“Häftling [prisoner]: I have learnt that I am Häftling. My number is 174517; we have been baptized, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die.
The operation was slightly painful and extraordinarily rapid; they placed us all in a row, and one by one, according to the alphabetical order of our names, we filed past a skillful official armed with a sort of pointed tool with a very short needle. It seems that this is the real, true initiation: only by “showing one’s number” can one get bread and soup. Several days passed, and not a few cuffs and punches, before we became used to showing our number promptly enough not to disorder the daily operation of food-distribution; weeks and months were needed to learn its sound in the German language. And for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, a number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin”.
(Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz. 1959 )
In these powerful words, Primo Levi, one of the most famous of Auschwitz’s ‘Häftlings’, describes the humiliating experience of exchanging one’s personal identity for a serial number – just one of the series of dehumanizing acts Nazi officials carried out on the deportees upon their arrival to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concertation camp. Requiring use on a daily basis to satisfy the most basic needs, the Number Tattoo, as Levi explains, always brought with it the accompanying gesture of “showing one’s number”. Underlining the experience of life in the camp, this coupling – the serial number and its accompanying performative gesture – moved the Soviet liberating forces so that they took care to record it on film and in drawings almost as soon as Auschwitz was liberated. To raise awareness of the magnitude of the horrors they unveiled, the Red Army soldiers decided to focus specifically on revealing the stigmatised body of the (Jewish) child survivor. Thanks to its symbolic meaning and material visibility, the Number Tattoo has established itself in the post-war years as an emblematic image of the Auschwitz survivor, even of Auschwitz as a whole. Operating in this manner in a post-Holocaust era, with the circulation of the Soviet footage in post-war popular culture, the Number Tattoo has become a migrating image used and re-used by artists and filmmakers world-wide, thereby functioning as a visual model for depicting atrocities, both in explicit reference to the Holocaust and in other contexts. As a result, a network of connections has been, and continues to be, forged between the various manifestations of this migrating image, although each artist using the image naturally gives it a unique expression.
In this section we would like to draw your attention to media specificity; that is, the appearance of the Number Tattoo in various media environments. You are invited to reflect on the role media has played in the migration process of the Number Tattoo; does the choice of a specific medium also impact the manner in which the Number Tattoo is utilised? Is it possible to identify trends in visual manifestations that are unique to a specific medium?
MEDIA: Documentary Film
The Number Tattoo sequence from Auschwitz and other depictions of number tattoos were first used in compilation films that presented the atrocities discovered by Allied troops in German concentration camps as evidence in court. An example was the Soviet film Kinodokumenty o zverstvakh nemetsko-fashistskikh zakhvatchikov shown at the Nuremberg Trials, a one-hour film produced by the Soviet prosecution team screened in the courtroom on 19 February 1946. Other early postar films, such as Die Todesmühlen, integrated the sequence into a narrative of exposing the Nazi crimes to the German and international public.
Over the decades many documentary films used and appropriated the motive of the Number Tattoo. The constant reuse of the sequence with the liberated children from Auschwitz turned this scene into an iconic image of the Holocaust that was attributed first to Auschwitz and Auschwitz survivors and later to the trauma of the Holocaust in general. Only a few films tried to properly contextualise the sequence and mark it as liberation footage recorded by Soviet camera men after the liberation of Auschwitz. Not all documentaries, however, used the three consecutive shots showing the children and the close-up of the Number Tattoo. Some only appropriated two of the three shots or focused solely on the most recognizable - but less contextualising - closed-up shot.
Turning it into a visual mark of survival, some documentary films shifted from the actual use of the historical footage from Auschwitz or other liberated camps to depictions of tattooed numbers of survivors. An early depiction can be found in Chronique d’un été (France 1961), in which the camera suddenly reveals the tattoo on the arm of the young Auschwitz survivor Marceline Loridan during a conversation with students from African countries. The canonical documentary Genoice (USA 1981) even used the motive of the tattooed forearm as an eye-catching symbol in its opening credits. The Israeli documentary Numbered (2012) solely focused on the Number Tattoo and features several artistic black-and-white depictions of the numbers of Auschwitz survivors.
