The Auschwitz Tattoo

Not all survivors have tattoos. Tattooing was done at Auschwitz but only to prisoners who were ‘selected’ to be slaves rather than gassed.

By Sydney Jewish Museum

Eddie Jaku No. 72338 (2016) by Katherine GriffithsSydney Jewish Museum

The highlight of a visit to the Sydney Jewish Museum is the opportunity to meet and engage with Holocaust survivors. Occasionally, a survivor might roll up their sleeve and show visitors their permanent mark: the tattoo from Auschwitz.

Tatooing in Auschwitz began when the rapidly increasing death rate caused problems in identifying prisoners. Various methods were tried, but ultimately a system of two piercing needles of differing lengths dipped into ink with an attached wooden grip was considered. Most survivors who were branded by the Nazis like cattle do not see it as a badge of shame; rather, they feel that it demonstrates the inhumanity of the Nazi perpetrators.

Only in Auschwitz were ‘new arrivals’ selected for work tattooed - as a rule, onto their left forearm. No document has yet been retrieved that sheds light on the introduction of this physical emblem, displaying in dark blue or black colours the camp serial number of the inmate. The question as to why tattoos were never imposed on prisoners of other concentration camps is unanswered.

The tattoo had three distinct functions: to mark and humiliate prisoners, to prevent their escape and to expedite the identification of corpses already stripped of their uniforms, particularly following mass killings or deaths.

Susan Susan Rosza, A/B20770, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Mala Sonnabend Mala Sonnabend, 74260, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Eddie Eddie Jaku, 72338, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Survivors never forgot the intense pain caused by the tattooing procedure.

Lotte Lotte Weiss, 2065 (detail) (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number 2065

Lotte Weiss

Lotte Lotte Weiss, 2065 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Lotte arrived in Auschwitz March 28, 1942 on one of the first transports from Slovakia. After 34 months of incarceration, she was transferred to Gross-Rosen, then Flossenburg concentration camps, and finally liberated in Theresienstadt on May 8, 1945.

She and her sisters were shaved, registered, tattooed...

"We were first registered and each girl got a number. My oldest sister, Lily, she got 2063. Erika, my second sister, 2064, and I was the third one, 2065."

"The man who tattooed me, I knew from Bratislava. When he recognised me, he said, ‘Have you seen my cousin?’ I said, I don't know your cousin. He wasn't allowed to speak because the SS man was behind him with his submachine gun and so he only whispered...

...but in that he made my number twice as large as the others, because he still wanted to talk to me." Lotte Weiss

Of the six siblings in the Frank family, Lotte was the only one to survive.

Susan Susan Rosza, A/B20770 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number A/B20770

Susan Rosza

Susan Susan Rosza, A/B20770 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Susan was registered in Auschwitz on August 10, 1944 after arriving on a transport from Hungary. 

Occasionally the tattooist made a mistake!

"Tattooing happened twice because they changed the number and it involved queuing up for half a day each time."  Susan (Zsuzsanna) Rozsa (nee Benko)

Susan now creates art as a means of dealing with her experiences.

Mala Sonnabend Mala Sonnabend, 74260 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number 74260

Mala Sonnabend (nee Israel Rekant)

Mala Sonnabend Mala Sonnabend, 74260 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

"We stood outside naked. Then they gave us some clothes to put on and sent us to a place where there was a long table, with girls sitting behind the table and they were tattooing numbers on your arm."

"My number is 74260, with a little triangle underneath it. The triangle meant Jewish." 

Eddie Eddie Jaku, 72338 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number 72338

Eddie Jaku OAM

Eddie Eddie Jaku, 72338 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

"In Auschwitz, you had to remember your number, if you didn’t remember and they would call your number you would get two lashes. My block supervisor didn’t know my name, he knew my number and that’s how he called me." 

