A Question about the Holocaust and Concentration Camps

Somebody just asked me a very good question that I didn’t know the answer to. At what point were the Jewish prisoners tattooed? Did it happen as they boarded the trains to the Concentration Camps, or did it happen upon their arrival?

Also, how was the tattooing done? Six million + people would have been a great deal of people to do the numbering by hand one at a time, IMHO.

Every source I’ve encountered–mostly fiction–shows the tattooing happening as they enter the camp. Those who were immediately killed were probably not numbered. And I believe they had other prisoners tattoo the newcomers. I don’t know, however, if every concentration camp tattooed their prisoners.

I think I have an indirect answer.

My Grandfather was a combat medic with the 45th Infantry during WW2. They were the first unit into Dachau, which was a work camp and not an elimination camp such as Auswitcz.

Skip forward to the 1980’s. I was an inquisitive young man and always loved talking with my Grandfather about his experiences in the war. I would also go with him, when I was not in school, to help him with his favorite passtime, raising and racing thoroughbread horses.

Before a horse can race he must be tatooed on the inside of his upper lip (owie!)by a race official. It is done at the track on the day of the horses 1st race. This tatto is used to identify the horse from that time on for the sake of preventing fraud. I saw this done many times. They have stamps which are essentially needles aranged together very closely but in the shape of a number. they would dip the needles in ink, hold the horse’s lip up and tap it with a hammer into his flesh. I know this sounds very inhumane, and I guess it was. They would repeat this process until a “serial” number was tatooed on the horses lip.

I do remember my Grandfather saying once that he saw similar implements in Dachau. I can only assume that they were used for essentially the same thing. This is not the prettiest of tattoos, but I don’t think they were going for asthetic beauty. So from this, I would deduct that the tattoing was done after arrival in the camp.

If memory serves me correct, only people going to work camps were tattooed. They did not waste energy or time tattoing people who were being eliminated, so this would cut down on the number needing tattoing significantly.

Tattooing was not only done to Jews. The SS troops were also tattooed, though I don’t know about Wehrmacht soldiers. I believe it was done to other ethnic civilian slaves as well.

From the autobiographies of Holocaust survivors that I’ve read, people were tattooed once they’d gotten to the camps. This was also after the sorting for who would live (at least a little while) and who was being killed immediately. There was then whole processing for those who weren’t being killed immediately, during which people were tattoeed - there were also delousing showers, shaving to get hair for Nazi upholstery, getting clothes and shoes, etc.

Here’s an article that talks about tattooing in Auschwitz (the only camp “in which prisoners were systematically tattooed during the Holocaust” – other camps were not so systematic). The article describes the process:

Apparently, the system started with Soviet prisoners-of-war.

And just to clarify, tattooing was initially done on the chest and later moved to the forearm.

Also, children weren’t always tattooed.

My friend’s dad is a survivor. When he was about 8, his whole village disappeared (he wasn’t there that day). When he was captured, he was taken to a succession of camps. Neither he nor the other children with him were ever tattooed. Maybe the idea was that they weren’t meant to survive, so there was no need.

He had been unable to speak of it to his family until about 2 years ago. He will not become involved with other survivors and barely mentions it.


newcrasher, a similar tatooing is done with AKC show dogs, also to prevent fraud. Our only Newf to make champion had his number tattooed on the skin of his groin, where there was pale skin and very little hair.



Indeed. And do you know what was tattooed onto the SS (in the armpit area)? Their blood type. So, if found wounded on the battlefield they would receive the correct blood. This was not offered to mere Wehrmacht.

To this day, I still discreetly examine the axilla (armpit) of all my male German-born patients over age 75 or so. I have yet to find the tattoo (and don’t know how I’d respond if I do).

You can always watch the documentary SHOA, if you can stomach it. I wasn’t able to watch more than 30 mins (it’s over 9 hours long). It features interviews – many of them with hidden cameras – with nazi guards, ss troops, etc, detailing how every aspect of the camps were run. Frightening stuff.

Some were, though. One of my father’s coworkers in the early 80s had been a child (~6-8?) in a concentration camp and still bore the tattoo on his forearm.

SHOA? does it stand for something? or is it just SHOA?


Actually, it’s SHOAH and it means holocaust.


Sorry about continuing the hijack, but both our Golden Retrivers were tattooed when they were puppies (before we adopted them), in the groin area. Neither of them were ever showed, but they could have been since we have the papers for both. The only thing we were not allowed to do with them was breed them, which is fine, since we never intended to. I wonder if that makes a difference? Or is it a breed thing?

I have no comment to make about the OP, except to share a memory: One week before we moved to Germany (90-93) we were in an ice cream shop, and we must have talked about going there because the gentleman and his wife sitting next to us started talking to us about the country. They both had a heavy accent, so we asked if they were travelling in Canada, or if they’d moved here. They said they’d moved here a long time ago - after having been freed from the camps. They both showed us their tattoos, but they were somewhat proud of them, in the sense that they were survivors and could remind us (children) about what had happened. His was 68-- something. I only remember the 68.

Ok, ok, I’ll go now!


Are you sure its called SHOA? More likely its Shoah, a Hebrew (or Yiddish?) word for the holocaust.

The movie is Shoah. The word means “catastrophe” in Hebrew and is the word usually given for the Holocaust. (Holocaust Memorial Day is Yom HaShoah.) You can spell it any way you like in English, but the title of the movie is specific.