What do Holocaust survivors think of their tattoos?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
That's an interesting question. When I was tattooed at Auschwitz, I was stunned. But it was a day when I had lost my whole family. I had lost everything I knew up to that point. I thought at the time, If there is hell on Earth, this is probably it. The tattooing was at the end of our first day at Auschwitz. I was the second to last person in our group of 26 people to get a tattoo. My twin sister Miriam was the last. I noticed what was happening to the other twins when they got their tattoos, and I decided I was going to fight. I was not going to let them touch me. I didn't really know how much it would hurt, but it wasn't the tattoo that bothered me as much as my thought, What right do they have to do anything to me physically? And maybe it was my only way to make a stand against what had been happening to me all day long.
When it was my turn, I began to really carry on. I don't know how I had the chutzpah. I don't really understand it. I just thought, I am going to have to take a stand. There were four people trying to pin me down on a bench because I started screaming, kicking, and even punching people who started to come close to me. You might say I went berserk, but I did it on purpose to stand up against what was happening to me. The women were holding me down by my head and legs and arms and one of the Nazis grabbed my arm. The only thing I could do was bite. I don't even know how I managed to do that because they tried to keep me flat. But I snapped up and bit his arm. I vaguely remember deciding to do that, but I don't actually remember doing it. From the way I was raised, to bite someone was so crude that I had to block it out of my mind to preserve who I thought I was. I only remembered it when Miriam reminded me in 1985. She said, "Not only did you create a general confusion, but nobody knew what to do when you bit the Nazi holding your arm." Miriam remembered it better than I did.
As I am thinking back on it now, something is clear in my mind: When I decided to give them trouble, I thought I needed an excuse to misbehave. I was going to be a nice girl. I was not going to misbehave, even in that crazy place. So I said, "I will let you do to me whatever you want to, but I won't let you touch me unless you bring my mother here." I knew as I was saying that at age ten that there was not a prayer in the world I would see my mother. The way we were ripped apart earlier in the day, it did not seem like we were going to be reunited. (See my answer to this question: What was it like to be a Jewish prisoner traveling in 'cattle cars' to Nazi concentration camps?) But it is amazing to me that even under those circumstances, I felt I needed some good excuse to act the way I did. Carrying on like I did -- that did not seem proper to me. Now I think, How on Earth could you expect to be proper in Auschwitz? I often tell people, I was raised to be a nice girl, and we all know nice girls don't bite. That idea did not fit into my idea of being a nice girl, so I had to block it out of my mind. I must have been raised to be a very nice girl. Whatever we learn as little children, it stays with us forever. (That is why early childhood is so important.)
The actual tattooing was very, very painful from what I remember. They heated a pen-like gadget with a long needle over the flame of a lamp, which I watched before it happened to me. When it got hot, they dipped it into ink, and burned into my left arm, dot by dot, the capital letter "A," followed by a dash, then the numbers 7-0-6-3. "A-7063" became my number, which was never clear on my skin. Some people think it has faded or become blurry over time, but it always looked like this:
I am trying desperately to remember how Miriam's number looked, because I only became interested in the tattooing process and results after she died. Unfortunately I never took a picture of her tattoo. I wanted to see if all of this lady's tattooing was unclear or if it was only mine.
Three weeks after they tattooed me, they came back to repair it because you couldn't read it at all. I wasn't any more cooperative. All it created was a few more holes in my skin and a few more screams, but that was the only way I could stand up for myself and I felt justified in doing it. Many survivors, when they read my account, they say there is no way anyone could get away with biting a Nazi. That was probably true. But I was not a regular prisoner -- I was a "Mengele Twin." As long as Mengele wanted us alive, no one dared harm us. (See my answer to this question: What was Josef Mengele like as a person?)
People ask me, "Did you ever consider getting it removed?" Never. That thought has never entered my mind. I was always proud of my tattoo. I have never covered it except for one time. The only time was in 1984 when I was in Vienna, flying to Auschwitz, because then I was scared that there might be too many Nazis around and they would see my tattoo and harm me. I never covered it any other time. When people asked, I unemotionally told them I was in Auschwitz and they put a tattoo on my arm. Some people still ask me today if I would remove it, and my answer is always the same: By removing my tattoo, will that remove all the tragedy that happened to me? Unfortunately the answer is no. So why should I submit myself to additional pain just so I do not have to see that tattoo? It is kind of like my badge of courage. I actually like looking at it, even though it's not very clear. That's okay -- I know why it's not clear.
Some people ask me what I think of young people getting tattoos today. Personally, I am very much against mutilating your beautiful skin with tattoos. You have beautiful skin - why inject ink into it? I do not understand the fad. Someone said, "I do it because I want to be unique." Well you have a weird tattoo, but that doesn't make you unique. Uniqueness does not come from external things that people do to themselves or other things like what they wear. So you like designer clothes. Well that's all right, there is no harm in it I guess. But it doesn't make you unique inside. All the uniqueness that radiates to the world comes from how you deal with the world, your best inner strengths. It never comes from a tattoo or a designer outfit. There is no merit or value to that. What's on your skin doesn't change who you are inside. And isn't it who we are inside that really matters?
Sometimes I tell young people, "What if I offered you a trade: I will give you the most expensive diamond in the world, and in return you have to give me your mind, your heart, and your soul?" Unfortunately, many will still take the diamond. I tell them the diamond shining inside me, you cannot buy at any price because I feel good about who I am, what I do, how I try to treat other people, and what I teach.
Many young people are confused, trying to figure out how they fit into this big mixed-up world. I want them to do something that makes them feel proud of themselves. Do something that gives you inner strength. Every single person can become someone worthwhile, and you don't have to have a lot of money to do it. You can start reading more, for example. That opens you up to a whole world of knowledge and ideas, and that builds your best characteristics. Or you can learn to help people, even in small ways. Or if you have a bad habit, start working on your bad habit to solve it and get rid of it. That builds strength of character. Just like I said in one of my other answers (What gives you hope during tough times?) -- once you win one battle, you can build on that and become a stronger person.