in Berlin. SS officers also frequently seized tattooed skin from these macabre stockpiles and prized them as morbid souvenirs of their time at the camps.
The significance of tattoos in Nazi Germany continues more than sixty years after the concentration camps were closed. Nazi Germany glorified an idealized Aryan heritage, and in recent years extremists have appropriated many Aryan symbols from pre-Christian Europe for their own uses. They give such symbols a racist significance, even though the symbols did not originally have such meaning. In addition, these symbols are often used by nonracists as well, in particular practitioners of modern pagan religions, though they still have their place in confinement. Today’s prisons are pack with people prominently displaying such ink, because it identifies them with a group. Like Nazi Germany, they are bound together by hate.