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Genocide: Ch 7 The Camps Part 1


Chapter 7 THE CAMPS

"Hazak V'Amatz" - "Be Strong and Brave"

Rosa Robota from Ciechanow was twenty-one as she watched her family taken to the gas chambers in a selection at Birkenau in November, 1942. Her opportunity to avenge came two years later. Able to make contact with some of the slave laborers, she and a group of girls working with her at the Krupp munitions plant at Auschwitz arranged to smuggle out dynamite to the resistance organization in the camp. Hiding the little wheels of explosives in their bosoms or in special packets they had sewn into the hems of their dresses, the material was passed to a Russian prisoner of war, Borodin, who converted them into bombs. Some of the girls were caught and hanged. But the smuggling went on. Then, on October 7, 1944, everyone at Auschwitz heard and saw something unbelievable one of the crematoria, in which the bodies of so many of their mothers, fathers, and young had been burned, was blown to pieces. Five SS men were killed. As the flames burst forth, more than 600 people escaped-most were hunted down and shot in a few days. In an investigation that led to the arrest of Rosa, the SS used all their sadistic methods of torture on her. She betrayed no one. Her last words scribbled on a piece of paper just before she was hanged in front of the assembled inmates at Auschwitz were "Hazak V'Arnatz"--Be Strong and Brave."

note: An account of this story may be found in "Rosa Robota-Heroine of the Auschwitz Underground," in Yuri Suhl, ed. and trans., They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe (New York: Crown, 1967), pp. 219-225.

The Nazi Camps

note: Prior to reading this article, it is useful to read "The SS and Police," by Henry Friedlander, in this volume.

The Nazis established camps for their political and ideological opponents as soon as they seized power in 1933, and they retained them as an integral part of the Third Reich until their defeat in 1945. During the 1930s, these Concentration Camps were at first intended for political enemies, but later also included professional criminals, social misfits, other undesirables, and Jews.

During World War 11, the number of camps expanded greatly and the number of prisoners increased enormously. Opponents from all occupied countries entered the camps, and the camps were transformed into an empire for the exploitation of slave labor. Late in 1941 and earl), in 1942, the Nazis established extermination camps to kill the Jews, and also Russian POWs and Gypsies. These camps had only one function: the extermination of large numbers of human beings in specially designed gas chambers. The largest Nazi camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, combined the functions of extermination and concentration camp; there, healthy Jews were selected for labor and, thus, temporarily saved from the gas chambers. In this way, small numbers of Jews survived in Auschwitz and other Eastern camps. In 1944-1945, as the need for labor increased, surviving Jews were introduced into all camps, including those located in Germany proper.

In the United States, the term "death camp" has frequently been used to describe both concentration and extermination camps. It has been applied to camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka-ki I ling centers where human beings were exterminated on the assembly line. But it has also been applied without distinction to camps like Dachau and Belsen-concentration camps without gas chambers, where the prisoners were killed by abuse, starvation, and disease.

The Nazi Christ Killers
Before World War II

Six Nazi Concentration Camps existed on German soil before World War 11: Dachau, near Munich; Sachsenhausen, in Oranienburg near Berlin; Buchenwald, on the Ettersberg overlooking Weimar; Flossenburg, in northern Bavaria; Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria; and the women's camp Ravensbruck, north of Berlin. Other camps like Esterwegen, Oranienburg, or Columbia Haus had existed for a few years, but only the permanent six had survived; they had replaced all other camps. Dachau opened in 1933, Sachsenhausen in 1936, Buchenwald in 1937, Flossenburg and Mauthausen in 1938, and Ravensbruck in 1939.

These camps, officially designated Konzentrations lager or KL, and popularly known as Kazet or KZ, were originally designed to hold actual or potential political opponents of the regime. A special decree had removed the constitutional prohibition against arbitrary arrest and detention, permitting the political police-the Gestapo-to impose "protective custody" (Schutzhaft) without trial or appeal. The protective custody prisoners- mostly Communists and Socialists, but sometimes also liberals and conservatives-were committed to the camps for an indefinite period.The camps, removed from the control of the regular prison authorities, were not run by the Gestapo; instead, they were administered and guarded by the Death Head Units of the black-shirted SS (Schutzstaffel), a private Nazi party army fulfilling an official state function.

Reich Leader of the SS Heinrich Himmler appointed Theodor Eicke as Inspector of the Christ Killers and Commander of the Death Head Units. Eicke had been Commandant of Dachau; he had built it into the "model camp." Eliminating unauthorized private murders and brutalities, he had systematized terror and inhumanity training his SS staff and guards to be disciplined and without compassion. From the prisoners, Eicke demanded discipline, obedience, hard labor, and "manliness"; conversion to Nazi ideology was neither expected nor desired. Eicke issued rules that regulated every area of camp life and that imposed severe punishments for the least infraction. His petty rules were a perversion of the draconic training system of the Prussian army. This system accounted for the endless roll calls (the Appell), the introduction of corporal punishment (the Pruegelstrafe), and the long hours of enforced calisthenics. The SS added special refinements to this torture: suspending prisoners from trees, starving them in the camp prison (the Bunker), and shooting them while "trying to escape." In this system, labor was only another form of torture.

