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The Jews, the Armenians, and the Herero: genocides and tattoos

The survivors of genocides are permanently marked, not only through the psychological scars of lifelong trauma but also through physical symbols that perpetrators put onto their victims’ bodies.

Some of the 600 children who had survived the Auschwitz II-Birkenau showing their tattooed identification numbers.
Some of the 600 children who had survived the Auschwitz II-Birkenau showing their tattooed identification numbers.
Picture taken from a Soviet documentary on the liberation of Auschwitz 1945

Unimaginable atrocities occur during a genocide, yet the terrors do not end when the fighting ends. The survivors are permanently marked, not only through the psychological scars of lifelong trauma but also through physical symbols that perpetrators put onto their victims’ bodies.

German troops attempted to annihilate indigenous populations in the place known today as Namibia. They almost succeeded. When the extermination order was finally lifted in December 1904, it was replaced by orders to use surviving Herero as forced labor and to brand them on their arms with “GH” for “Gefangene Herero,” or “Herero prisoner.” The sight of that tattoo meant that a victim would never be free from the violence of the captors and of their own identity as a prisoner.

A decade later, Germany was an ally of the Ottoman Empire, today’s Turkey. The Ottoman rulers carried out an exterminatory campaign against the Armenians, killing more than 1.5 million men, women, and children.

In this genocide, too, perpetrators marked their victims. Thousands of Armenian women were kidnapped from their families and taken into forced marriages or sexual slavery. They were branded by their “owners” with extensive symbols on their faces, throats, and hands – parts of their bodies that were always visible. These symbols designated the women as property, as less than human, and each successive owner put his mark on the women.

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After the end of World War I and the Armenian genocide, missionaries and various organizations helped Armenian women and children escape from their captors. People like Karen Yeppe, a Danish missionary, risked grave danger as she rescued nearly 2,000 Armenian women from captivity, helping these women move forward with their lives.

Most of the tattooed Armenian women were outcasts, viewed as used and worthless, and many lived in shame and isolation for the rest of their lives, their stories seldom told, their experiences seldom honored.

Armenian woman, tattooed in captivity, circa 1920s.
Wikimedia Commons
Armenian woman, tattooed in captivity, circa 1920s.
When I was a little girl, my mother had a friend, Pat, who had a rather unusual appearance. She had beautiful long hair that she wore in a braid coiled on top of her head. When the braid was down, it came to her knees. She also had numbers inked on the inside of her left arm.

When I was older, I learned that Pat had been in Auschwitz, where prisoners’ heads were shaved when they arrived. Pat had vowed never to cut her hair if she survived.

At Auschwitz, numbers were tattooed on prisoners’ arms when they arrived. It was the only concentration camp, out of the 42,000 places of terror used for slave labor, detention, and extermination, where permanent numbers were inked into prisoners’ skin.

It was hard for orderly and meticulous Germans to keep track of the millions of people they were imprisoning and murdering. Prisoners were originally given numbers that were sewn onto their clothes, but when the prisoners died and the clothes were given to the next doomed soul, how could the guards know which prisoners had perished? The answer was to have a permanent number on the naked body, and so prisoners were tattooed with numbers and symbols.

Tattooing started in the fall of 1941. Auschwitz administrators marked Soviet POWs with numbers on the left side of the prisoner’s chest. By spring 1942, all incoming prisoners were tattooed on the left forearm, with some exceptions for German and Austrian prisoners and members of a few other groups.

The time and energy to ink the prisoners wasn’t wasted on Jews who were designated immediately for the gas chambers, only for those who were going to be enslaved as laborers before being exterminated.

The tattoos were permanent. For the survivors, they were daily reminders of the atrocities they endured and of global silence in the face of the atrocities. The Auschwitz survivors, the Herero prisoners, and the Armenian women carried the marks of their dehumanization throughout their entire lives.

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But for some people, the tattoos have become symbols of defiance, memorialization, and honor.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
My friend Mark is the grandson of four Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Ecuador among a small community of Jews who fled from Europe after the Holocaust. He said that the Auschwitz survivors always wear short sleeves so that their numbers will forever be visible, a reminder of a time that the world did nothing.

Soon there will be no Holocaust survivors remaining among us. But the grandchildren of some tattooed elders are getting tattooed with their grandparents’ Auschwitz numbers.

The marks from Auschwitz will outlive the survivors. The marks will be a small yet visible sign of resistance and endurance.

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World Without Genocide is hosting a public webinar on Tuesday, May 11, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. CDT, “The Armenian Genocide Then and the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh Conflict Today.” Registration is required by May 10 at www.worldwithoutgenocide.org/aermenia $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, $25 2 CLE Elimination of Bias credits for Minnesota lawyers. Continuing education certificates for teachers, social workers, and nurses.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

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