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. The
tattoos are also a testament to the resilience of those who bear them.
Yet despite the importance of the tattoos, as testament, symbol, and
historical artifact, little scholarship has been devoted to the subject.
There exist virtually no official period documents relating to the practice;
what we know stems from anecdotal evidence contained in camp records
and the accounts of those who were at the camps.
The Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex (including Auschwitz 1, AuschwitzBirkenau,
and Monowitz) was the only location in which prisoners were systematically
tattooed during the Holocaust. Prior to tattooing, several means of
identifying prisoners, both by number and by category, had been implemented;
serial numbers were the main method. When they arrived at the camp,
prisoners were issued serial numbers which were then sewn to their prison
uniforms. These serial numbers were most often accompanied by different
shapes, symbols or letters which identified the status, nationality,
or religion of the prisoner. This practice continued even after tattooing
The sequence according to which serial numbers were
issued evolved over time. 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). This series was used from May 1940-January
1945, although the population that it identified evolved over time.
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 Romany. These identifying letters preceded
the tattooed serial numbers after they were instituted. "EH"
designated prisoners that had been sent for "reeducation"
(Erziehungshäftlinge). 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. Initially their
serial numbers belonged to the regular series; in February 1942 a separate
series was instituted for the EH category and their old registration
numbers were reassigned.¹
Women were not issued numbers from the same series
as the men. The first female prisoners arrived in March of 1942; they
were issued numbers in a new "regular" series, just as the
men had been. As the number of female prisoners brought to the camp
escalated, new number series were started in the respective categories.
In May 1944, numbers in the "A" series and
the "B" series were first issued to Jewish prisoners, beginning
with the men on May 13th and the women on May 16th. 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.
The intention was to work through the entire alphabet with 20,000 numbers
being issued in each letter series. In each series, men and women had
their own separate numerical series, ostensibly beginning with number
There were, however, many exceptions to this rule and
the extant information regarding serial numbers is but one of the tools
for determining the number of prisoners that came through the Auschwitz
camp complex. Prisoners selected for immediate extermination were virtually
never issued numbers, and many Soviet prisoners of war and police prisoners
(Polizeihäftlinge)* sent from the Myslowice
prison due to overcrowding² were not registered.
It is generally accepted that the tattooing of prisoners
began with the influx of Soviet prisonersofwar into Auschwitz in 1941.
Approximately 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war were brought to and registered
in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex between 1941-1945; most
arrived in October 1941 from Stalag 308 in Neuhammer. They retained
their army uniforms, which were painted with a stripe and the letters
SU (Soviet Union) in oil paint. In November, a special commission led
by the head of the Kattowitz Gestapo,
Dr. Rudolf Mildner, came to Auschwitz. Following the guidelines of an
operational order of July 17, 1941, the Soviet prisonersofwar were divided
into groups described as "fanatic Communist," "politically
suspect," "not politically suspect" or "suitable
for reeducation." After a month's work, the commission had singled
out approximately 300 "fanatic Communists.³ Those designated as such were tattooed by means of a metal plate with
interchangeable needles attached to it; the plate was impressed into
the flesh on the left side of their chests and then dye was rubbed into
the wound. The tattoo read AU (for Auschwitz) followed by a number.
Other Soviet prisonersofwar had their Identification numbers written
on their chests with indelible ink, but this wore off too quickly.4 Thus tattooing of most Soviet prisonersofwar was eventually implemented.
Circumstantial evidence indicates that tattooing of prisoners was not
systematically implemented in Auschwitz in 1941.
On November 11, 1941, the Polish national holiday,
the camp authorities executed 151 prisoners in Auschwitz. Prior to execution,
the prisoner's number was written on either his chest (if he were to
be shot at close range) or his leg (if he were to be shot by firing
squad). The socalled camp infirmary had also adopted the practice of
writing a prisoner's number on his chest.5
As the number of prisoners brought to the expanding
Auschwitz complex rose, so did the death rate. But if a corpse were
separated from its uniform, identification was rendered all but impossible.
With often hundreds of prisoners dying per day, other methods of identification
were needed. In Birkenau, the method used to tattoo the Soviet prisoners
of war was implemented for emaciated prisoners whose deaths were imminent;
the tattoos were later made with pen and ink on the upper left forearm.
By 1942, Jews had become the predominant group represented at Auschwitz.
They were tattooed based on numbers in the regular series until 1944;
their numbers were preceded by a triangle, most likely to identify them
By spring of 1943 most of the prisoners were being
tattooed, even those who had been registered previously. There were,
however, notable exceptions. Ethnic Germans, reeducation prisoners,
police prisoners, and inmates selected for immediate extermination were
While it cannot be determined with absolute certainty,
it seems that tattooing was implemented mainly for ease of identification
whether in the case of death or escape; the practice continued until
the last days of Auschwitz.
for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
*Polizeihäftlinge is a general
term that may be used to indicate anyone arrested by the Gestapo. These
prisoners may have been socalled career criminals (Befristeter Vorbeugungshäftlinge,
also known in camp jargon as Berufsverbrecher), protective prisoners
(Schutzhäfilinge), or reeducation prisoners (Erziehungshäftlinge).
¹Piper, Franciszek and Teresa
¥wiebocka, eds. (trans. Douglas Selvage), Auschwitz Nazi Death Camp
(O¥wiecim The AuschwitzBirkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, 1996),
²lbid ., p. 66.
³Czech, Danuta, Auschwitz Chronicle
19391945 (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1990), p. 102.
4Klarsfeld, Serge, ed.,
Les matricules tatoues des camps d'AuschwitzBirkenau (Beate Klarsfeld
Foundation), p. 27.
5Council for the Protection
of Monuments of Struggle and Martyrdom (trans. lain W. M. Taylor), Auschwitz:
Nazi Extermination Camp (Warsaw: Interpress, 1985), p. 54.