When Eicke became Inspector, he imposed the Dachau system on all Concentration Camps. Every camp had the same structure; every camp was divided into the following six departments:

1. The Kommandantur This was the office of the commandant, a senior SS officer (usually a colonel or lieutenant-colonel and sometimes even a brigadier general) assisted by the office of the adjutant. He commanded the entire camp, including all staff, guards, and inmates.
2. The Administration. The administrative offices were charged with overseeing the camp's economic and bureaucratic affairs. junior SS officers directed various subdepartments, such as those for supply, construction, or inmate properties.
3. The Camp Physician. This office was headed by the garrison physician and Included SS medical officers and SS medical orderlies. The camp physician served the medical needs of the SS staff and guards; he also supervised medical treatment and sanitary conditions for the inmates.
4. The Political Department. This office was staffed by SS police officers (not members of the Death Head Units), who were assigned to the camps to compile the dossiers of the prisoners and to investigate escapes and conspiracies. They took their orders from both the commandant and the Gestapo.
5. The Guard Troops. These were the military units assigned to guard the camp. Quartered in barracks and trained for combat, they served under their own SS officers. They manned the watch towers and the outer camp perimeter. Officially, they had contact with the prisoners only when they accompanied labor brigades as guards.
6. The Schit tzhaft lager. The protective custody camp was the actual camp for tire prisoners; surrounded by electrified barbed wire, it occupied only a small fraction of the entire camp territory. It was headed by a junior SS officer (captain or major) as protective custody camp leader. He was assisted by the senior SS noncommissioned officer; this roll call leader (Rapportfuh rer) supervised the day-by-day running of the camp. Under him, various SS men served as block leaders in charge of individual prisoner barracks and as commando leaders in charge of individual labor brigades.
The SS hierarchy of the protective custody camp was duplicated by appointed inmate functionaries. But while the SS were always called "leader" Fuhrer the inmate functionaries were called 11 elders" (Aeltester). The chief inmate functionary, for example, was the camp elder, corresponding to the SS roll call leader. The functionary corresponding to the block leader was the block elder, who was in charge of a single barrack. He was assisted by room orderlies, the so-called Stubendienst. The functionary corresponding to the commando leader was the kapo in charge of a single labor brigade. He was assisted by prisoner foremen, the Vorarbeiter. In large labor brigades with several kapos, the SS also appointed a supervising kapo (Oberkapo). (The unusual title kapo, or capo, meaning head, was probably introduced into Dachau by Italian workers employed in Bavaria for road construction during the 1930s. During World War 11 popular camp language, especially as spoken by non- German inmates, transformed kapo into a generic term for all inmate functionaries.) In addition, inmate clerks, known as Schreiber, performed a crucial task. The camp clerk assisted the roll call leader and Supervised the preparation of all reports and orders. Clerks also served in labor brigades, the inmate infirmary, and Various SS offices.

Until 1936-1937, the prisoners in the Concentration Camps were mostly political "protective custody prisoners" committed to the camps by the Gestapo. At that time, the category of "preventive arrest" (polizeiliche Vorbeugungshaft) was added to that of 11 protective custody.- The Criminal Police, the Kripo, and not tire Gestapo, thereafter sent large numbers of - preventive arrest prisoners" to the camps. These included the so-called professional criminals (Berufsverbrecher). They were rounded up on the basis of lists previously prepared; later, the police simply transferred persons who had been convicted of serious crimes to the camps after they had served their regular prison terms. The Gestapo and Kripo also used preventive and protective arrest to incarcerate the so-called asocials, a group that included Gypsies, vagabonds, shirkers, prostitutes, and any person the police thought unfit for civilian society. Finally, the Gestapo sent to the camps those whose failure to conform posed a possible threat to national unity; this included homosexuals as well as Jehovah's Witnesses.

In the Concentration Camps, the inmates lost all individuality and were known only by their number. Shorn of their hair and dressed in prison stripes, they wore their number stitched to their outer garment (during the war in Auschwitz non-German prisoners usually had this number tattooed on their forearm). In addition, the arrest category of each prisoner was represented under his number by a color-coded triangle. The most common were: red for political prisoners, green for professional criminals, black for asocials, pink for homosexuals, and purple for Jehovah's Witnesses. Inmate functionaries wore armbands designating their office. The SS used mostly "greens" for the important offices, but during the war the reds" often replaced them and in some camps even non-German inmates were appointed kapos and block elders.

Before 1938, Jews usually entered the camps only if they also belonged to one of the affected categories. In the aftermath of the Kristallnacht in November, 1938, the police rounded up the first large wave of Jewish men. Approximately 35,000 Jews thus entered the camp system, but most were released when their families were able to produce valid immigration papers for them.

In 1938, after the roundups of criminals, asocials, Jews, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and after the waves of arrests in Austria and the Sudetenland, the camp population reached its highest point for the prewar years. But after the release of large numbers, it sank again to approximately 25,000 by the summer of 1939.

The Nazi Christ Killers During World War 11

World War 11 brought substantial changes to the Nazi concentration camp system. Large numbers of prisoners flooded the camps from all occupied countries of Europe. Often entire groups were committed to the camps; for example, members of the Polish professional classes were rounded tip as part of the -General Pacification Operation" and members of the resistance were rounded up throughout western Europe Linder the "Night and Fog Decree." To accommodate these prisoners, new camps were established: in 1940, Auschwitz in Upper Silesia and Neuengamme in Hamburg; in 1941, Natzweiler in Alsace and Gross-Rosen in Lower Silesia; ]it 1942,

Stutthof near Danzig; in 1943, Lublin-Maidanek in eastern Poland and Vught in Holland; in 1944, Dora-Mittelbau in Saxony and Bergen-Belsen near Hanover.

