Here is another (controversial) chapter from my book 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know, published in 2003.
For more on me, look at The Memory Hole.
The tattooed numbers on the forearms of people held and killed in Nazi concentration camps have become a chilling symbol of hatred. Victims were stamped with the indelible number in a dehumanizing effort to keep track of them like widgets in the supply chain.
These numbers obviously weren’t chosen at random. They were part of a coded system, with each number tracked as the unlucky person who bore it was moved through the system.
Edwin Black made headlines in 2001 when his painstakingly researched book, IBM and the Holocaust, showed that IBM machines were used to automate the “Final Solution” and the jackbooted takeover of Europe. Worse, he showed that the top levels of the company either knew or willfully turned a blind eye.
A year and a half after that book gave Big Blue a black eye, the author made more startling discoveries. IBM equipment was on-site at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Furthermore:
Thanks to the new discoveries, researchers can now trace how Hollerith numbers assigned to inmates evolved into the horrific tattooed numbers so symbolic of the Nazi era. (Herman Hollerith was the German American who first automated US census information in the late 19th century and founded the company that became IBM. Hollerith’s name became synonymous with the machines and the Nazi “departments” that operated them.) In one case, records show, a timber merchant from Bendzin, Poland, arrived at Auschwitz in August 1943 and was assigned a characteristic five digit IBM Hollerith number, 44673. The number was part of a custom punch-card system devised by IBM to track prisoners in all Nazi concentration camps, including the slave labor at Auschwitz. Later in the summer of 1943, the Polish timber merchant’s same five-digit Hollerith number, 44673, was tattooed on his forearm. Eventually, during the summer of 1943, all non- Germans at Auschwitz were similarly tattooed.
The Hollerith numbering system was soon scrapped at Auschwitz because so many inmates
died. Eventually, the Nazis developed their own haphazard system.
Reference: Black, Edwin. “The IBM Link to Auschwitz.” Village Voice, 9 Oct 2002.