A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner

Larry Holzwarth - September 27, 2019

Besides the death camps such as Auschwitz, generally referred to as extermination camps, the Nazis operated concentration camps throughout the Third Reich starting in the spring of 1933. Initially, the camps were used to imprison what the Nazis considered undesirables, such as political dissidents, homosexuals, Roma, and basically anyone else the Nazis didn’t like. At the time the Second World War started there were roughly 21,000 held in the camps. By the end of the war, there were more than seven hundred thousand.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Prisoners at Dachau welcome the arrival of American troops and their freedom. US Holocaust Museum

Dachau, described by Heinrich Himmler as “the first concentration camp for political prisoners”, opened in March, 1933. It was mandated by the state that all communists were to be sent there, described as a necessity to ease the burden on the state prisons. The SA also opened some camps, which were taken over by the SS under Himmler the following year. Before the end of the war in 1945 with the collapse of Nazi Germany, well over three million people spent time in the German camps. Early in their existence, such as at Christmas of 1933, it was possible to be released from the camps as part of a pardon, or through rehabilitation, but as the war drew on those releases became rare. Here is some of what daily life was like in the concentration camps.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Dachau was built as a concentration camp for “undesirables” within Germany in the 1930s. Wikimedia

1. The difference between the concentration camps and the extermination camps

The original camps were built to house prisoners which the government deemed to be enemies of the state, which by Nazi definition included Jews. The early camps were built in Germany but after the conquest of Poland in 1939 construction began on camps in the German-occupied section, to house millions of Poles under Nazi control, and Jews and other undesirables from Germany. As the Nazis expanded westward, Jews from western Europe joined in the forced migration to the east. After the decision to implement the Final Solution, the construction of camps designed for the mass extermination of Nazi undesirables began.

The existing concentration camps provided the earliest victims to the extermination camps, after which most of them were sent to the east directly from their homes or detention centers in Europe. At arrival, nearly all deemed unable to work were sent directly to the gas chambers. The concentration camps continued to receive new prisoners throughout the war, including some Russian PoWs, some other Allied PoWs considered of importance to the Nazis, state officials awaiting “trial”, those accused of treason, and others arrested within the confines of the Third Reich.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Following the German annexation of Austria, the population of concentration camps began to expand rapidly. Wikimedia

2. The early camps were designed for forced labor rather than mass executions

Near the end of 1938, the mass imprisonment of Jews and other “indesirables” began. For the first time, after the number of arrests of Jews following the annexation of Austria and Kristallnacht, Jews became the majority of persons sent to the camps. At the time the official policy of the German government was the forced deportation of Jews, rather than genocide. Jews sent to the camps (which were at the time all within Germany proper) were sent as forced laborers. They were joined by Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses (for refusing to be conscripted into the German military), others who avoided conscription, homosexuals, the chronically unemployed, and vagrants.

They were also joined, beginning in 1937, with criminals who had a record of prior convictions. Recidivists were arrested en masse in several raids ordered directly by Himmler. The state prisons were also swept for career criminals, and these too were dispatched to the camps in Germany. There they were forced into certain jobs in which the prisoners saw to the daily operation of the camps, under the direct supervision of SS guards. Known as Kapos, they served as kitchen supervisors, secretaries, barracks supervisors, and in other roles. Because they could be removed from their role for unsatisfactory performance, they were granted certain authority over their fellow prisoners.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Deportees are gathered for transport to a camp from Asperg early in the war. Wikimedia

3. Prisoners were sent to the camp in a variety of ways

The most commonly depicted means of prisoners arriving at the camps was by train, though before the war and the expansion of German-controlled territory, other means were more common. Camps deemed close enough to allow it was arrived at by walking, escorted by SS guards who typically rode. Prisoners walked while carrying what personal possessions the Nazis allowed them to keep. Others rode by truck, and before the outbreak of hostilities were usually fed and given sufficient water for the trip, which was punctuated by relief breaks as the guards deemed necessary.