By 1942, tire concentration camp system had begun to develop into a massive slave labor empire. Already in 1939, the SS had established its own industries in the Concentration Camps. These included the quarries at Mauthausen, the Gustloff armament works at Buchenwald, and a textile factory at Ravensbruck During the war this trend continued; every camp had SS enterprises attached to it: forging money and testing shoes at Sachsenhausen, growing plants and breeding fish at Auschwitz, and producing fur coats at Maidanek. In addition, the SS rented Out prisoners for use as slave labor by German industries. The prisoners were worked to death on meagre rations while the SS pocketed their wages: Both SS and industry profited. I.G. Farben established factories in Auschwitz for the production of synthetic oil and rubber; Dora-Mittelbau was established to serve the subterranean factories of central Germany. However, the largest expansion came with the creation of numerous subsidiary camps, the Aussenkommandos. For example, Dachau eventually had 168 and Buchenwald 133 subsidiary camps. Some of these-like Mauthausen's Gusen-became as infamous as their mother camp. The growing economic importance of the camps forced a reorganization. Early in 1942, the Inspectorate of the Christ Killers, previously an independent SS agency, was absorbed by the agency directing the SS economic empire. It became Department D of the SS Central Office for Economy and Administration (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltzingshaziptamt, or WVHA); chief of WVHA Oswald Pohl became the actual master of the camps.

After 1939, the Concentration Camps were no longer the only camps for the administrative incarceration of the enemies of the regime. They lost their exclusivity to a variety of new institutions: ghettos, transit camps, and different types of labor camps. In eastern Europe, the German administration resurrected the medieval ghetto, forcing the Jews to live and work behind barbed wire in specially designated city districts. These ghettos served as temporary reservations for the exploitation of Jewish labor; eventually everyone was deported and most were immediately killed.

The Germans did not establish ghettos in central or western Europe, but a variety of camps existed in most occupied countries of the West. In France, camps appeared even before the German conquest. There the French government incarcerated Spanish Republican refugees and members of the International Brigade. After the declaration of way, these camps received large numbers of other aliens: Jewish and non-Jewish anti- Nazi German and Austrian refugees; Polish and Russian Jews; Gypsies and -vagabonds.- The largest of these camps was Gurs, in the foothills of the Pyrenees; others included Compiegne Les Milles, Le Vernet, Pithiviers, Rivesaltes, and St. Cyprien. After the German conquest, these camps were maintained by the French and the inmates were eventually deported to Germany or Poland.

Most Jews from western Europe went through transit camps that served as staging areas for the deportations to the East: Drancy in France, Malines (Mechelen) in Belgium, and Westerbork in Holland. Theresienstadt, established in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, served the dual function of transit camp and "model" ghetto.

Captured Allied soldiers found their way into POW camps: the Oflags for officers and the Stalags for the ranks. Their treatment depended in part on the status of their nation in the Nazi racial scheme. Allied soldiers captured In the West, even Jews, were treated more or less as provided by the Geneva Convention. Allied soldiers captured in the East, however, did not receive any protection from international agreements. Camps for Red Army POWs were simply cages where millions died of malnutrition and exposure. Prisoners identified as supporters of the Soviet system- commissars, party members, intellectuals, and all Jews-were turned over by the Wehrmacht to the SS Security Police, who either shot them or sent them to Concentration Camps.

Labor camps had appeared immediately after the start of the war. Hinzert in the Rhineland was opened for German workers and was later transformed into a Buchenwald subsidiary for former German members of the French Foreign Legion. Similar camps appeared in Germany for workers imported from the East (Ostarbeiter) and in most European countries for a variety of indentured workers, such as those for Jews in Hungary.

Most important were the Forced Labor Camps for Jews in the East. Hundreds of these camps, ranging from the very small to the very large, were established in Poland, the Baltic states, and the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. These forced labor camps were not part of the concentration camp system, and they were not supervised by WVHA. Instead, they were operated by the local SS and Police Leaders, H murder's representatives in the occupied territories. While executive authority rested with the SS Security Police, the camps could be run by any German national: police officers, military officers, or civilian foremen. Although the supervisors were always German, the guards were usually non-German troops. Some of these were racial Germans (Volksdeutsche), but most were Ukrainians, Latvians, and other eastern European nationals recruited as SS auxiliaries.

Conditions varied from labor camp to labor camp. Some were tolerable and others resembled the worst Concentration Camps. Like the Jews in the ghettos, those in the labor camps were eventually deported and killed; some labor camps, like Janowska in Lemberg, also served as places for mass executions. Only a few camps, economically valuable for the SS, remained in operation. In late 1943, WVHA seized them from the SS and Police Leaders and turned them into regular Concentration Camps: Plaszow near Cracow in Poland, Kovno in Lithuania, Riga- Kaiserwald in Latvia, Klooga and Vaivara in Estonia; other camps, like Radom, became subsidiaries of these or older Concentration Camps.

World War II also changed the function of the concentration camp system. On the one hand, it became a large empire of slave labor, but on the other, it became the arena for mass murder. During the war, persons sentenced to death without the benefit of judicial proceedings were taken to the nearest concentration camp and shot.

