A Day in the Life of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
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

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 in 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 disease.

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 was 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 into 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 entertainments, theater, and other cultural entertainments. Jews sent to Theresienstadt were fed better, lived in far cleaner barracks, and 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 a 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 of 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 which 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 ordeed 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 numbers 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 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, depended 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 be allowed to use the brothels in the belief it might “cure” them from 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

“Transportation to camps”. Entry, The Holocaust Explained. Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide. Online

“German resistance report on prisoner arrivals at Esterwegen, 1936”. Display, Daily Life. The Nazi Concentration Camps. Online

“A Jew Who Beat Jews in a Nazi Camp is Stripped of His Citizenship”. Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times. February 5, 1988

“Enemies of the State”. Entry, The Holocaust Encyclopedia. US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Online

“The Former Political Prisoner Julius Freund on Roll Calls”. Display, Daily Life. The Nazi Concentration Camps. Online

“Dora-Mittelbrau/Nordhausen”. Article, Holocaust Education & Research Team. Online

“The Prisoner Dionys Lenard on Early Mornings in Majdanek”. Display, Daily Life. The Nazi Concentration Camps. Online

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“The Survivor Wladyslaw Kuraszkiewicz on the “Muselmanner”. Display, Daily Life, The Nazi Concentration Camps. Online

“Daily Routines”. Article, The Holocaust Explained. Wiener Library. Online

“Euthanasia Killings”. Article, US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Online

“The Ustashi Legacy: Remembering the Children’s Concentration Camp in Sisak”. Marinella Matejcic, Global Voices. February 6, 2015

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“Concentration Camp System: In Depth”. Entry, Holocaust Encyclopedia. US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Online

“Terezin (Theresienstadt): The ‘Model’ Ghetto”. Article, The Jewish Virtual Library. Online

“Only Nazi Concentration Camp on British Soil May Be Protected”. BBC News, Guernsey. March 10, 2015. Online

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“Concentration Camp Bordellos: ‘The Main Thing Was To At All”. Mareike Fallet and Simone Kaiser, Spiegel Online. June 25, 2009. Online