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What are Concentration Camps?

Protective Custody of Enemies of the State
World War II
Prison Labor
The Camps and the Final Solution
Medical Experiments
Structure and Administration
End of the Camps


The English term concentration camp is commonly used to describe a wide number of places of internment created by Nazi Germany, which served a variety of functions and were called by different names: labor camps (Arbeitslager); transit camps (Durchgangslager); prisoner-of-war camps (Kriegsgefangenlager); concentration camps (Konzentrationslager KZ), and death camps or killing centers, often referred to in Nazi parlance as extermination camps (Vernichtungslager).

Concentration camps underwent a series of developments over time - from 1933 to 1936, they were used for incarcerating political adversaries, trade unionists, political dissidents, communists, and others. In 1936, operational responsibility for the camps was consolidated under the SS and the camp universe expanded incrementally. From 1941 to 1942, the major killing centers came online: Chelmno, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek as well as the Aktion Reinhard camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. A series of labor camps were created in direct response to the impact of the war and Germany’s growing need for workers. From 1944 to 1945, the concentration camps were dismantled and evacuated ahead of the Allied advances and any remaining prisoners were brought back to Germany - which had already become Judenrein - on foot in what became known as death marches. These marches either took the prisoners to other camps within Germany or were simply continued endlessly until the Jews died or were liberated by the Allies.

Between 1933-1945 around 2.3 million people were at some point incarcerated in the concentration camp system, with some 1.7 million losing their lives.

Protective Custody of Enemies of the State

During the night following the declaration of a state of emergency after the Reichstag fire (February 27, 1933), there was a wave of mass arrests of the Communist opposition. After the Ermaechtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act) of March 23, 1933, the non-Nazi political elite, composed of trade-union members, socialists, and civil party members, was arrested, together with writers, journalists, and lawyers, who were Jewish, but arrested because of their activities – alleged or actual. In July 1933, the number of protective-custody detainees reached 14,906 in Prussia and 26,789 in the whole Reich. The SA (Storm Troops), the SS, and the police improvised about 50 mass detention camps. Dachau, Oranienburg, Esterwegen, and Sachsenburg were thus created. The worst camp of all was the Berlin Columbia Haus. The methods of arrest, kidnappings, torture, bribery, and blackmail of associates created chaos and aroused protest in the newly Nazified Germany. In response to pressure from the judiciary, and upon the advice of the then head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, to Hermann Goering, most of the SA and SS Wilde KZ (Wild concentration camps) were broken up. Oranienburg, Lichtenburg, and Columbia Haus remained, containing no more than 1,000 prisoners each. Later, there was less judicial pressure and a confident and dominant Nazi regime became less responsive – but never unresponsive – to public opinion. Public opposition to the regime was less forthcoming because of fear, coercion, despair, and indifference.

The reduction in concentration camps during the early years of the Nazi regime was no indication of any move to abolish them; among the new victims of the terror were those who listened to foreign radio stations, rumormongers, Jehovah’s Witnesses (Bibelforscher, in 1935), and German male homosexuals. There was no incarceration of lesbians qua lesbians. Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only voluntary victims of Nazism. They refused to register in the Wehrmacht or to swear allegiance to the state. The words Heil Hitler never passed their lips. Their allegiance was to Jehovah and not to the state. Jehovah’s Witnesses could be freed from concentration camps if they signed a simple document renouncing their faith and swearing to cease their religious activities. Few succumbed to this temptation, even at the risk of endless internment and conditions that might lead to death. There was a basic tension in German policy and among German policymakers toward the male homosexual population. The function of their incarceration varied between punishment and reeducation.

Under the command of Himmler, who on April 20, 1934, took over the direction of the Berlin Gestapo, the SS gained total control of the concentration camps, and the judiciary was prevented from intervening in the Gestapo’s domain. Small concentration camps were broken up, and their prisoners transferred to larger camps, such as Dachau (which was enlarged), Sachsenhausen (established in September 1936), and Buchenwald (established in August 1937). When the number of concentration-camp detainees dropped to about 8,000 in late 1937, it was augmented by the dispatch of criminal offenders and persons defined as asocial. In April 1938, ordinary prisoners under preventive detention were transferred from prisons to concentration camps, which, in addition to their original function, then became Staatliche Besserungs-und Arbeitslager (State Improvement and Labor Camps). At about the same time, Jews qua Jews (not as Communists, Socialists, etc.) were interned in concentration camps for the first time.