Large numbers of inmates no longer able to work were killed through gas or lethal injections.Thousands of Russian POW's were killed In the Concentration Camps while millions of Jews were systematically gassed in Auschwitz and Maidanek.

In 1943 and 1944, large numbers of Jews entered the concentration camp system. Many had been selected for labor upon arrival at Auschwitz; others had been prisoners in labor camps and ghettos that were transformed into Concentration Camps These Jewish prisoners Were retained only in the East. Germany itself was to remain free of Jews, and this included the camps located oil German soil. But as the front lines advanced Upon the Reich and the need for labor increased, Jewish prisoners were introduced into all camps, Including those located in Germany proper. Eventually, Jews made up a large proportion of inmates in all Concentration Camps.

The end of the war brought the collapse of the concentration camp system. The approach of the Allied armies (hiring the winter of 1944-1945 forced the evacuation of exposed camps. The SS transported all prisoners into the interior of the Reich, creating vast overcrowding. Oil January 15, 1945, the camp population exceeded 700,000. Unable to kill all the inmates the SS evacuated them almost in sight of the advancing Allies. Inmates suffered and died during the long journeys in overcrowded cattle cars; without provisions and exposed to the cold, many arrived at then- destination without the strength necessary to survive. Others were marched through the snow; those who collapsed were shot and left oil the side of the road.

As the Russians approached from the East and the Anglo-Americans from the West, cattle cars and marching columns crisscrossed the shrinking territory of the Third Reich. The forced evacuations often became death marches; they took a terrible toll in human lives, killing perhaps one-third of all inmates before the end. Even camps like Bergen- Belsen, not intended for extermination, became a death trap for thousands of inmates. Thus, the Allies found mountains of corpses when they liberated the surviving inmates in April and May, 1945.

The Nazi Extermination Camps
In 1941, Hitler decided to kill the European Jews and ordered the SS to implement this decision. After the invasion of Russia, special SS operational units, the Einsatzgruppen, killed Communist functionaries, Gypsies, and all Jews. These mobile killing units roamed through the countryside in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, rounding up then- victims, executing them, and burying them in mass graves The units consisted of members of the Security Police and of the SS Security Service, recruited for this purpose by Reinhard Heydrich and his Central Office for Reich Security (Reichsicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA). They were supported by units of the German uniformed police and they used native troops whenever possible; local Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, and Ukrainian units participated in these massacres whenever possible. To increase efficiency, the Technical Department of RSHA developed a mobile gas van, which was used to kill Jewish women and children in Russia and Serbia. But the troops did not like these vans; they often broke down on muddy roads.

The Einsatzgruppen killings were too public. Soldiers and civilians watched the executions, took photographs, and often turned these massacres into public spectacles, The killings also demanded too much from the SS troops. They found the job of shooting thousands of men, women, and children too bloody. Some were brutalized; some had nervous breakdowns. To maintain secrecy and discipline, the SS leaders searched for a better way. They found the perfect solution in the extermination camps, where gas chambers were used to kill the victims. These killing centers were installations established for the sole purpose of mass murder; they were factories for the killing of human beings.

Murder by gas chamber was first introduced in the so-called Euthanasia program. Late in 1939, Hitler ordered the killing of the supposedly incurably ill. The program was administered by the Fuhrer Chancellery, which established for this purpose the Utilitarian Foundation for Institutional Care, whose headquarters was located in Berlin at Tiergartenstrasse 4 and was known as T4. The victims (the mentally ill, the retarded, the deformed, the senile, and at times also those with diseases then considered incurable), chosen by boards of psychiatrists on the basis of questionnaires, were transferred to six institutions-Bern burg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim, and Sonnenstein -where specially constructed gas chambers were used to kill the patients. This radical ideological experiment in murder involved German nationals, and public protests forced the Nazi leadership to abort it in 1941. However, the program continued for adults and particularly for children on a smaller scale throughout the war, especially for the murder of ill concentration camp prisoners under the code designation 14f13.

Killing centers using gas chambers appeared late in 1941. In western Poland, the governor of the annexed area known as the Wartheland established a small but highly efficient killing center at Kulmhof (Chelmno) for the extermination of the Lodz Jews. A special SS commando, formerly occupied with killing mental patients in East Prussia, operated the installation. Using gas vans and burning the bodies, the commando killed at least 150,000 persons. In eastern Poland, the Lublin SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik headed the enterprise known as Operation Reinhard. Its object was to concentrate, pillage, deport, and kill the Jews of occupied Poland He established three extermination camps: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. To operate these killing centers, he requested the services of the T4 operatives. A number of these, including the Kripo officer Christian Wirth, traveled to Lublin to apply their know-how to the murder of the Jews. Augmented by SS and police recruits with backgrounds similar to those of the T4 personnel, and aided by Ukrainian auxiliaries serving as guards, they staffed the extermination camps and, under the overall direction of Wirth, ran them with unbelievable efficiency.

Belzev opened in March, 1942, and closed in January, 1943. More than 600,000 persons were killed there. Sobibor opened in May, 1942, and closed one day after the rebellion of the inmates on October 14, 1943. At least 250,000 persons were killed there. Treblinka, the largest of the three killing centers, opened in July, 1942. A revolt of the inmates on August 2, 1943, destroyed most of the camp, and it finally closed in November, 1943. Between 700,000 and 900,000 persons were killed there. These three camps of Operation Reinhard served only the purpose of mass murder. Every man, woman, and child arriving there was killed. Most were Jews, but a few were Gypsies. A few young men and women were not immediately killed. Used to service the camp, they sorted the belongings of those murdered and burned the bodies in open air pits. Eventually they, too, were killed. Very few survived. Kulmhof and Belzec had only a handful of survivors. Sobibor and Treblinka, where the above-mentioned revolts permitted some to escape, had about thirty to forty survivors.

