The Holocaust, the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, depicts a series of tragic events. One may ask how was each prisoner treated upon arrival? The horrors that come to mind are endless, and the pain each prisoner must have gone through is undeniably brutal. Men, women and children of ages that varied were taken away from their homes, stripped of their belongings and separated from their loved ones. Each prisoner was identified, not by their birth names, but by serial numbers tattooed onto their body.
Each prisoner’s head was shaved. Each prisoner was given clothes off of corpses. Each prisoner went through the unspeakable. Night, a memoir by Elie Wiesel, contributes a great deal to the horrifying event in history. Elie Wiesel, a fifteen year old boy at the time, endured first hand the tragedies that many other Jews, along with Gypsies, the disabled, Poles, Russians, communists, socialists, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals and others faced. In the afternoon, they made us line up. Three prisoners brought a table and some medical instruments.
We were told to roll up our left sleeves and file past the table. The three “veteran” prisoners, needles in hand, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name. (Wiesel 42) During the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at one location, the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941. As thousands of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) arrived at the camp, and thousands rapidly died there, the SS authorities began to tattoo the prisoners for identification purposes.
At Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the SS staff introduced the practice of tattooing in March 1942 to keep up with the identification of large numbers of prisoners who arrived sickened, and died quickly. The numbering scheme was divided into “regular,” AU, Z, EH, A, and B series’. The “regular” series consisted of a consecutive numerical series that was used, in the early phase of the Auschwitz concentration camp, to identify Poles, Jews, and most other prisoners (all male). For many, the blurred blue lines of a serial number on a forearm are an indelible image of the Holocaust.
The tattoos of the survivors have come to symbolize the utter brutality and of the concentration camps and the attempt of the Nazis to dehumanize their victims. Only those prisoners selected for work were issued serial numbers; those prisoners sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered and received no tattoos. Initially, the SS authorities marked prisoners who were in the infirmary or who were to be executed with their camp serial number across the chest with indelible ink. As prisoners were executed or died in other ways, their clothing bearing the camp serial number was removed.
Given the mortality rate at the camp and practice of removing clothing, there was no way to identify the bodies after the clothing was removed. Hence, the SS authorities introduced the practice of tattooing in order to identify the bodies of registered prisoners who had died. Originally, a special metal stamp, holding interchangeable numbers made up of needles approximately one centimeter long was used. This allowed the whole serial number to be punched at one blow onto the prisoner’s left upper chest. Ink was then rubbed into the bleeding wound.
When the metal stamp method proved impractical, a single-needle device was introduced, which pierced the outlines of the serial-number digits onto the skin. The site of the tattoo was changed to the outer side of the left forearm. However, prisoners from several transports in 1943 had their numbers tattooed on the inner side of their left upper forearms. Tattooing was generally performed during registration when each prisoner was assigned a camp serial number. (Rosenthal) The tattoos given to each prisoner, not only inflicted pain, it took away their true identity.
Instead of being treated like human beings, they were treated like objects, each with their own serial numbers. My family was taken away, my clothing’s were taken away, my bundles were taken away, but I had one more precious thing taken away. We all take it for granted, our names. Our beautiful names. Nessa Yalperi. I became prisoner 54,015 in the concentration camp of Stutthof. (Female survivor A) Along with the tattoos, different color stars on their jackets identified them. Each star made them stand out amongst the other prisoners (see figure 1).
Prisoners were equired to wear color-coded triangles on their jackets so that the guards and officers of the camps could easily identify each person’s background and pit the different groups against each other. Political prisoners, such as Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists wore red triangles. Common criminals wore green. Roma (Gypsies) and others the Germans considered “asocial” or “shiftless” wore black triangles. Jehovah’s Witnesses wore purple and homosexuals pink. Letters indicated nationality: for example, P stood for Polish, SU for Soviet Union, and F for French. (Kahan)
Not only were they tattooed, but they were shaved as well. The hair of the Jewish girls and ladies was shaved when they entered the camp. They were taken to the camp barber where all of their body hair, head to toe, was removed. The shaved parts were then rubbed by disinfectant. We were waiting for our numbers to be tattooed, and we stood in line. And of course I was frightened and I called for my mother, and I heard her voice in back of me, and by then her hair had been shaved, now all of her hair has been shaved, and I turned around and I looked for her and I couldn’t recognize her because she was without hair. Female survivor B) Their heads were shaved so that the Nazis would know if the Jews belonged in the camps.