Olga Wachtel Olga Wachtel, 72675 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number 72675

Olga Wachtel (nee Ehrmann)

Olga Wachtel Olga Wachtel, 72675 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

"The tattooist said, ‘Give me your left arm’. They had sharpened pieces of wood which they dipped into liquid and pierced my skin with lots of tiny holes to make my number 72675...

 ... My mother was tattooed after me with the next number 72676. My husband came to Auschwitz six months later and did not get a tattoo." 

Ruth Widder Ruth Widder, A4144 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number A4144

Ruth Widder (nee Perlhefter)

Ruth Widder Ruth Widder, A4144 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

"No one knew what was going on...

and so when asked to hold out our arm for the tattoo, it was just another order we had to obey. There were quite a few 'artists' all tattooing the large amounts of people at the same time. Not all of the tattoos looked the same."

"My tattoo is quite neat, but I remember one tattooist who couldn't see very well - all the people who were done by her had messy numbers." 

Margaret Margaret Odze, 4344 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number 4344

Margaret Odze (nee Brennerova)

Margaret Margaret Odze, 4344 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Margaret was one of the first 5,000 deportees from Slovakia, arriving in Auschwitz on May 1, 1942. 

The visibility of the tattoo elicited different reactions

Some people were bewildered, not knowing what it meant. Others realized that the tattoo bearer had managed to survive the horror of Auschwitz.

"When he was young, my grandson asked, ‘What’s that?’ I joked with him, it’s a telephone number. Later on, he came home from school and said, ‘Nana I know what that number is!'" Margaret Odze

Naftal Naftal Sieff, 132852 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Number 132852

Naftal Sieff

Naftal Naftal Sieff, 132852 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Naftal arrived in Birkenau in June-July 1943. He underwent the "usual procedure"...

Selection...

"Take off all clothes, delousing, painted with carbolic acid, shaved you everywhere. And then we got a striped uniform and a number.

I was 19 at the time... I remember the tattoo artist was uncaring in the use of his needle and I bled."

Naftal Naftal Sieff, 132852 (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

"I had no particular thoughts about the tattooing event as everything which was happening to me at that time was nothing but complete confusion." Naftal Sieff

Lotte Lotte Weiss, 2065 (detail) (2011) by Andrew HarrisSydney Jewish Museum

Following liberation some survivors hastened to have the physical reminder of their humiliation removed; only a scar remained. 

Others used their numbers as pin numbers or as lucky betting numbers, especially at horse races or Lotto games. 

In recent years, as part of an upsurge of tattooing amongst young people, grandchildren of survivors have elected to have the Auschwitz tattoo of their grandmother or grandfather as their chosen tattoo. 

The debate is ongoing: is it morally and ethically acceptable to transform the Nazi Auschwitz tattoo into a Jewish symbol of Holocaust memory and remembrance?

Explore their stories

Discover more from the Sydney Jewish Museum collection on Google Arts and Culture or delve into our complete online catalogue here

Lotte Lotte Weiss, 2065, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Mala Sonnabend Mala Sonnabend, 74260, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Olga Wachtel Olga Wachtel, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Susan Susan Rosza, A/B20770, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Ruth Widder Ruth Widder, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Margaret Margaret, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Naftal Naftal Sieff, 132852, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Eddie Eddie Jaku, 72338, Andrew Harris, 2011, From the collection of: Sydney Jewish Museum
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Credits: Story

In 2011, Sydney Jewish Museum curators commissioned Andrew Harris to document some of Sydney’s Holocaust survivors with tattoos. Photographs were taken of Eddie Jaku, Margaret Odze, Naftal Sieff, Susan Rosza, Mala Sonnabend, Olga Wachtel, Lotte Weiss and Ruth Widder – depicted going about their lives, living with their painful memories, and bearing the Auschwitz tattoo on their forearms. 

Photography: Andrew Harris
Historian: Prof Konrad Kwiet
Curators: Roslyn Sugarman and Erin Ramsay

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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