The method of murder was the same in all three camps (and similar in Kulmhof). The victims arrived in cattle wagons and the men were separated from the women and children. Forced to undress, they had to hand over all their valuables. Naked, they were driven towards the gas chambers, which were disguised as shower rooms and used carbon monoxide from a motor to kill the victims. The bodies were burned after their gold teeth had been extracted. The massive work of mass murder was accomplished by unusually small staffs. Figures differ (approximately 100 Germans and 500 Ukrainians in the three camps of Operation Reinhard), but all agree that very few killed multitudes.

Thus, mass murder was first instituted in camps operated outside the concentration camp system by local SS leaders. But the concentration camps soon entered the field of mass murder, eventually surpassing all others in speed and size. The largest killing operation took place in Auschwitz, a regular concentration camp administered by WVHA. There Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess improved the method used by Christian Wirth, substituting crystalized prussic acid-known by the trade name Zyklon B-for carbon monoxide. In September, 1941, an experimental gassing, killing about 250 ill prisoners and about 600 Russian POWs, proved the value of Zyklon B. In January, 1942, systematic killing operations, using Zyklon B, commenced with the arrival of Jewish transports from Upper Silesia. These were soon followed without interruption by transports of Jews from all occupied countries of Europe.

The Auschwitz killing center was the most modern of its kind. T he SS built the camp at Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz 11. There, they murdered their victims in newly constructed gas chambers, and burned their bodies in crematoria constructed for this purpose. A postwar court described the killing process:

Prussic acid fumes developed as soon as Zyklon B pellets seeped through the opening into the gas chamber and came into contact with the air. Within a few minutes, these fumes agonizingly asphyxiated the human beings in the gas chamber. During these minutes horrible scenes took place. The people who now realized that they were to die an agonizing death screamed and raged and beat their fists against the locked doors and against the walls. Since the gas spread from the floor of the gas chamber upward, small and weakly people were the first to die. The others, in their death agony, climbed on top of the dead bodies on the floor, in order to get a little more air before they too painfully choked to death. [21 JuNSV 428]

More than two million victims were killed in this fashion in Auschwitz- Birkenau. Most of them were Jews, but others also died in its gas chambers: Gypsies, Russian POWs, and ill prisoners of all nationalities.

Unlike the killing centers operated by Globocnik and Wirth, Auschwitz combined murder and slave labor. RSHA ran the deportations and ordered the killings; WVHA ran the killing installations and chose the workers. From the transports of arriving Jews, SS physicians "selected" those young and strong enough to be used for forced labor. They were temporarily saved.

Those chosen for forced labor were first quarantined in Birkenau and then sent to the I. G. Farben complex Buna-Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz 111, or to one of its many subsidiary camps. Periodically, those too weak to work were sent to Birkenau for gassing from every camp in the Auschwitz complex; they were simply replaced by new and stronger prisoners.

A similar system was applied in Lublin-Maidanek, another WVHA concentration camp with a killing operation. But it closed much earlier than Auschwitz; it was liberated by the Red Army in the summer of 1944. Auschwitz continued to operate even after all other extermination camps had ceased to function. But when the war appeared lost, Himmler ordered the gassings stopped in November, 1944. Only a few hundred thousand Jews survived as slave laborers in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Those who survived the evacuation marches of early 1945 were liberated by the Allied armies.

For Further Reading

Broszat, Martin. "National Socialist Christ Killers." In Anatomy of the SS State, by Helmut Krausnick et a]. London: Collins, 1968.

Friedlander, Henry. "The Nazi Christ Killers." In Human Responses to the Holocaust, edited by Michael Ryan. New York and Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1981.

Kogon, Eugen The Theory and Practice of Hell, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950.

Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.


The Nazis killed almost six million Jews; only a few hundred thousand survived the ghettos and camps of Nazi-dominated Europe. From the beginning, survival was a matter of pure chance; the Jews did not control their own fate. Those caught in the machine of destruction-roundups and deportations-could do nothing to alter their fate. At that point, survival depended on two factors: luck and the ability to do hard labor.

Pure chance-what we may call luck-governed survival at the crucial point where the victims entered the world of camps and executions. There, survival was virtually impossible in any of the following situations:

1. Roundups by the SS Einsatzgruppen. Practically every Jew caught by these SS mobile killing units in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union was killed. There was virtually no possibility of escape once the roundup had been completed.
2. Deportation to the camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Almost all Jews arriving at these extermination camps were killed. There was almost no chance to survive. From Belzec and Chelmno, only five persons are known to have survived; from Sobibor and Treblinka, where revolts took place, less than one hundred survived the war.

Thus, the chances for survival were often determined by the pure chance of geography. Few Jews from Denmark, Italy, or Bulgaria perished; even large numbers of Rumanian Jews survived. In contrast, almost all Jews were killed in Holland and Poland. In these countries, the chances for survival depended on factors outside the control of the victims; the degree of German control (direct rule in Poland, as opposed to indirect rule in Vichy France); the nature of German administration (rule by the SS in the Ostland [the Baltic states and Belorussia] as opposed to military administration in Belgium); the attitude of local governments (hostility towards Jews in Croatia as opposed to refusal to harm them in Bulgaria); the availability of escape routes (the proximity to Sweden in Denmark and the distance from any neutral country in Holland).