Those arriving by train were sent in boxcars, often packed to the point of being forced to stand, though this practice began to emerge only after the camps to the east were opened. Prisoners were seldom told where they were going, though many knew. Once the Final Solution was underway there was little incentive for the SS to provide food, water, and in winter time heat, since only the hardiest were going to survive the journey and be of any use to the Nazis upon arrival at the camps. The rest were destined for immediate disposal.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
An unloading area at Auschwitz-Birkenau circa 1942. Wikimedia

4. Arrival procedures varied from camp to camp

Once the prisoners arrived at the camp, regardless of their method of transport, they were processed by the camp staff. It is widely believed that all prisoners were tattooed with their assigned number, though that is untrue. Some camps, (such as Auschwitz) did tattoo the prisoners’ numbers on their wrists. Others had them sewn into their newly issued prison uniform. All camps shaved the heads of the prisoners and forced them into showers, for the purpose of protecting against lice in the camps which were not extermination facilities. From the point of being issued a number that was typically how the prisoner was addressed by the Germans, by number rather than name.

Barracks assignments were made (men, women and children were separated upon arrival) and all personal possessions which the prisoners had brought with them were taken away by Kapos, closely watched by the SS guards. A Kapo who notified a guard of a particularly valuable piece of jewelry or a handsome watch could expect a special reward, such as extra bread, from the SS man. Either during the processing or shortly thereafter the prisoner was notified of their work assignment and turned over to the appropriate Kapo to begin their life at the camp.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Persecuted men in the concentration camp at Dachau – Daily Mail

5. Life in the camps was subject to the Kapos and SS guards

At most camps, the prisoners were awakened at four in the morning, and given thirty or forty minutes to attend to their morning toilet and ablutions, clean their beds and barracks areas assigned to them, and eat breakfast. There were seldom the amenities of fresh water and soap, and up to 2,000 prisoners could be forced to share the same washing area, and water. The Kapos were responsible for ensuring the prisoners completed these morning functions satisfactorily and arrived at roll call on time, and for providing an accurate count of the prisoners to the SS guards. It was the Kapos who usually discovered prisoners who had died in the night, and reported such to the SS.

Prisoners remained at roll call until any discrepancies in the count were resolved, and those arriving late faced punishment from the Kapos or the SS. Officially the work day began with the sunrise (for this reason prisoners were often awakened later in the winter months). What type of labor the prisoners performed varied from camp to camp. Some worked as forced labor in manufacturing facilities nearby, others in the fields growing crops, and some were taken outside the camps to work on roads, electrical grids, canals, and other infrastructure of the Third Reich. Some worked within the camp itself.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
All who were sent to the camps had committed the crime of being considered an enemy of the Reich. Wikimedia

6. All prisoners were considered to be enemies of the Reich

Regardless of the race, ethnicity, or political positions of prisoners at the camps, the SS considered them to be enemies and subject to harsh punishment. In the earliest days of the camps, before the war, some prisoners sent for reasons of political orientation were subject to rehabilitation and release, and in fact, many were released. This included Jews before the Final Solution mandated the extermination of all Jews in Europe. Few improvements took place in any of the camps after the onset of the war, and little maintenance meant that barracks barely adequate at the beginning deteriorated quickly with use. So did the rest of the facilities.

Blankets wore thin, became ragged, and offered little in the way of warmth or comfort. Despite physical exhaustion, sleep was often difficult, if possible at all. As the barracks broke down walls admitted drafts, roofs leaked, and floors, beds, and blankets became constantly damp. The combination of harsh physical labor, insufficient sleep, and lack of nutrition, as well as lack of calories, led to disease and death. There was little in the form of medical treatment in the camps, and in most labor camps those too weakened by starvation or disease to work were deported to other camps for killing, if not killed where they were.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
A roll call at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

7. Roll calls were a long and deeply feared daily event

Every day began with a roll call, and all prisoners, sick included, were mustered where they could be examined by the SS guards and counts were taken. If it was raining they stood in the rain, if snowing their feet began to freeze due to the inadequacies of their shoes. Sick and weak prisoners found roll calls to be death sentences. Failure to stand erect throughout the roll call was enough to receive a beating from an SS guard, usually delivered with a truncheon. Dirty or torn clothing could draw SS wrath. Roll calls were often used to assemble the prisoners so they could witness prisoners being whipped for violations of camp rules.