MEDIA: Fiction Film
Fiction films about the history and memory of the Shoah often use the image of the Number Tattoo as evidence symbolising the dehumanisation process imposed by the National-Socialists on their Jewish victims and marking the aftermath of the trauma of persecution. Some films even included the actual historical footage into their narrative; in most of these cases the sequence with the liberated children from Auschwitz is presented as a mise en abyme, a film-within-a-film projecting the evidence from the camps. Such is the case in Judgement at Nuremberg (USA 1961) when the US-american judge and the German defendant can be seen witnessing the atrocities projected on the wall of the court-room that had transformed into a cinema, or in a similar scene from Rat der Götter (GDR 1950), in which the courtroom evolves from the close up of the indictment and then transforms into a cinema hall that presents the visual evidence from the camps including the sequence with the Number Tattoo.
Most cinematic dramatisations however refer to the iconic image of the Number Tattoo by imitating the specific depiction of the tattooed forearm in close up, as can be seen for instance in Labyrinth the Schweigens (Germany 2014), in which the close-up evokes the trauma of survival, or in the opening sequence of the movie X-Men (USA 2001), which refers to it as an iconic sign indicating the personal background of one of the film’s protagonists, the mutant Magneto, as a survivor. Symbolising “the” survivor, the number can also become a misleading mark, for instance in the film Remember (USA 2015) that reflects the ambivalences of guilt and memory.
As a universal icon, the Number Tattoo also migrated into different narrative and historical contexts. It turned into a comprehensive reference indicating processes of dehumanisation, persecution and abuse for instance in the science-fiction movie The Terminator (USA 1984) or in the TV-series Stranger Things (USA 2016).
Various artists work with the Number Tattoo, each of them engaging with its visual legacy in different contexts and through different media. Over the years, several famous artists have appropriated the Number Tattoo for their photographs, paintings, sculptures, videos, installations, and even performances. Some have used the image in a more proactive manner than others (one is invited to reflect here on Artur Żmijewski’s iconic piece 80064 from 2004, or Claire-Fontaine’s 126419 from 2008). The examples presented in this section are a representative sample of various, sometimes surprising, visual manifestations and uses of the Number Tattoo in artworks created over the years.
Within art, the Number Tattoo sometimes undergoes fragmentation and reassembly. Some artists visually explore the gesture of the hand revealing the tattoo, while others focus on the number itself; a few artists draw upon personal memories and postmemories, while others ponder the collective meaning attributed to this well-known Holocaust icon. Occasionally, the viewer is offered a multi-layered meaning that goes beyond the historic event. However it is used, the aesthetics of the Number Tattoo present an invitation to consider how form complements content (and context), and how images supplement memories.
MEDIA: Graphic Novels
Since the publication of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus - A Survivor’s Tale (1980-1991) comics are increasingly acknowledged as acceptable media of commemorating the history of the Shoah, especially in its personalised and (semi-)biographical form. With his book that tells the story of his father, an Auschwitz survivor, depicted as a series of episodes, in which Jews are presented as Mice and Germans as cats, Spiegelman also introduced an approach to the (visual) history of the Shoah that is based on the imitation and transformation of historical images and their adaptation to graphic illustrations. The Number Tattoo, however, is referenced by Spiegelman as a specifically corporal sign that indicates his father as a survivor, a symbol Spiegelman uses several times in contrasting ways. Similarly, Michel Kichka evokes the Number Tattoo in his graphic depiction of the story of his father in the book Deuxième génération (2012). For Kichka it is a mysterious sign that attracts the attention of his younger self.
The Number Tattoo became the expression of the authoritative voice of the survivor. This explains why the graphic novel Primo Levi (2017) opens with this motif. In this case, however, the number also serves as evidence of the process of humiliation and dehumanisation in the camps. Many graphic novels refer to this by recreating the actual moment of engraving the number in the forearms of the incoming prisoners.
Being significantly based on a sequential narration of segments that frame compositional patterns, graphic illustrations can also implicitly evoke the reference to the Number Tattoo as a migrating image. That is the case in the book Palestine (1993) that imitates the close up of a wounded forearm that resonates with the iconic footage of the liberated children in Auschwitz.