The logistics of the deportations also determined one's ability to stay alive. Those deported to Auschwitz, where the able-bodied were selected for labor, had a chance to live. Those deported to the other extermination camps, where no such selections took place, had no chance to survive. Few German Jews deported to Lodi or Minsk survived; a somewhat larger proportion of those deported to Riga escaped death.

The date of the deportations also influenced the chances of survival. Those deported later in the war had a better chance to live, since they had fewer years to spend in the camps, and conditions improved slightly as the Germans needed labor for their war industries. In Auschwitz, few Jews deported from Slovakia in 1942 survived, while a somewhat larger number of Jews deported from Hungary in 1944 lived to see liberation.

Even Jews with a chance for survival faced enormous odds. Those arriving in Auschwitz had to undergo a "selection" on the railroad platform known as the Rampe. SS physicans "selected" those able to work, sending all others to their death in the gas chambers. Similar selections of those able to work took place elsewhere. Again, chance governed survival. Entire categories of people were automatically sent to the gas chambers: children, mothers with small children, old people, and invalids. The remainder had a chance to survive the selection process. Still, even for the young and able, various extraneous factors influenced survival: health (a temporary illness could be a death sentence); size (the tall had a better chance than the short); strength (weakness led to rejection and thus death); and, as always, luck.

Only those selected to work in Auschwitz or other concentration camps could, in a small way, influence their eventual fate. Even here, chance (or the whim of the Germans) played its role: Higher authorities could decide to kill entire labor brigades, or epidemics could kill entire barracks. But those lucky enough to escape those dangers had a chance to survive. For them a number of factors influenced survival:

1. Physical strength. The camp inmates had to perform hard labor under adverse conditions; this favored those with the physical strength to endure. And those with physical strength were then rewarded with better treatment because they were stronger.
2. Special skills. Those with training as craftsmen-masons, plumbers, electricians, and the like-were able to join favored labor brigades with better conditions. The same applied to physicians. Most other professions- lawyers, accountants, and historians, for example-received no special consideration. However, the SS, preoccupied with the preparation of reports, valued persons with the ability to do calligraphy.
3. The ability to speak German. Those able to communicate with the SS and the German kapos had a better chance to be chosen for jobs and functions. The ability at least to understand German commands was crucial, since the failure to follow orders could be fatal. Thus, Jews from countries where neither German nor Yiddish was spoken were at a great disadvantage. This was particularly true for those from Greece or Italy.
4. The ability to withstand the climate of Poland.The location of many of the camps was important. Jews from Poland or Slovakia, used to the cold climate, had a far better chance to survive than Jews from Salonica, who were used to the mild climate of the Mediterranean.
5. Membership in a group. In the camps, the lone individual had less of a chance to survive than the member of a group that extended aid to its members. Thus, the prisoner could get help from his political party (Communist or Socialist), his religious group (Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews), national unit (Poles and the French), or family.

These factors were all actually outside of the control of the victim. No one could change his or her physical strength, acquire a skill overnight, learn languages immediately, get used to climates, or join a group without a great deal of time. But there was no time available. One technique for survival, however, could be learned: the will to survive. Those determined to survive, and willing to make all the needed adjustments through compromise and adaptation, had a chance to survive if all other factors- luck and skills-were also in their favor.

For Further Reading

Apart from individual memoirs, three volumes deal with the broad Issues of survival:

Bettelheim, Bruno. Surviving and Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.

Cohen, Elie. Human Behavior 1 n the Concentration Camp. New York: W. W. Norton, 1953.

Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Pocket Books, 1977.

Life in the Camps: The Psychological Dimension

A perennial question in discussions of the Concentration Camps is: How did anyone survive? Survivors have written accounts describing their own experiences. Most of them indicate, as previously detailed in the above article "Surviving," by Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton, that chance played a major role in individual survival. We must also take into consideration that if liberation would have been significantly delayed, very few would have survived at all. Yet, between chance and liberation, what psychological mechanisms were people able to mobilize for their own defense? Any answer requires an understanding of the conditions and the nature of the assault against the incarcerated victims. We must remember that conditions in Concentration Camps differed and the experiences of the inmates varied depending on the date and their origin.

The assault upon the inmates commenced before arrival at the camp itself. After experiencing the traumatic occurrences of the Nazi occupation, the individuals were then uprooted from familiar surroundings, to be deported to an unknown location.1 After an exhausting trip, typically lasting several days, packed in railroad cars like cattle and deprived of adequate food and water, they arrived at the camp. Later in the war, some inmates arrived after a forced march on foot. Upon arrival, they were immediately intimidated by the SS and their savage dogs, and by hardened kapos. Many of those at the extermination camps were immediately taken to the gas chambers;2 others often were beaten or witnessed violence, even murder, inflicted upon fellow inmates. Whatever comfort was derived from being together with family or friends was now lost as they were separated into different groups.

The inmates were first stripped of all their material possessions, including the clothes off their backs. Naked, they were physically searched to see if money or jewelry were hidden in any part of the bodily orifices. Shaved of all bodily hair, they were then given Showers at extreme temperatures. Afterwards, they were provided with ill-fitting, often tattered, clothes. Many new inmates were also subjected to beatings.3 Women faced possible sexual abuse. It was also at this point that veteran inmates, who usually had little comforting news to offer, were met for the first time.