Discrepancies in head counts between the Kapos and SS guards often led to roll calls lasting for hours as they were resolved. Often Kapos who were part of a discrepancy were relieved of their duties and punished by the SS who despised them, and then by fellow prisoners who hated the Kapos as well. Roll calls could also be extended at the whim of the camp commandant or duty officer, who would keep the prisoners at attention and exposed to the elements for reasons known only to themselves. If a prisoner wavered due to standing too long, he would receive a beating. Often SS guards ordered the Kapos to deliver the beatings, as a form of entertainment for the guards.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
A Nazi propaganda photo taken at Sachsenhausen depicts well-clothed prisoners at roll call. Wikimedia

8. Some camps were built to support specific Nazi goals with labor forces

Before the war began many of the camps were constructed along the same lines as would be used later for prisoner-of-war camps, with barracks, separate latrines and washrooms, store rooms, and so forth. Later, as camps grew in size during the war, only the most rudimentary construction techniques for new barracks were used. Some camps did not erect barracks at all. The camp at Dora kept prisoners underground for a time, in tunnels constructed to house and feed them, and worked underground as well. The Dora prisoners lived as moles for months at a time, beginning when the camp was built in 1943.

Dora housed prisoners who worked at the facilities in Germany where the production lines for the components of the V-2 rockets were built. They were moved underground as a means of protecting themselves from the American and British bombing. The Nazis were concerned about the production rate, but not the workers who came from the concentration camp. By mid-1944 the death rate for prisoners at Dora was one in three. It worsened before the war ended. The workers at Dora supported the work of Werner von Braun, who later claimed to have been unaware of the appalling conditions among the forced laborers who built the facility that built his rockets.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Roma (Gypsies) being deported to Kozare and Jasenovac, both Croatian concentration camps. Yugoslavia, July 1942. Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije

9. Dora was populated with prisoners sent there from other camps

When the decision was made to use slave labor in the V-2 program underground, prisoners were sent to Dora from other camps within the Nazi system. The high death rate at Dora meant that replacement prisoners arrived steadily throughout the camp’s period of operation. The facility was near Nordhausen, and Allied bombing had by then disrupted much of the rail network. Prisoners were sent to Dora by truck, for many, the brief period between exiting the truck on arrival and entering the wooden sheds which sheltered the tunnel entrances was the last daylight they would ever see.

They saw little light at all, the tunnels were poorly illuminated with electric bulbs and lanterns. One of the uses of slave labor at Dora was the continuing expansion of the tunnels and underground chambers. Ventilation systems had yet to be installed for many, and the workers endured poor light, dank conditions, starvation, no drinking water in the tunnels, and very poor air quality. The SS considered a dying worker to be a lost asset and an inconvenience and demanded that only the healthiest prisoners be sent to the project after Hitler made the Vengeance Weapons program a priority. The death rate remained high.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Majdanek went from a labor camp to an extermination camp following the Wannsee Protocol, as did many camps. Wikimedia

10. Brutal treatment for prisoners began years before the war

After the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany in the mid-1930s, resistance to their movement and leadership moved underground. This resistance extended to within the barriers of several of the early concentration camps. Reports from prisoners were smuggled to supporters outside of the camps, describing conditions within, as early as 1936. These reports described the brutality of the SS guards, beginning with the arrival at camp. Newly arrived prisoners were beaten with rifle butts, kicked, and threatened with worse by screaming SS guards.

A report by a Social Democrat who was a member of the underground resistance described the shoes issued to the prisoners as “heavy wooden clogs” in which they were forced to perform military-style drill maneuvers. “This footwear was unfamiliar to all and even old army veterans were scarcely able to correctly implement the orders of the young louts”, he wrote. The wooden clogs were issued to all prisoners, as leather was far too valuable to be wasted on them in the minds of the SS hierarchy, it being needed to support other issues far more important for the war effort, such as the heavy boots which the guards used to kick the prisoners.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
An escaper from Majdanek alerted western allies to the deteriorating conditions in the camps at the onset of mass exterminations. Wikimedia

11. There were escapes from the camps, and conditions within them were known as a result

Majdenek was originally built to house slave labor in Poland when it was opened in the fall of 1941. It was later expanded to serve as an extermination camp as well in the late winter of 1942, under orders from Himmler. In July of that year, Dionys Lenard escaped from the camp and brought back the first confirmation of the existence of the extermination camps, delivering it to an underground resistance group in Slovakia. He also brought detailed information about the daily life in the forced labor camp at Majdanek based on his personal experience there.