“We no longer looked human, with our emaciated bodies, sunken faces and shaved heads” (Safran). The shaving of heads down to bare skin presented me with a problem since I had long hair in which was hidden… He said himself that it would be a pity to do so because my hair was so pretty. As I found out later, they shaved heads not so much to prevent infestation as to collect the hair and use it in brush production. I was given a strip of dirty cloth with which to hide my hair.
The shaving of women’s heads disfigured them terribly. (Lutostanska) The Nazis wanted the Jewish females to feel helpless and in a lower position, and they achieved this by buzzing off all of their hair. Not only were the prisoners in the Holocaust shaved and tattooed, they were beaten, and their possessions, such as their clothes, were taken away. “As soon as we arrived in Shutoff, our little bundles were taken away from us. They told us ‘put it away, you’ll come back and take it later. ’ My group of women was taken into a very large room where we were told to strip completely naked.
It was a very traumatizing experience for a child of 16” (Female survivor A). Uh, we stood in line there uh, a, a Jewish prisoner, he was I think from Germany who was there for a long time held a, a speech to us–there were a couple SS standing next to him–that anyone who has got any valuables, gold, silver, any kind of jewelry, this is the time to bring it out and give it up right now. He said uh, yesterday seventeen people have lost their lives from not handing in their valuables. If you’ve got it in your shoes or wherever you had it hidden uh, this is the time, you’re last chance to give it up.
A number of people stepped forward, gave up. Most of us didn’t have anything. And uh, that started the life of Auschwitz. (Kahan) Each prisoner was forced to give up the belongings they had on them, and “the clothes on their backs. ” They were humiliated and dehumanized, forced to strip in front of one another. “ We were given clothes that were probably recycled, taken off of a corpse and just given to us. And then we were expected to die too, so then they would take the clothes and give it to someone else. In other words, the clothes were much more valuable than human beings” (Female survivor B).
The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were now left behind in the wagon… ” (Wiesel 29). “Around five o’clock in the morning, we were expelled from the barrack. The Kapos were beating us again, but I no longer felt the pain. We were naked, holding our shoes and belts. An order: ‘Run! ’ As we ran, they threw the clothes at us: pants, jackets, shirts… ” (Wiesel 36). “The Nazis, standing around us, beating upon us, chasing us from one end of the room to the other” (Female survivor A).
Along with all of this, they were separated from their loved ones (see figure 3). “Next thing, one man, the point of the thumb to the right, to the left. My brother was sent to the men’s camp, my mom, who was at that time 46, she was sent to the left. I found myself at the age of 16 all alone” (Female survivor B). Families were beaten and killed in the concentration camps. Prisoners in the concentration camps were treated with much disrespect. As Jewish families were sent to Nazi concentration camps and separated, the survival of small children was nearly non-existent.
Most were sent straight to gas chambers or shot in front of ditches dug for mass graves. Older children survived by being forced into hard labor, and some children were selected for medical experiments, especially twins. Along with children, older men and women were mistreated. Women were raped and beaten by Nazi’s in the camps, and men were forced to work. The Holocaust, an event that displayed mass murder and mistreated prisoners, is remembered by horrifying stories of those who survived these tragic events.
The German Nazi’s wanted to control, destroy and deliberately hurt Jews, along with Gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. Also, Poles, Russians, communists, socialists, Jehovah Witnesses and others were victims of the Holocaust. “In politics there’s absolutely nothing new. Again, out of impatience I feel myself beginning to fall into melancholy… There is really no way out of this for us” (Sierakowiak). The lives’ of many people were destroyed because of the horrors they faced. The way they were treated was inhumane, and their individual experiences should never be forgotten.