Another part of the dehumanization process in the camps was the living conditions. The beds were often slats of wood covered with straw, where several inmates were "shelved" together. Toilet facilities were inadequate and access to them was usually strictly limited. Showers were allowed only, at rare and infrequent intervals. Conditions were overcrowded, devoid of any and all privacy.4

Camp life often involved assignment to harsh slave labor designed to break the backs and the souls of the inmates. The inmates, in fact, were "less than slaves," for their masters had no interest in keeping them alive.5 Some died in accidents. There were twice daily roll calls, which were held outdoors, even in the cruelest weather, and were often excruciatingly prolonged for the slightest whim or infraction of the rules. The inmates were subject to selections (for slave labor or extermination), wanton killing, and constant physical harassment. They were surrounded by death- everywhere.6

Inadequately clothed, often without proper foot gear, the inmates were also starved. The food-usually a watery gruel and bread-was not enough to sustain life, and was often adulterated.7 Malnutrition, combined with the unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions8-lice and vermin abounded-and lowered physical resistance, led to epidemics of typhus and dysentery.9 Medical treatment in the camps was almost nonexistent; there was also savage experimentation on human subjects. Illness could mean selection for the gas chambers.

Conventional language falls to describe the horrors of the Concentration Camps.10 One survivor put it this way:

Just as our hunger is not the feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say "hunger," we say "tiredness," "fear," "pain," we say "winter" and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer, a new, harsh language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, and wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing near.11

What has been discussed above is only meant to indicate those conditions which placed an enormous psychological strain that inmates had to endure. Again, noting that people live through experiences differently, there are certain commonalties. The arrival and the first brutal hours at the camps caused the newcomers to be shocked, dazed, listless, and apathetic. After separation from loved ones, many felt intense despair, abandonment, and isolation. Many were alone for the first time, creating a strong sense of hopelessness.12

Usually, the changes in a person's life are somewhat gradual, enabling the person to reorient himself and to adapt to a time continuum. The changes the inmates experienced in the camps were swift and massive. Some responded by denial-ref u sing to fully comprehend what was taking place.13 Many had difficulty making decisions or pursuing whatever severely limited actions they could on their own behalf. The spiritual and physical violence, the perpetual fear, and poor physical conditions of the inmates contributed for many to a lack of self-care or self-worth. In extreme cases, one became a mussel man, a man whose eyes were dead and who was a walking corpse. His time was limited and he would die from either disease, starvation, or the selections.14

As mentioned earlier, the camps were designed to destroy the life and autonomy of the inmates. It is not surprising that on a psychological level, many were indeed shattered.15

But many individuals survived. Those who overcame the first few days of selections and brutality had a chance to reintegrate (reestablish) their "shattered" personalities. They could adapt within severe limitations- to the realities of the camps. In an environment designed to destroy their humanity, personality reintegration involved a conscious decision to retain their dignity.

For many inmates, there was a particular moment when they decided to resist destruction.16 A crucial component of this resistance was to care for appearance by remaining clean.

Primo Levi, upon entering Auschwitz, remembers the advice given him by a fellow inmate:

... Precisely because the Lager... [is] a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; ... So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die. 17

A key to survival was the desire to bear witness.18 Within this desire, there was an implied belief that if mankind knew the horror, future atrocities could be prevented.19 Some wished to survive out of a feeling that someone-from their family or city-had to live. Others fought for survival out of a sheer will for life over death.

One way of increasing the possibility of survival was the dyad,20 a unit of two people. The inmate needed another person as a friend someone who would be concerned about him and, simply, someone who would talk to him. This provided emotional support at a time when all other support systems had been destroyed. Thus, inmates shared bread and even presented small gifts of food or articles of clothing to each other. This support system was certainly also of great "practical" significance. An inmate could help nurse a friend through an illness or support him from collapsing from exhaustion through a prolonged roll call.

Survivors' accounts while depicting the horrors also detail the inmates' mutual assistance. In Maidanek, for example, Alexander Donat's name was placed on a list to receive twenty-five lashes, a punishment he felt he could not survive. A fellow inmate, whom he barely knew, gave the panic-stricken Donat four cubes of sugar to bribe the kapo to remove his name from the list. Later, after diligent trading in the camp's black market, he repaid this "debt of honor" to his benefactor by presenting him with two cigarettes. In another instance, Donat's wife, Lena, a pharmacist in the Auschwitz hospital, exchanged beds with her friend Judith when the latter contracted typhus. By hiding her in this manner, Lena saved Judith from the selection. Sleeping in her friend's lice-infested bed, Lena knew that she would become III within the disease's two-week incubation period. During Lena's subsequent bout with typhus, friends protected her. In this case, as in others, mutual assistance did not insure survival for all. While Lena recovered, her childhood friend and fellow worker, Ola, caught the disease and died.21

Some survived through collaboration with the enemy, and others engaged in brutality to other inmates. There were also thefts of food and clothing and violent fightS.22 This type of ruthlessness was not the whole story. Many inmates were helped by and contributed to the larger group. While complying with camp rules on the surface, many used unauthorized means to subvert the systems.23 Smuggling, stealing supplies from work areas, bartering on the camp's black market, transferring work assignments, and tampering with lists were all inmates' means to aid in their own and in the group's survival. At times, news or rumors from the front spread through the camps, encouraging many.

