A few weeks ago, I saw a picture in the NYTimes of a young Israeli guy with a concentration camp tattoo. I can’t get it out of my mind. If you’ve never seen the concentration camp tattoo, you have been living under a rock for sixty years or you were just born. For those: it’s a long list of numbers that the Nazis used to keep track of camp inmates. The list of numbers is not simply in numerical order: it’s a code, classifying the bearer.
Records from IBM, which generated the numbers for the Nazis and also helped them track Jews and other enemies with formidable speed for the time, show that part of the number can be decoded as follows:
Political Prisoner – 1 Bible Researcher (aka Jehovah’s Witness) – 2 Homosexual – 3 Dishonorable Military Discharge – 4 Clergy – 5 Communist Spaniard – 6 Foreign Civilian Worker – 7 Jew – 8 Asocial – 9 Habitual Criminal – 10 Major Felons – 11 Gypsy – 12 Prisoner of War – 13 Covert Prisoner – 14 Hard Labor Detainee – 15 Diplomatic Consul – 16.
We are now reaching an age when there are a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, which means there is a panic about forgetting. One way to remember is getting these tattoos. Yet it seems slightly morbid to get one, like asking for a death sentence, if only figuratively. Plus tattoos are painful and permanent, so I’m kind of against them in general. Still, it is a moving statement to the older generation, who are mostly moved by the gesture of the grandchildren. In any case, the tattoos are quite noticeable, especially since bearers often like to flaunt them by rolling up their sleeves. So in a sense, the tattoo continues to serve its initial purpose: to identify. Not sure about that…