Life in Auschwitz

Life in the shadow of death

Youth and fitness for work gained a prisoner a temporary reprieve from the gas chambers. From the time they entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, everything was done to debase and dehumanise the Jews who were not immediately gassed in order to rob them of their individuality. Prisoners were deprived of their clothing, given striped uniforms or poorly fitting clothes and had all their body hair shaved. Each of them was identified solely by the number he or she was designated. In some cases the numbers were tattooed onto their left arms. Prisoners were also distinguished by triangular pieces of cloth sewn onto their clothing — political prisoners a red triangle, Jehovah’s Witnesses purple, criminals green, Jews yellow and homosexuals pink.

Prisoners lived in barracks and slept packed together on ‘koyas’ (sections of wooden slats). A prisoner’s day began at dawn with the dreaded Zähl appell (roll call). The weather was cold in Auschwitz at that time of day, even in summer. The prisoners were ordered to line up outdoors in rows of five and to stay there until the SS officers arrived. They were counted and recounted. Sometimes this procedure was repeated in the middle of the night, the inmates forced to stand motionless for hours in the cold, rain or snow. Whoever stumbled or fell was sent to be gassed.

After the roll call, the Kommandos (work details) walked to their place of work, wearing striped uniforms and ill-fitting wooden shoes without socks. Kapos (prisoner supervisors) were responsible for the prisoners behaviour and conformity while they worked, as was an SS escort. The working day lasted 12 hours during summer and somewhat less in winter. It was marked by torture and fatigue. Much of the work took place at construction sites, in quarries and lumber yards. Visits to the latrines were permitted only at designated times, not when nature called. Sunday was not a work day, and the prisoners had to clean the barracks and take weekly showers. Work was carried out in the shadow and smoke of the crematoria chimneys that burned unceasingly day and night, burning the bodies of murdered Jews — including, invariably, family members. The belching smoke was a constant reminder of their potential fate.

In the evening, after block inspection, there was a second mandatory roll call. If a prisoner was missing, the others had to remain in place until he or she was either found, or the reasons for his or her absence discovered. After roll call, individual and collective punishments were meted out, depending on what had occurred during the day, before the prisoners were permitted to return to their barracks for the night and receive their bread rations and water. The prisoners slept with their clothes and shoes on for warmth (they had no nightwear) and to prevent them from being stolen.

Prisoners received a hot drink in the morning, but no breakfast, and a watery meatless turnip soup at noon. In the evening they received a small ration of bread. Their daily intake did not exceed 700 calories. Sanitary conditions were poor, with inadequate latrines and a lack of water. The camp was infested with vermin such as, disease-carrying lice. Inmates suffered and died during epidemics of typhus and other contagious diseases.

Faced with such conditions, some prisoners committed suicide by throwing themselves onto the electrified fencing. Others became Muselmann — living skeletons who had lost the will to live. Physically and mentally spent, they were eventually sent to the gas chambers.

Kanada (Canada)

Due to the sheer volume of possessions discarded in the cattle cars and railway sidings by those who had arrived, (most of whom were to be sent directly to the gas chambers), a separate camp, Effekenlager, was established at Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1943. It consisted of 30 warehouses. Because of the vast number of goods kept there, the prisoners ironically nicknamed the area ‘Kanada’ (Canada). To them, Canada was a country that symbolised wealth. During the Great Depression, it had been a favourite immigration destination for many Poles.

The suitcases brought by the arriving Jews were opened and the contents sorted by type. All signs of the original owners’ identity (name, yellow star) were removed from the plundered goods before they were packed into thousands of freight cars and sent to Germany, where they were distributed among the German civilian population and members of the armed forces.

Medical experiments

At Auschwitz I SS physicians carried out medical experiments in Barrack (Block) 10. SS-Brigadeführer Professor Carl Clauberg, assisted by SS physicians, conducted pseudo-medical research on twins and people of diminutive stature, and performed forced sterilisations of women, castrations of men and hypothermia experiments on adults. The experiments on twins sometimes involved injecting the children with poisons or microbes that infected them with deadly diseases, and other forms of gross mistreatment, which the children often did not survive. The most notorious of the Nazi physicians was SS Captain Dr Josef Mengele, known as The Angel of Death.

Birkenau Revolt

On October 7, 1944 several hundred Sonderkommando prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after learning that they were to be killed. During the uprising, the prisoners killed three guards and blew up a crematorium and adjacent gas chamber. The prisoners used explosives smuggled into the camp by Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labour in a nearby armaments factory. The Germans crushed the revolt and killed almost all the prisoners involved. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were publicly hanged in January 1945 shortly before the camp was liberated.

Evacuation, death marches and liberation

In November 1944, with the Soviet army approaching, Himmler ordered gassing operations to cease across the Reich. Crematoria II, III, and IV were dismantled, while Crematorium I was transformed into an air raid shelter. The Sonderkommando were ordered to destroy any other evidence of the mass killings. The SS destroyed written records, and in the week before Auschwitz was liberated, burned or detonated many of the buildings.

Himmler ordered the evacuation of Auschwitz and all its sub-camps in January 1945, tasking camp commanders with ensuring that no prisoner remained alive to tell of what had transpired. Consequently, thousands were killed in the days before the evacuation began. On 17 January 1945 about 58 000 Auschwitz prisoners were evacuated on foot by the Nazis. Thousands died in the subsequent death march west to Wodzislaw in Upper Silesia. Prisoners died as a result of the cold, exposure and starvation. As many as 15,000 died during these evacuation-death marches from Auschwitz and its sub camps.

Upon arrival to Wodzislaw, prisoners were herded into freight cars and once again transported to concentration camps, principally to Flossenbürg, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Mauthausen. The journey took many days, countless prisoners perished.

On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz-Birkenau and liberated about 7 000 inmates, most of whom were dying or too weak or ill to have been included in the death marches. Despite being given care, many of them were too ill or weak to survive and died in the weeks after liberation.

Recommended Reading

Berenbaum, M. & Gutman, Y. (1998). (Eds.). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Blatman, D. (2011), The Death Marches. The Final Phase of Genocide. Cambridge/London 2011
Czech, D. (1990.) Auschwitz Chronicle 1939 – 1945. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Delbo, C. (1995). Auschwitz and After. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gutman, Y, & Gutterman, B. (2004) The Auschwitz Album. Jerusalem, Israel: Yad Vashem.
Kulka, O. D. (2013) Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death. Reflections on Memory & Imagination. London, Allen Lane.
Levi, P. (1986) Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Collins.
Rees, L. (2005). Auschwitz: A New History. New York: Public Affairs.
Steinbacher, S (2005), Auschwitz. A History. New York: Ecco 2005
Świebocka, T. (1993). (Ed.). Auschwitz A History in Photographs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Wiesel, E. (2006). Night. New York: Hill & Wang.