A new Israeli documentary, Numbered, tells the story of Holocaust victims and the numbers that were branded on their bodies at concentration camps, as young Jews have been choosing to get these same numbers tattooed on themselves.
Tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and at the adjacent Birkenau the next March. They were the only camps to employ the practice, and it is unclear how many people were branded. Only those deemed fit for work were tattooed, so despite the degradation, the numbers were in some cases worn with pride, particularly lower ones, which indicated having survived several brutal winters in the camp.
After the war, some Auschwitz survivors rushed to remove the tattoos through surgery or hid them under long sleeves. But over the decades, others played their numbers in the lottery or used them as passwords. With the number of survivors having dropped to about 200,000, from around 400,000 a decade ago, meaning around 55 survivors are dying a day, institutions and individuals have been striving to find ways to mark the event as it passes from lived memory to historical memory.
This way is controversial with some, as it reappropriates perhaps the most profound symbol of the Holocaust’s dehumanisation, and also because tattooing is prohibited by orthodox Jewish law.
Dana Doron, a 31-year-old doctor and daughter of a survivor, interviewed about 50 tattooed survivors for the documentary, which will make its premiere in the United States next month at the Chicago International Film Festival.