Honoring Holocaust survivors with Nazi tattoos

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- They survived the horrors of the Holocaust and they have the concentration camp tattoos to prove it. But some feel this generation doesn't know enough about the tragedies that occurred at Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, so they're doing something controversial.

Their eyes have seen horror beyond imagination. They lived through the death camps of the Nazi Holocaust. But there are few survivors left, some with a dehumanizing number branded on their arms.

Some people, however are choosing to get similar tattoos. It's a recent and controversial trend among relatives of survivors as a way to memorialize and remember.

“They are proud to be marked, to remember," survivor Otto Schimmel told us.

Schimmel will never forget those dark days when the identification marks were an attempt to degrade. He was just 17 when he was imprisoned in Muhldorf, Germany.

Schimmel explains, "I mean they took away your watches, you had absolutely nothing, you didn't have a pencil or a coin in your pocket because you are in a prison."

Decades later, Schimmel recalls in vivid detail, the horror of the gas chambers. "Everything was locked and they had ventilation to pull the oxygen out and they pumped in the gas, so sometimes it took minutes. So mother, my sister and my grandmother were killed within an hour."

Schimmel wasn't tattooed. But for other survivors, the tattoos symbolize the moment the Nazis tried to rob them of their humanity with a number. A universal sentiment is illustrated in this summer's documentary "Numbered."

12 year old Lalae Mozie visited Auschwitz when she was 9 and was inspired to write a novel. "It's important to raise awareness so this doesn't happen again," she says.

Her book is entitled Merely Alive, "They were bone skinny, they had nothing to eat, Nazis would just slap them around and it was really, really emotional," she said.

Today, there are reportedly only 200,000 Holocaust survivors left, which is why so many relatives are struggling with how to keep the memory alive. Some survivors say the tattoos are hideous scars and hope that when they pass on, so will the terrible burden they carried for so long. But some of their descendants see the tattoo as a way to ensure that history is not forgotten and as a tribute to their elders' painful journey.

"I would appreciate it not so much for my sake,” Schimmel told us. “I appreciate it for those who are not here who cannot speak."

As Mozie explains, "It's actually inspiring to see how they're taking a mark of shame and then making it into a mark of pride."

For more information about the trend, visit the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, at www.ushmm.org.