Why this Holocaust survivor has kept her prisoner tattoo

(Header image: BBC)

We are used to thinking about the positive aspects of tattoos, as beautiful pieces of art which make the wearer and the artist proud, and are an important aspect of many tattoo fans’ identity.But identity can be as much the things that are forced upon you as the choices you make, and tattoos can be a part of that as well.

In honour of Holocaust Day today, BBC One is screening a documentary called Prisoner Number A26188, telling the story of Henia Bryer, a Polish Holocaust survivor, in her own words.

Born into a middle class Jewish family, she lost her father, brother and sister during the German occupation, and was personally incarcerated in four different concentration camps. She also survived the infamous Death March of 1945, in which starving prisoners were forced to walk 35 miles through snow to be transported from Auschwitz to other camps as Allied forces began to close in.

Bryer appeared on the Today radio programme this week to explain her reasons for keeping the tattoo on her arm of her Auschwitz prisoner number. Tattooing prisoners with numbers was a tactic which had a dehumanising effect, as well as allowing the Nazis to keep track of camp inmates.

Bryer says many surgeons have offered to remove the tattoo for her, but she has refused, choosing to keep what must be an incredibly painful symbol for her to look at every day. For her, the tattoo is a way of ‘bearing witness’ to the horror she lived through during the war years, and using it to convince Holocaust deniers of the truth of those terrible events (incredibly, there are people out there who still insist they did not happen).

“I wanted to keep it on so when people say… the Holocaust didn’t exist… it is a figment of your imagination, I wanted to show them. And many people don’t even know what this number means, so I wanted to keep it as a witness, as a sign it really happened,” she told the Today programme.

“I had a chance to meet people who didn’t know anything about it. I try to convince them that it was [real] and show them my arm. A tragedy of that enormity must never be forgotten. We had in history bloody wars and revolutions and every type of tragedy, but this is not comparable to anything in the world.”

Prisoner Number A26188: Henia Bryer will be shown at 22:25 GMT tonight on BBC One. A short preview clip from the documentary can be found here.


74274e746f63e53a14a821e6431c32b2My name is Hannah Smith and I am a regular contributor to Tattoo Revolution Magazine, and now I blog for Tattoosday UK, as long as you dear readers don’t run me out of town! I am on the hunt for ideas for future blog posts so please send me your pics, news, views, whatever to hannahfranink@gmail.com or twitter.com/ hannah_fran_ink

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