Tattoos in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Characteristic tattoos, consisting of a sequence of numbers which replaced the prisoners’ personal details from the moment of their arrival, reducing them to the status of a mere number, were elements inherently associated with the concentration camps. It was the first step in the dehumanisation process that was planned for the prisoners.

Although it is widely believed that the tattooing of prisoners was a practice employed in every Nazi camp, that is not actually the case. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the only concentration camp where the prisoners were tattooed with numbers. It is possible that the widespread misconception may have resulted from the fact that tattooed prisoners were found in many camps after liberation. However, it is likely that these people had either been detained in Auschwitz earlier and later been transferred, or they had taken part in the death marches.

Identification of Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners

When the camp was first established, the prisoners’ identification numbers were not tattooed on them but sewn into their prison uniforms. Besides numbers, the camp authorities also used symbols, shapes or letters to denote a prisoner’s status, sexual orientation, nationality or religion.

  • A red triangle was used to mark political prisoners. These were primarily Polish, but later included other nationalities and ethnic groups, including Jews. Besides allegations of carrying out underground work or being a member of an illegal organisation, a person could become a political prisoner simply by virtue of singing a patriotic song, opposing a German manager at their workplace, having contact with German women, publicly questioning Germany’s ultimate victory, being outside after curfew, being detained during a round-up (when random people were arrested on the street) or being a member of the so-called intelligentsia. With such a wide range of possible pretexts under which people could be imprisoned, it is hardly surprising that in August 1944 political prisoners made up 95% (with 65% being Jewish) of all camp inmates.
  • A green triangle was allocated to criminal prisoners. Usually Germans who had been arrested for committing a crime of some sort, these were often recidivists – so-called professional criminals. In reality, these German criminals were not used to hard physical work, and even those not useful technically were assigned to the work details (kommandos) as kapos, or prisoner functionaries. In return for supervising the work details, they were granted numerous privileges. Often extremely brutal, kapos could freely discipline their fellow inmates, often beating them or killing them with impunity. In the summer of 1944, there were 1,372 Germans in Auschwitz marked with a green triangle, and many of them later volunteered to join the Waffen SS.
  • Asocial prisoners were tagged with a black triangle. These were people who had been deported to the camp by the police authorities. The term ‘asocial prisoner’ was used to classify people engaged in prostitution, vagrancy, alcoholism, and many other types of behaviour considered undesirable; the term was very broad. The Nazis also considered Roma people imprisoned in the Gypsy camp in Birkenau as asocial prisoners. They initially wore black armbands, which were later changed to brown.
  • A violet triangle indicated Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were considered enemies of the Third Reich on account of their pacifist views.
  • German and Austrian homosexuals wore pink triangles. They did not comprise a large group in Auschwitz as most of them had already been deported to other camps before the war. They were imprisoned mostly in Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg.

Jews were given double markings. Since they were usually registered as political prisoners, they were given red triangles, but a yellow triangle was then added to that, sewn upside down so that the two patches formed the Star of David. In the second half of 1944, the yellow triangle was replaced by a yellow strip above the red triangle. These markings continued to be used even after the introduction of tattoos as the method for keeping prisoner records.

The beginnings of tattooing

Tattooing started in the autumn of 1941 when Soviet POWs began to arrive at the camp. They were initially marked by having the letters SU (Sowjetunion) painted on the back of their uniforms and a standard patch with a number added. Problems began, however, when they started to die
en masse and their uniforms were taken by other prisoners, who often decided to try to run away, which usually ended with them being shot dead. This led to a huge mess in the records. The Nazis decided to remedy this by placing a tattoo on the prisoner’s skin, initially on the left side of the chest. The tattooing was performed using a metal stamp with interchangeable plates fitted with needles forming separate numbers. This made it possible to impress the entire number in one go, with the resulting wound then being rubbed with indelible ink. In March 1942, Polish prisoners of war who had been transferred from Auschwitz I to Birkenau started to be marked in this way. The Jewish men who arrived in the first transports were also similarly marked.

In the spring of 1942, the Nazis started to put the tattoos on the prisoners’ left forearms. The tattooing method also changed – needles mounted on a wooden handle started to be used, with the numbers created by piercing successive points.

This method was used mostly on Jews, but at the beginning of 1943 non –Jewish prisoners also started to have numbers tattooed. This practice was extended in the spring of 1943 to also include prisoners of non-Jewish origin – both newcomers and those already registered. Although sometimes prisoners were not tattooed, this only applied to a very limited number of prisoners who were later sent to camps for Germans and Austrians, as well as re-education prisoners – those whose detention in the camp was intended for re-educational purposes. Inmates classified as such were usually serving a sentence for breaking employment or discipline regulations in Nazi-administered workplaces. They were mostly convicted for around 6 to 8 weeks, but in reality had to stay much longer – or would sometimes never go free.

Other exceptions to the tattooing were the Polish prisoners who arrived in the summer of 1944 – captives from the Warsaw Uprising – and also Jews held in transit at Auschwitz while they were waiting to be sent to other camps in the Third Reich. The last category of untattooed prisoners were police prisoners (Block 11), namely people that were in Auschwitz awaiting a court verdict – which was usually death by shooting. It’s important to note that numbers were only given to those people able to work. Those who were assigned to die in the gas chambers were not tattooed. In total, over 400,000 prisoners were registered during the years that Auschwitz –Birkenau was in operation.

Summer is the perfect time not only to visit the region’s historical cities, but also to enjoy some of the surrounding countryside. Małopolska is filled with so many beautiful places that it would be a real shame to miss them! Chochołowska Valley, located in the Tatra Mountains, is an ideal destination for a one-day trip from Krakow.