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Concentration Camp: "Everyday Life" in Hell

Status: 23.01.2020 4:33 p.m.

Life in the concentration camps was a constant ordeal for the prisoners - and often ended in death. The prisoners were completely at the mercy of the SS.

by Andrej Reisin

In many camps, the day began between four and five o'clock in the morning, depending on the season, with the wake up with whistles. Then the prisoners had half an hour to prepare their "beds" (straw sacks or pallets covered with straw) in a military manner, to wash and to have "breakfast". However, there was often only one washroom, if at all, for many thousands of prisoners. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, for example, there were no sanitary facilities in any of the apartment blocks.

The "breakfast" consisted of half a liter of unsweetened coffee substitute or tea. Often it was just "a foul-smelling, dark, blue-brown brew made from herbs," as survivor Kitty Hart once reported. Only those who had left over from the measly bread ration of the previous evening had something to eat in the morning. Often the food was also old or spoiled.

Extermination through work in the concentration camps

"Work makes you free" was the cynical slogan at the entrance to the Auschwitz main camp. For Jews there was little hope of surviving the camp.

At the subsequent morning roll call around six o'clock, the prisoners had to line up in rows of ten and, after the presence of all prisoners had been established, march through the camp gate to their work assignments in step and to the beat of the music of the camp orchestra. For about eleven hours, the prisoners had to do the heaviest work such as building roads, often without or only with the most primitive technical aids.

"Work" in the concentration camp meant "terrorist work" under inhumane conditions: in factories, in armaments factories, in agriculture or in the construction of the camp itself, which has usually already cost thousands of prisoners their lives. The emaciated prisoners had to run to drag bricks or pull road rollers like a team of horses. Anyone who tried to rest was either killed immediately or transferred to a penal company, which amounted to a death sentence.

As a result of the hard work and the completely inadequate nutrition, the prisoners became so emaciated in a short time that their bodies were only skin and bones. Often they weighed less than 30 kilograms. These completely exhausted people, doomed to die, were called "Muselmänner" in the camp. The fact that some of them stooped apathetically to and fro evidently evoked associations with praying Muslims.

Draconic Penalties for Any "Failure"

In Auschwitz, prisoners were also tortured using the so-called Boger swing. Tied upside down, they were beaten bloody in order to extort "confessions".

After returning to the camp, the roll call officially served to count the prisoners again. In fact, such appeals often lasted for hours, either because someone was actually missing or as punishment for any "violations" of the camp rules. Because two prisoners were missing, the evening roll call on December 14, 1938 in Buchenwald lasted 19 hours at minus 15 degrees. Over 70 prisoners froze to death, and countless people suffered permanent damage. The roll calls were also often used to carry out beatings and other terrorist sentences against the prisoners, whereby the entire camp had to be present as a deterrent.

The punishments were sadistic and in many cases resulted in excruciating death. In the case of 25 lashes on the bare buttocks, for example, the prisoners' spine was sometimes broken by the force of the blows alone, the kidneys were exposed or the testicles were smashed. Those who were then given a fatal phenol injection in the heart in the prisoners 'infirmary were still "lucky" from the prisoners' point of view. Many slowly died in agony in the barracks for hours or were simply left lying on the roll call square.

The barracks could not be left after 9 p.m. Anyone who violated this "block lock", for example to relieve themselves, had to expect to be shot by the guards. The prisoners slept on the floor or on sacks of straw, later two- to three-story couches were installed. The barracks were often completely overcrowded, so that up to 45 prisoners had to share a three-story bunk designed for 15 prisoners. The short sleep was therefore not very relaxing: you literally lay on the bones of the other prisoners.

Kapos: henchman of the SS

SS officer Rudolf Höß was camp commandant in Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943. He started gassing the prisoners.

The transfer of power to so-called prison functionaries is of particular importance for understanding the concentration camp system. These Kapos, as they were probably called based on the Italian word for leader or officer, had to maintain order in the camp as "block" or "room elder" in the sense of the SS. On the one hand, this put them in an almost unimaginable moral hopelessness; on the other hand, it offered not only the opportunity to survive, but also an almost unlimited power.

Many kapos were just as feared by the prisoners as the SS guards. Kapos had to make sure that the completely exhausted prisoners always worked at a running pace, and they did this by screaming and beating, not infrequently also killing them. This was not a problem in the logic of the concentration camps, the camp management was only informed of an "exit" so that the number was correct at roll call. "The way in which someone dies is completely irrelevant," reported the refugee prisoner Rudolf Vrba to the Polish resistance during the war.

The deportees' belongings were searched by inmates in Auschwitz for items that were supposed to be sent to the SS or the Kapos.

In this particular perfidious way, the SS ruled the camp even when they were not present. The prisoner functionaries, for their part, had no choice: They were directly responsible to the camp administration and could be punished as harshly as everyone else for "failures". They also had to fear that if their privileges were withdrawn, they would be killed by their fellow prisoners, which was what happened frequently.

Some of these "celebrities", as they were called in the camp jargon, led a life of luxury amidst hunger and misery, epidemics and mass murder. In Auschwitz in particular, where the looting of the property of the gassed Jews continued, these prisoners were able, with the secret consent of the SS, to "organize" practically everything, as the system of robbery, smuggling and corruption in the camp was called.

The social structure of the concentration camp

The SS carefully ensured that there was hardly any solidarity between the prisoners. There are also examples of mutual help and support, but as a rule the permanent danger to life created a situation in which everyone was played off against everyone. Since the individual in the camp was forced to constantly struggle for bare survival, it was almost impossible to help others. Only those who could fall back on a political organization or another consolidated group identity were partially excluded. The communist prisoners in the camps helped each other with the help of underground organizations and tried to fill key positions in the prisoner self-government.

The inequality of the prisoners was exacerbated by the camp hierarchy, which was defined according to "racial" and other criteria of the SS. At their head were German ("Aryan") criminals - so-called professional criminals -, followed by political prisoners and other "Aryans". At the end of the social order stood the Jews, the "pariahs of the camp", as Auschwitz survivor Hermann Langbein wrote. The by no means homogeneous group of Jews were people who were deported from various European countries and mostly had no relationship to one another. There was practically no prospect of surviving the camp for them.

The different colored angles that each inmate wore on their chests indicated their group membership. Only the prisoners at the top of this social order had a certain chance of staying alive for the time being. You had to get a place in one of the few, better work details like the office to survive more than a few weeks. The gray mass of all other inmates starved to death, perished of epidemics, toiled to death, was slain or gassed. For most of them there was no salvation. "The survivor is not representative," says French survivor Maurice Cling. "The representative Jewish deportee is dead."

The end of the social world

Today Auschwitz is the largest cemetery in human history. At least 1,100,000 people were murdered here. The dimension of the crime, but also its modern form of organization, which made the achievements of civilization usable for the work of murder, explain its uniqueness. The concentration camp, however, was a widespread phenomenon during National Socialism. No fewer than 13 main camps with at times up to 662 subsidiary and satellite camps were set up throughout Europe by 1945. Its existence was well known to the population and successfully developed a profound deterrent effect. As Sofsky writes, the camp was "a colony of terror at the end of the social world".

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NDR television | The report | 01/16/2015 | 9:15 pm