Lenard described 3,150 men crowding to use the latrine and washroom which was large enough to accommodate fifty. The same conditions occurred at breakfast, and with only thirty minutes allowed between being awakened and reporting for roll call, few managed to get anything to eat or drink before beginning their work day. The same conditions prevailed at lunch and dinner, each followed by a roll call. According to Lenard, “We tried various ways of sharing out the food fairly, if it is even possible to use such terms, but we never managed it”.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Prisoners laboring at Sachsenhausen, likely before the war. Wikimedia

12. A political prisoner’s secret diary described the food provided at one camp

Odd Nansen was a Norwegian who joined in the resistance movement, providing written denouncements of the Nazis, for which he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Sachsenhausen as a political prisoner. He was later sent to Veidal Prison Camp in Norway to be used as a forced laborer during the construction of snow fences and snow sheds along a roadway. Nansen kept a diary describing the conditions at Sachsenhausen and at the forced labor camp, which was later published as a memoir in Norway under the title Day after Day in 1946. He survived the war.

In his diary, he described the food which was served in an entry dated Wednesday, 3 November, 1943. The meal was ladled out for consumption outdoors, and according to Nansen between where it was doled out and where it was meant to be consumed, it became quite cold. “The soup, which is degenerating more and more – it now consists of boiled rutabaga and a little cabbage with potatoes added…” Nansen described being surrounded by Russian and Ukrainian prisoners while consuming his soup, all of them begging for scraps from his “aluminum dishes”.

13. The Muselmann were tormented to death deliberately

Muselmmann (German for Muslim) was a term used in the camps to describe those doomed to die. It was a derisive slang term used by the prisoners, mostly Jewish, and the SS guards as well and applied to those who had simply given up and resigned themselves to their fates. According to a survivor of Sachsenhausen, the SS guards took it upon themselves to help them along the way. It was easy to become a Muselmann, a common cold could weaken a prisoner to the point that it was noticed by the guards, who would then beat them, further weakening them, and beginning the downward trend. Anyone could become a Muselmann through simple bad luck.

The Muselmann came back from work, “…dirtier and more exhausted…than the others. Because they were always pushed to the back they often did not manage to eat their lunchtime soup”. Missing meals meant further weakening, greater exhaustion, poorer work performance, and more beatings as the cycle continued downward. A Jewish survivor of Sachshausen wrote, “Finally they would become numb and stupid, losing their will and their control of themselves – that was the typical Muselmann.” Muselmannen were quickly selected for extermination after the Final Solution was implemented.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Heinrich Himmler arrives to inspect Dachau concentration camp in 1938. The uniformed guards stand before an administration building. Wikimedia

14. There was no free time to speak of in the labor camps

From the minute the prisoners were awakened in the pre-dawn hours to the time they were ordered into their bunks, or wherever they slept, many of them resorting to floors as overcrowding became common in the camps, their time was regimented. Depending on the camp, the sound of a gong, or a siren, or the screams of guards, ordered them to their next activity. Roll calls followed each meal. Dismissal from roll call was an order to work or to barracks. Prisoners were required to maintain their own clothes, an activity which was completed whenever possible, usually in the short time between evening roll call and lights out.

Clothes and clogs were rarely reissued, many prisoners took both from the newly dead in order to maintain their own, a situation frowned on by the Nazis as it helped spread disease. The SS was not particularly concerned with the health and well-being of the prisoners. It was concerned with a decrease in the efficiency of the slave labor leading to a negative impact on their own careers. Deteriorated clogs and ragged clothing worn by a prisoner-led to increased beatings administered by SS guards, hastening death, either through natural causes at the camp or shipment to the death camps.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Himmler on an earlier visit to Dachau, in 1936, while construction of the camp by prisoners was ongoing. Wikimedia

15. Himmler decided to eliminate unproductive prisoners in 1941

By the spring of 1941 all of the labor camps were overcrowded, the result of Hitler’s armies overrunning Western Europe. An increase in the influx of slave labor was also anticipated from the east once the invasion of the Soviet Union was launched. Himmler extended a program designated Action T-4 to cover the labor camps. T-4 was an official Nazi euthanasia program which had been implemented to clear the hospitals and homes for the infirm of those unable to work or otherwise undesirable in the minds of the senior Nazi hierarchy. These included the mentally ill, criminal recidivists, disabled, and others.

