During the Holocaust, the systematic persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators ( “Holocaust” is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire“), concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex.
It was the largest of its kind established by the Nazi regime. It included three main camps, all of which deployed incarcerated prisoners at forced labor: these main camps consisted of Auschwitz I (Main Camp), Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz and the subcamps). Incoming prisoners were assigned a camp serial number which was sewn to their prison uniforms. Only those prisoners selected for work were issued serial numbers; the 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 with indelible ink.
As prisoners were executed or died in other various ways, their clothing bearing the camp serial number was removed. So,there was no way to identify the bodies after the clothing was removed. Thus, the SS ( the Schutzstaffel, the major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party) 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. 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.
Tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941.
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 majority of registered prisoners in the Auschwitz complex were Jews. In the spring of 1943, the SS authorities adopted the practice of tattooing almost all previously registered and newly arrived prisoners, including female prisoners(the first female prisoners arrived in March of 1942). Exceptions to this practice were prisoners of German nationality and “reeducation prisoners”. “Reeducation prisoners,” or “labor-education prisoners,” were non-Jewish persons. These prisoners had either refused to work at forced labor or had been accused of working in a manner that was not found satisfactory. They were sent to the concentration camps or to special “Labor Education Camps” (Arbeitserziehungslager) for a specified period of time not to exceed 56 days. The first series of prisoner numbers was introduced in May 1940, well before the practice of tattooing began. This first series was given to male prisoners and remained in use until January 1945, ending with the number 202,499. Until May 1944, male Jewish prisoners were given numbers from this series. A new series of registration numbers was introduced in 1941 and remained in use until 1945. 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 to identify Poles, Jews, and most other prisoners (all male). Following the introduction of other categories of prisoners into the camp, the numbering scheme became more complex. The “AU” series denoted Soviet prisoners of war, while the “Z” series (with the “Z” standing for the German word for gypsy, Zigeuner) designated the Romani. These identifying letters preceded the tattooed serial numbers after they were instituted. “EH” designated prisoners that had been sent for “reeducation” (Erziehungshäftlinge).
A third series of numbers was introduced in March 1942 with the arrival of the first female prisoners. Approximately 90,000 female prisoners were identified with a series of numbers created for female prisoners in March 1942 until May 1944.
In May 1944, numbers in the “A” series and the “B” series were first issued to Jewish prisoners. The “A” series was to be completed with 20,000; however an error led to the women being numbered to 25,378 before the “B” series was begun. Each new series of numbers introduced at Auschwitz began with “1.” Some Jewish prisoners had a triangle tattooed below their serial number.
A separate series of numbers was introduced in January 1942 for “reeducation” prisoners who had not received numbers from the general series. Numbers from this new series were assigned retroactively to “reeducation” prisoners who had died or been released, while their superseded general-series serial numbers were reassigned to new “general” arrivals. Approximately 9,000 prisoners were registered in the “reeducation” series. Beginning in 1943, female “reeducation” prisoners were given serial numbers from their own new series. There were approximately 2,000 serial numbers in this series.
The camp authorities assigned more than 400,000 prisoner serial numbers.