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
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

“Diary Entry by the Norwegian Prisoner Odd Nansen”. Display, Daily Life. The Nazi Concentration Camps. Online

“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

“Living and Sanitary Conditions at Birkenau”. Entry, Living Conditions. Auschwitz Concentration and Extermination Camp. Online

“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

“The Order of the Day”. Article, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Online

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

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