Himmler’s extension of the program to the camps included homosexuals, those suspected of other deviant behaviors, those physically unable to work, those unwilling to work, and others. As the daily life in the camps gradually weakened the prisoners to the point of physical exhaustion they became conduits to the execution camps. In April 1941 Sachsenhausen began the execution of prisoners using carbon monoxide gas. Prisoners executed by gas were entered into the efficient German documentation system as being retired. Known as Action 14f13 in the camps, the program continued until late 1944, when the Nazis decided to destroy as much of the evidence of their activities as they could.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Children at the Shelter for Refugee Children at Sisak, date unknown. Wikimedia

16. The Shelter for Children Refugees in Sisak

The Nazi-aligned government of Croatia established the Shelter for Children Refugees in Sisak, Croatia, in 1942. Eventually, the camp held over 6,600 children between the ages of 3 and 16. Most of the housing provided was in disused stables with little improvements appropriate to human habitation. Officially there was a school, which saw little use for anything to do with education. Sisak was run by a doctor of medicine, Antun Najzer, who operated a small infirmary and did take the steps of isolating those children with infectious diseases from the others, but the death toll on both was terrible. Most of the children sent to Sisak were of adults sent to other labor camps.

The International Red Cross was aware of Sisak and attempted to intervene on the behalf of the children, who were not prisoners of the German SS. They were imprisoned by the Croatian Ustase, who agreed with the Nazi belief that Slavs, Jews, Roma, and many others were subhuman. Though the SS gassed children in the extermination camps, the Ustase did not, though it did nothing to prevent them from starvation or dying from disease. Nazjer also found children useful for his medical experiments to the point that he became known as the Croat Mengele and was executed for war crimes after their extent became known in 1946.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Jewish former prisoners being released by the Red Army after treatment in 1945. Wikimedia

17. Life meant contending with infestation

Daily life in many of the concentration camps was further degraded by the presence of rats, mice, cockroaches, lice, and other infestations – some of them seasonal – with which the prisoners were forced to contend. During the first year of operation of the labor camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau known as B-1, water was not available anywhere other than the kitchen. Without access to water, prisoners were unable to wash themselves or their clothing and the continuous damp and filthy conditions made the camp a playground for lice and other infestations. Latrines were in the open air, unscreened. Daily life for the slave laborers meant continuous exposure to contagious diseases.

For reasons perhaps only comprehensible to the SS, in 1943 they took steps to improve the sanitation facilities at the camp, even as the extermination camps were beginning to complete their deadly mission. Bathhouses and sanitation facilities were constructed at the camps. Crude toilet barracks were built, essentially giant outhouses with 58 “toilets”. Prisoners were granted privileges to use the facilities for washing themselves, but they were required to undress in the barracks in which they slept and walk to the showers naked, a daunting prospect during the Polish winter.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
The Waffen SS Dirlewanger Brigade included violent criminal offenders released from Auschwitz in 1944. Wikimedia

18. It was possible (though unlikely) to obtain a release from most of the camps

Before the war began, and under certain conditions, after it had been raging for years, it was possible for some prisoners to obtain a release from the concentration camps. Even Auschwitz released prisoners under certain conditions. For most of the prisoners, daily life did not include the hope of early freedom, or even of rescue by the Allied armies. For others, the possibilities helped them contend with conditions. Release criteria for all camps were established before Dachau was opened, and changed considerably throughout the war. Some prisoners, nearly all political prisoners or those imprisoned for rehabilitation, could meet established criteria through the camp.

