Holocaust hipsterism

Livia Ravek was branded with the number 4559. Now her grandson, Daniel Philosoph, has the same tattoo. At right, three men who stood in the same line in Auschwitz have nearly consecutive numbers. Uriel Sinai for the NY Times

 I feel disgust at pavement-hipsters – those bright young things who sit outside cafes with their floppy hats and their cigarettes – who just casually display their Meaningful Hummingbird on their left forearm or their Mexican Skull of Cultural Misappropriation at the nape of their neck.

This is ink-exhibitionism.

I’m sure each and every one of them has personal significance to their skin-owner but you can just feel the level of gravitas, or lack thereof, etched into each tattoo.

For example, you wouldn’t contribute Koby Abberton’s ‘My Brother’s Keeper’, which is carved across half of his back, to him trying to be ‘hip’. You might say that it’s a paving stone in the testosterone-fuelled violence that makes up much of our beach culture, but I doubt Abberton is looking for Surry Hills street cred.

On the far end of the flippant-grave tattoo continuum are, of course, Holocaust serial numbers.

Holocaust tattoos, the practice of which originated in Auschwitz, are a symbol of the utter brutality of the camps and the comprehensive attempts made by the Nazis at dehumanisation.

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 intention was to work through the entire alphabet with 20,000 numbers being issued in each letter series.

Stop reading for a moment and go back over that last sentence.

20,000 numbers means 20,000 humans. Multiply that by each letter in the alphabet. That’s 520,000 human beings. It’s a diabolical number and yet only a minute fraction of the casualities of this genocide.

My grandmother was lucky enough to never end up in a camp and yet she was still a Holocaust survivor. All the details that made her real – her wide hips, wiry hair, and cramped handwriting – would have existed for every single one of these ‘numbers’. Multiply these human-details – bad teeth, curved spines, generosity, greed – by 520,000 and consider the implications of replacing names with tattoos.

While it cannot be determined with absolute certainty, it seems that tattooing was implemented at Auschwitz mainly for ease of identification whether in the case of death or escape.

It is generally accepted that the tattooing of prisoners began with the influx of Soviet prisoners of war 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 prisoners of war 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. 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 prisoners of war had their Identification numbers written on their chests with indelible ink, but this wore off too quickly.Thus tattooing of most Soviet prisoners of war was eventually implemented.


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.

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 as Jews.

By spring of 1943 most of the prisoners were being tattooed, even those who had been registered previously. This practice continued until the last days of Auschwitz.” (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/tattoos1.html)

This difference in the flippant-grave tattoo continuum may very simply be boiled down to choice. Holocaust victims were branded against their will, whereas the majority of humans who decide to be permanently inked do it voluntarily, often with little actual thought given to the freedom with which they may conduct this act. They decide that something is of such significance to them that they want to have a permanent memento of it, close at hand. And so they got into a shop and pay somebody to needle it into their body.

In recent times, some descendants of Holocaust survivors have had their concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms as a memorial of the event.

I came across this fascinating NY Times article on this phenomenon. Jodi Ruderon begins with the following grab:

“JERUSALEM — When Eli Sagir showed her grandfather, Yosef Diamant, the new tattoo on her left forearm, he bent his head to kiss it.

Mr. Diamant had the same tattoo, the number 157622, permanently inked on his own arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Nearly 70 years later, Ms. Sagir got hers at a hip tattoo parlor downtown after a high school trip to Poland. The next week, her mother and brother also had the six digits inscribed onto their forearms. This month, her uncle followed suit.”

Not only is an Auschwitz tattoo a symbol of what many ascribe to be the peak of human brutality but it is also a testament to the resilience of those that bear them. And now, it is an attempt by some to pay tribute to the horror suffered by their relatives, as well as provoke discussion about the event, which many are worried will be forgotten as this generation dies.

But what right do you have to turn yourself into a living Holocaust memorial? Is this just a fetishisation of genocide? Or is it a powerful appropriation of our fetishisation of youth, of the ‘coolness’ of getting inked and the wantoness with which we do it?

I am currently struggling with this debate on a very personal level. I would like to pay tribute to my grandmother, Truda, and her sheer will to survive as a 17-year-old girl in Vienna in 1938, from where she escaped, alone, to London and lived as an Enemy Alien for seven years before meeting my grandfather. She was one of the lucky ones but she also never escaped that veil of fear – for the rest of her life the most important thing to her was the security of her family and their survival, exhibited on more than one occasion by her refusal to return to Europe and the possibility of being exposed to such destruction again.

I want to get her name inked above my top right rib. But am I paying tribute to her memory or reducing it? She was not in Auschwitz, but then I’m not getting a serial number tattooed. But the echoes of this symbolism will be blatant for anyone to whom I try to explain it. But then I am getting it in a place that noone will see, thus avoiding the casual hipsterism of exhibitionist tattoos. I guess it comes down to whether I want it to be a public memorial of her experience or a private reminder as to what she went through.

This comment in the NY Times article struck a particularly heavy chord with me:

It is certainly an intensely personal decision that often provokes ugly interactions with strangers offended by the reappropriation of perhaps the most profound symbol of the Holocaust’s dehumanization of its victims. The fact that tattooing is prohibited by Jewish law — some survivors long feared, incorrectly, that their numbers would bar them from being buried in Jewish cemeteries — makes the phenomenon more unsettling to some, which may be part of the point.” 

I think about this every time I walk past those bright young things and wave their Malboro smoke out of my face.

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