TRANSFORMED INTO A NUMBER
My brother and I were ordered to stand to one side. We could not see Mother, who had been consigned to the women s group. In spite of being separated from our parents, we were not as yet overcome with fear. Dazed and confused, we did not guess that the separation was final. We were made to run from one place to the next, but being amongst our own townsfolk, we did not feel utterly alone.
As I have related, those sent to the opposite side were loaded on trucks and hauled away, we knew not where. Those of us who remained were marched on foot to the camp. It was all done very rapidly, and this haste dulled our senses.
The following day, we were rushed through the intake process. We were ordered to strip naked - in the bitter cold of a Polish winter - and hand over our documents, any valuables in our possession and everything else we had brought from the ghetto. The men were permitted to retain a handkerchief and a belt. All the rest was bundled up in paper bags and taken to the central stores. Neediness to say, no receipt was given, not even for money, gold, watches or jewelry.
Each of us was then given a card with his serial number and sent to the camp barber to have all his body hair sheared off. It was a disagreeable process, performed in great haste with instruments blunted from over-use. The shaven parts were smeared with disinfectant.
Naked and shorn bare, we were made to run to the showers, where we got the first chance to quench our thirst after the long train journey. The sweaty overcrowding we had endured made us all look forward to this hygienic ritual, but it was rendered deliberately unpleasant, the water being either boiling or ice-cold. Anyone attempting to wriggle away was beaten and forced back under the jets of water.
After the shower, we were issued with striped prisoners' uniforms. To this end, we were required to go to a hut at a distance from the shower and endure a long wait in the unheated structure, in the chilling temperatures of a Polish February; throughout, we suffered curses and beatings whenever we were tardy in obeying orders issued in German - a language unfamiliar to many of us.
Most of the uniforms were too large or too small; in addition, they were tattered and filthy - from use by previous inmates, though we were unaware of this at the time. The uniform was to serve us day and night, summer and winter, within the camp and at work outside, in the fields or in the streets of Auschwitz. A few received striped jackets. Anyone who managed to retain warm undergarments did not suffer from the cold; the rest shivered constantly. With shaven heads and ill-fitting clothing, we were scarcely recognizable.
As the Germans did not have sufficient shoes for all, most of the prisoners received wooden clogs, which made walking difficult, particularly in winter when the camp streets were wet or slippery with ice. Fortunately for my brother and myself, the camp clothing store had run out of shoes by the time our turn carne, and we were accordingly permitted to wear our own, where Mother had concealed a hoard of dollars before our departure from the ghetto.
Immediately after being issued with clothing, we began the registration process, which included completion of a form with personal particulars. This was the task of "political clerks", inmates who, between them, were familiar with every European language. The forms were deposited with the camp's political] department, where they would serve as the basis for all records and reports throughout the prisoner's sojourn. Finally, the prisoner's inner left forearm was tattooed with his serial number, which was to substitute for his name throughout his time in the concentration camp. The number was also inscribes on triangular cloth patches which he was required to sew to his striped uniform, in precisely specified positions: at the height of the heart on the left side of shirt or jacket, and on the outer seam of the right trouser leg.
The color of this patch signalized the prisoner's status: a red triangle singled out a political prisoner (up to 1944, red triangles generally designated persons arrested for anti-Nazi activity, such as Communists and members of various underground organizations; after 1944, they were also issued to individuals not suspected of anti-Nazi activity). A purple triangle marked its owner as a "teacher of scripture" (a clergyman, e.g., a Jehovah's Witness, a rabbi or priest). A black triangle with a yellow stripe was for antisocial detainees. A green triangle with a yellow stripe denoted hardened criminals. A pink patch with yellow stripe was for homosexuals.
Auschwitz was the only concentration camp where serial numbers were tattooed on prisoners' arms. The reason for the measure was the high death-rate, sometimes running into hundreds a day. The corpses being stripped of their numbered uniforms, deaths on so large a scale hindered identification.
In the camp hospital, where deaths were rife, it was customary to inscribe a patient's serial number on his chest in indelible ink. The corpses were laid outside the blocks with left arm extended, for rapid identification of the tattooed serial number.
Tattooing commenced in Auschwitz in the fall of 1941, when the Germans instituted wholesale extermination of Soviet war prisoners. The tattoo was inscribed by means of a metal stamp, whose adjustable numbers consisted of needles approximately a half inch in length. The stamp was applied to the upper left chest, the needle punctures then being smeared with indelible dye. This technique caused weakness and giddiness, making it necessary to prop the prisoners against a wall, to prevent them from collapsing. In March 1942, the Germans began tattooing similar serial numbers on civilian prisoners brought to Birkenau. Finding the metal stamp inefficient, they began etching numbers with a single needle, each numeral being tattooed separately. This highly painful method was employed on Jewish prisoners brought to Birkenau from 1942 onwards. I was tattooed with such a needle. The only inmates not tattooed with serial numbers were Germans and prisoners brought to the camp for "re-education".
Numbers in Auschwitz ran in series. The first series was reserved for male prisoners; from May 1940 to January 1945, it ran up to 202,499. Up to mid-May 1944, Jewish prisoners were included in this numbering. In October 1941. a new series was initiated, running till 1944 and including 12,000 Soviet war prisoners (some of the latter were put to death without being given a number).
In January 1942, a separate series of numbers was instituted for prisoners brought to the camp for "re-education"; these had hitherto received numbers from the general series reserved for male inmates. This series included numerous prisoners who died or were released. All in all, about 100,000 prisoners were listed for "re-education". Women in this category - about 2,000 in al] - were given separate numbers, commencing with 1.
On March 26, 1942, the first women prisoners brought to Auschwitz were given numbers from a new series, which would ultimately number 90,000. Up to May 1944, it included Jewish women.
Commencing in February 1943 (coinciding with our arrival in the camp), gypsy prisoners were also shipped in. Up to August 1944, they were numbered in two series: the men's series ran to 10,094, the women's series to 10,873.
The S.S. having destroyed all documentation shortly before the camp was closed down. the precise number of prisoners included in each series cannot be gauged. The overall figure is estimated to have been over 400,000 persons.
The serial number issued to each prisoner aided the S.S. authorities in keeping their files. The numbers tattooed on inmates' forearms were designed to help in identifying the corpses of prisoners who died or were executed, and of those caught in escape attempts.
A prisoner's serial number reflected the length of his sojourn in the camp. It goes without saying that, with the passage of time, there was a progressive thinning in the ranks of surviving inmates bearing the numbers issued in the camp's early years. The Germans tended to send the long-term inmates to extermination, but this was offset by the fact that most of the veterans had learned how to get by, or discharged tasks useful to their German supervisors. As a rule, they were treated with respect by their fellow prisoners, who called them 'Prominenten'.
As well as serial numbers, some prisoners bore additional tattooed identification. The Jews, for example, were marked with a triangle, while gypsies were given the additional letter "Z" ('Zigeuner', German for gypsy). Commencing May 1944, Jews were marked with the letters "A" or "B".
Of our transport, the men received the numbers 99211 to 99504, and the women - 33928 to 34023. I was given the number 99288. My brother got the number 99287.