Other requests for the SS to review the status of prisoners and consider them for release came from the puppet governments of the occupied territories. By late 1942 nearly all releases came to a stop due to increased pressure by their German masters on the occupied territories. But not all. In 1944 nearly 200 prisoners were released from the labor camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were nearly all convicted criminals who had managed to survive several years at the camps. They were released in order to enlist in the Dirlewanger Brigade of the Waffen SS, a unit comprised of violent criminals recruited to fight against the underground.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
A German identification card known as an Ausweis issued at Theresienstadt in 1944. Wikimedia

19. The show camp at Theresienstadt offered both life and death

In 1941 the Germans created a ghetto in Terezin in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. It was established to project an image of European Jews living happily under the protection of the German SS. Famous Jews from throughout Europe were sent to the camp at Terezin in a deliberate and somewhat flamboyant attempt to deceive the rest of Europe regarding what it meant to be transported to the east. Terezin also served as a temporary stop for many Jews on their journey to the extermination camps. The camp was self-administered by Jewish leaders (under SS supervision) and offered education facilities for children and adults.

It also offered musical entertainment, theater, and other cultural entertainment. Jews sent to Theresienstadt were fed better, lived in far cleaner barracks, wore their own clothes, and enjoyed an opportunity to purchase more. They were visited by the Red Cross and other organizations to spread the word of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews and deny the rumors of activities at the camps in the east. About 88,000 Jews were eventually transported to those camps from Terezin. About 33,000 died in Theresienstadt from diseases, or from old age, and there were several hanged by the SS for crimes such as smuggling letters to and from the camp.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Plan of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, used by the Germans to convince the world there was no mass extermination of the Jews in Europe. Wikimedia

20. As the Germans attempted to hide the evidence of the extermination camps they made a film about Theresienstadt

In late 1944, German-Jewish actor and film director, Kurt Gerron, was instructed to make a film about life in Theresienstadt. It drew all of his performers and film crew from the camp population. Gerron’s film included a performance by a symphony orchestra, a children’s choir, and depictions of healthy Jews receiving medical care. The film also depicted the Jews at work, at play, and in family situations typical of safe and care-free people. After filming was completed, and it was ready for editing, Gerron and the film crew were deported to Auschwitz. They were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival.

By April 1945, Himmler found another use for the film. The Russians had already overrun most of the camps in the east. The western allies were finding similar camps as they continued to drive towards the heart of Germany. Himmler opened negotiations with the International Red Cross through envoys. He hoped to strike a deal with the western allies, which would allow him to deny knowledge of the eastern camps. It was to no avail. Nearly all of the players who appeared in the film, and the crew who made it, were executed in the extermination camps before the film was ever seen. It was shown, in its entirety, four times. It is considered lost today – other than short segments comprising about twenty minutes.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Dutch prisoners were among the “volunteers” sent to concentration camps in the Channel Islands. Wikimedia

21. There were concentration camps on the Channel Island of Alderney

Four camps were built on Alderney, built to hold laborers to erect the fortifications which were part of the defenses which comprised the Atlantic Wall. In 1943 two of the camps became concentration camps run by the SS. The prisoners were mostly Russian and Polish PoWs as well as Jews from throughout the continent. One of the camps, known as Lager Helgoland, housed in addition to laborers identified as volunteers (meaning for the most part they were there to avoid harsher punishment for some miscreant behavior) German technical specialists. The treatment of the prisoners in all of the camps was similar to that of labor camps on the continent.

Prisoners could avail themselves of a brisk black market in the Alderney camps, which extended to their German and French Colonial guards as well. In 1943 a German naval officer discovered a black man (a French Colonial officer) beating a prisoner. The subsequent investigation he ordered revealed that the Commandant of one of the camps, under whom the Colonial officer served, had been engaged in black market activities, obtaining cigarettes, chocolate, and other items from Dutch workers and selling them on the black market. The German officer, Karl Tietz, was given 18 months imprisonment for participating in black market activities.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Prisoners were allowed to send and receive mail at nearly all camps, subject to stringent restrictions and censorship. Wikimedia

22. Mail was allowed in most of the concentration camps, though strictly censored

The first commandant of Dachau set the pattern for the sending and receiving of mail for prisoners. In many camps, receiving mail was considered a privilege. A privilege which could be readily taken away as a punishment. Though the SS much preferred beating a prisoner for punishment. Postcards or letter paper were issued, and prisoners could send and receive two per month, to relatives only. Letters were limited to fifteen lines; postcards to ten. They could also receive newspapers, but they had to be kept at the camp post office. No money was allowed to be sent, and no packages of any kind were allowed. Any received were confiscated by the SS until 1942.