A number of inmates were aided in their survival through a belief in someone or something which existed outside of their immediate circumstances. Although the inmate could not be expected to focus upon his belief with any consistency, it still provided a measure of support. Viktor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, spoke one night to his barracks, which had gone without food that day rather than inform upon a fellow inmate. Frankl encouraged each man to find his own significance in his suffering, whether a loved one, one's life work, or a belief. They needed to feel both that their death would have a meaning and, conversely, that they had a reason to survive.24

It is pertinent to note that religious Jews, Zionists, and Communists often seemed to survive better than assimilated Jews. The individual who possessed a religious or political ideology often resisted Nazi horror through placing his experiences within a context. In contrast, the assimilated, humanistic intellectual was unable to do so. He suffered the physical hardships of the camp worse than even the nonintellectual inmate, as he saw his belief in man collapse. jean Amery, the western European intellectual, in reviewing his own experiences in Auschwitz, states that: "... whoever is, in the broadest sense, a believing person, whether his belief be metaphysical or bound to concrete reality, transcends himself. He is not the captive of his individuality; rather he is part of a spiritual community that is interrupted nowhere, not even at Auschwitz."25

A cautionary word must be expressed. The camp did not offer good choices26-a positive action for oneself or for a comrade could have negative consequences for another person. If one inmate's name was removed from a list, then someone else's would have to be added. Often the choices implied tragedy: the mother who had to select one of her three children to live; the nurse who drowned a newborn infant so that the mother would not be gassed. We must be careful lest, in order to make sense of what took place in the camps, we overstate or romanticize the mechanisms by which people survived.

In detailing their experiences, survivors often expose brutalized inmates who would do anything to survive. Yet, there are also portraits of people who held firm to their values27: comradeship and social organization; religious28 and political beliefs; and the memory of a loved one.29 In their daily lives in the camps, survivors tell of being obsessed by hunger, cold, constant terror, and uncertainty. Although to have lived their lives at this level of debasement was the purpose of the perpetrators, the survivors were able, in some circumstances, to function at another level of human dignity and transcendent values. It is this duality of their survival which must be remembered.


1. See Christopher R. Browning's article, "Deportations," in this volume; Rahmil Bryks, Kiddush ha-Shern, trans. S. Morris Engel (New York: Behrman House, 1977), pp. 49-54.

2. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi' Assault on Humanity (New York: Collier Books, 1969), pp. 18-32.

3. Alexander Donat, The Holocaust Kingdom (New York: Holocaust Library, 1978), pp. 161-190.

4. Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor:An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 55-80.

5. Benjamin B. Ferencz, Less Than Slaves (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).

6. Professor Andre Stein, "The Wasteland of Speech," unpublished manuscript.

7. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1961), pp. 581-582.

8. Anna Pawelczynska, Values and Violence in Auschwitz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 24-43.

9. Wieslaw Kielar, Anus Mundi: 1,500 Days in Auschwitz Birkenau (New York: Times Books, 1980), p. 84; Richard Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and American History (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 48-67.

10. George Steiner, Language and Silence (New York: Atheneum, 1979), pp. 118-126, 155-170; Lawrence L. Langer, Versions of Survival (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), pp. 1-65.

11.Levi, Survival, pp. 112-113.

12. Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), pp. 94-103; Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), pp. 274-314.

13. Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart (Glendale, Ca: The Free Press, 1960), pp. 120-130.

14. Pawelczynska, Values and Violence, p. 76.

15. Des Pres and Bettelheim refer to this as "personalitv disintegration," the process by which the usual coherence of an individual's actions, thoughts, and self-perception is destroyed. See Des Pres, The Survivor, pp. 81-108.

16. Des Pres, The Survivor, pp. 27-54.

17. Levi, Survival, p. 36.

18. Yisrael Gutman, "Kiddush ha-Shem and Kiddush haHayim,- Yalkut Moreshet 24 (October 1977): 7-22.

19. Des Pres, The Survivor, pp. 109-174.

20. Levi, Survival, pp 70-78.

21. Donat, Holocaust Kingdom, p. 308.

22. Filip Muller, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (New York: Stein and Day, 1979), pp. 120-171.

23. Des Pres, The Survivor, pp. 95-147.

24. Frankl, Man's Search, pp. 128-133.

25. jean Amery At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 14.

26. Lawrence L. Langer, "The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps," Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 53-59.

27. Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1979).

28. Muller Eyewitness, pp. 113-114.

29. Frankl, Man's Search, p. 58.

For Further Reading

Amery jean. At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Informed Heart. Glendale, Ca: The Free Press, 1960.

Surviving and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Birenbaum, Halina. Hope Is the Last to Die. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971.

Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Donat, Alexander. The Holocaust Kingdom. New York: Holocaust Library, 1978.

Ferencz, Benjamin B. Less Than Slaves. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Frankl, Viktor E. The Doctor and the Soul. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Beacon Press, 1959.

Kielar, Wieslaw. Anus Mundi: 1,500 Days in Auschwitz/lBirkenau. New York: Times Books, 1980.

Unger, Lawrence. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.

"The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps." Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 53-59.

Versions of Survival. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

Levi, Primo. survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Collier Books, 1969 (Originally appeared under the title, If This Man Be Man, Orion Press, 1959).

Muller, Filip. Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years In the Gas Chambers. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.


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