What Was a Day in the Life of a Prisoner Like?

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What was a Day in the Life of a Prisoner Like?
The Holocaust, the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, depicts a series of tragic events. One may ask how was each prisoner treated upon arrival? The horrors that come to mind are endless, and the pain each prisoner must have gone through is undeniably brutal. Men, women and children of ages that varied were taken away from their homes, stripped of their belongings and separated from their loved ones. Each prisoner was identified, not by their birth names, but by serial numbers tattooed onto their body. Each prisoner’s head was shaved. Each prisoner was given clothes off of corpses. Each prisoner went through the unspeakable. Night, a memoir by Elie Wiesel, contributes a great deal to the horrifying event in history. Elie Wiesel, a fifteen year old boy at the time, endured first hand the tragedies that many other Jews, along with Gypsies, the disabled, Poles, Russians, communists, socialists, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals and others faced.

In the afternoon, they made us line up. Three prisoners brought a table and some medical instruments. We were told to roll up our left sleeves and file past the table. The three “veteran” prisoners, needles in hand, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name. (Wiesel 42)

During the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at one location, the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941. As thousands of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) arrived at the camp, and thousands rapidly died there, the SS authorities began to tattoo the prisoners for identification purposes. At Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the SS staff introduced the practice of tattooing in March 1942 to keep up with the identification of large numbers of prisoners who arrived sickened, and died quickly. The numbering scheme was divided into "regular," AU, Z, EH, A, and B series'. The "regular" series consisted of a consecutive numerical series that was used, in the early phase of the Auschwitz concentration camp, to identify Poles, Jews, and most other prisoners (all male). For many, the blurred blue lines of a serial number on a forearm are an indelible image of the Holocaust. The tattoos of the survivors have come to symbolize the utter brutality and of the concentration camps and the attempt of the Nazis to dehumanize their victims.

Only those prisoners selected for work were issued serial numbers; those prisoners sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered and received no tattoos. Initially, the SS authorities marked prisoners who were in the infirmary or who were to be executed with their camp serial number across the chest with indelible ink. As prisoners were executed or died in other ways, their clothing bearing the camp serial number was removed. Given the mortality rate at the camp and practice of removing clothing, there was no way to identify the bodies after the clothing was removed. Hence, the SS authorities introduced the practice of tattooing in order to identify the bodies of registered prisoners who had died. Originally, a special metal stamp, holding interchangeable numbers made up of needles approximately one centimeter long was used. This allowed the whole serial number to be punched at one blow onto the prisoner's left upper chest. Ink was then rubbed into the bleeding wound. When the metal stamp method proved impractical, a single-needle device was introduced, which pierced the outlines of the serial-number digits onto the skin. The site of the tattoo was changed to the outer side of the left forearm. However, prisoners from several transports in 1943 had their numbers tattooed on the inner side of their left upper forearms. Tattooing was generally performed during registration when each prisoner was assigned a...
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