Most other camps adopted the Dachau pattern, and allowed mail in a similar manner. All mail posted from the camp or arriving was read by the post office workers. Anything determined to be threatening to the Reich or the camp led to punishment of the prisoner. All letter were required to be written in German. The line reading “I am fine and everything is well here” or some variation containing a similar message was required to be included in every outgoing message. The Dachau pattern also warned the prisoners that it was useless to address the authority which had imprisoned them with a request for release.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Prisoners perform slave labor for IG Farben at its Auschwitz complex, early in WW2. Wikimedia

23. Often the prisoners’ labor was building the camp in which they were housed

When Auschwitz opened in June 1940, the camp was limited to a half-dozen two-story, Polish army barracks and 14 single-story structures. One of the first jobs of the prisoners during their forced labor was the addition of second stories to the smaller buildings. In the spring of 1941, the prisoners built eight additional buildings. When completed, the existing camp was designed to hold about 700 prisoners. Unfortunately, it was already occupied by 1,200. Until bunks were added, the prisoners slept on the floors on straw mattresses. These were taken up in piles during the work day.

The practice of using the prisoners as slave labor to build their own prison continued throughout the expansion of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And was used by other camps. Once the camps were large enough, earlier arrivals were often executed and replaced with new prisoners. The new prisoners continued to expand and operate the camp, or were hired out as slave labor to German manufacturers or construction projects. The commercial industries which hired slave labor from the camps paid them wages. But these were lower than those paid civilian workers. In any case, the wages were not to the laborer, but to the SS.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Prisoners at Dachau in 1938 could not receive packages in the mail, a situation changed by Himmler in 1942. Wikimedia

24. By 1942, the prisoners could receive packages from the outside world

In October 1942, Himmler realized the number of deaths of prisoners in the labor camp system was problematic. It was making the labor camp system inefficient and costly for the Reich. Rather than increase the costs of feeding the prisoners by purchasing additional food, he ordered that prisoners be allowed to receive packages in the mail. But, in some camps, food could be sent to prisoners either by relatives or organizations. One such organization was the International Red Cross. Red Cross packages were frequently intercepted by the SS or the Kapos. They ransacked the packages for whatever they contained. A Kapo could be shot for it.

Nonetheless, in some camps, the reception of packages meant the difference between survival and death. It also led to the development of black markets within the confines of the camps. Food and other items sent in, such as cigarettes, traded briskly among the prisoners. Such trading could only take place at night, during the brief time between returning to the barracks at the end of evening roll call and lights out. After lights out, anyone not in their assigned bunk or sleeping place was liable for immediate discipline by the guards.

A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
Prisoners at Sachsenhausen in 1938 display both their serial numbers and identification patches sewn onto their uniforms. Wikimedia

25. The prisoners had “money” and the Germans provided means to spend it

Prisoners arriving at the concentration camps had all their valuables confiscated by the SS, including their money. At most camps, they were distributed an allowance in the form of prison currency. A class system developed in the camps based on the status of the prisoners. Some were VIPs, usually those held for political purposes. Their future value was considered by the SS when they granted them greater privileges. Others were functionaries of the camp itself. Others were the Kapos who assisted the SS in maintaining and operating the camps. The amount of camp currency received by each prisoner was dependent on where they found themselves within the camp’s hierarchy.

The SS provided the means of spending the currency earned within the camp. Although in most camps Jews were excluded from using their earnings. Who could use various facilities, and to what level, depending on one thing. The color of the triangular badges worn by all prisoners determined their priority. Jews wore two yellow triangles which formed the Star of David. Homosexuals wore pink triangles, which allowed them to use the Lagerbordell, a camp brothel established by the Germans at nearly all camps. The women who staffed them were mostly prisoners from Ravensbruck (Auschwitz selected them from its own prisoners). Himmler encouraged homosexuals to be allowed to use the brothels in the belief it might “cure” them of the deviancy which had caused their imprisonment.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps”. Nikolaus Wachsmann. 2015

“Germany and the Camp System”. Auschwitz, Inside the Nazi State. PBS.org. Online

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