The German state gave legal sanction to arbitrary imprisonment by the Notverordnung des Reichspraesidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat (February 28, 1933), which served as a base for protective custody by authorizing the unlimited detention of persons suspected of hostility to the regime. The regulation requiring a written protective-custody warrant (Schutzhaftbefehl) was introduced on April 12–16, 1934, to placate the judiciary, which still demanded that the legality of each arrest be examined. A clause postulated on January 25, 1938, extended protective custody to persons whose conduct endangered the security of the nation and the state for detention solely in the concentration camps. In an order of February 10, 1936, Himmler authorized the Gestapo to make arrests and investigate all activities hostile to the state within the Reich. He also decreed that the Gestapo’s orders were not subject to investigation by courts of law and handed over the administration of the concentration camps to the Gestapo. The protective-custody warrant was presented to the detainees, if at all, only after their arrest. They were first sent to prison and tortured for long periods. The detainee was then forced to sign the warrant that was sent to the concentration camp as his dispatch note.

The number of political detainees (Marxists, anti-Nazis, and Jews) rose after the annexations of Austria – in March and April 1938 – and Sudetenland – in October and November 1938. Overcrowding in the camps grew worse, especially after the arrest throughout the Reich of about 30,000 Jewish men – aged 16–60 – after the November pogrom of 1938 known as Kristallnacht. The total number of detainees rose that year from 24,000 to 60,000.

In 1939 the internment of individual Jews for the slightest violation of the Schikanengesetzgebung – irksome special legislation – began. Jews convicted for Rassenschande (violation of race purity), those Jews who remained married to Aryans, were often put into internment camps after having served their sentence. But prior to World War II, Jews could be released from the camps if they could prove that they had a chance to leave Germany, and in 1939 the release of Jews possessing emigration papers, who paid exorbitant ransoms, resulted in a marked drop in the number of Jewish internees. Many historians argue that Germany’s goal at this point was the forced emigration of the Jews, not their murder, and this policy is viewed as evidence for their argument. With the outbreak of war, the total number of detainees rose to 25,000 (including those in the women’s camp of Ravensbrueck, set up in May 1939 in place of Lichtenburg).

World War II

World War II wrought changes in the concentration camp system. There was an increase in the number of prisoners, extension of the network of concentration camps in and outside Germany, and an alteration in the camps’ function. The security function (i.e., protective custody) was subordinated to the economic exploitation of detainees and mass murder, especially as the war progressed and German planners understood that an immediate victory would not be forthcoming and they had to plan for an extended conflict. Under the renewed security pretext, ten times as many political prisoners were arrested in the Reich as had been arrested in the years 1935–36. In the occupied countries, thousands of opponents were detained in local concentration camps while special groups were transferred in vast numbers to concentration camps within the Reich. From the outbreak of war until March 1942, the number of detainees rose from 25,000 to 100,000 and in 1944 the number reached 1,000,000; only between 5 and 10% of them were German nationals.

Late in 1939, the concentration camp organization in Germany was authorized to set up about 100 concentration camps of all types, including Internierungslager (detention or internment camps) and Austauschlager (exchange camps). To these were added Auschwitz (May 1940), Gusen (May 1940), and Gross-Rosen (August 1940). That year, a series of Jewish and non-Jewish labor camps was established, together with transit camps (Durchgangslager), as part of Himmler’s transfer and resettlement plan designed to get Jews out of Germany and Germany’s sphere of influence and move them eastward to German-occupied territories. In May 1941 Natzweiler was set up, followed by Niederhagen (May 1940), Majdanek (November 1940), Stutthof (November 1940), and Arbeitsdorf (April 1942).

In early 1942, there was further expansion, when the extermination camps were set up in Poland. The rate at which camps were established varied but did not decline. Even as late as 1944 Sonderlager (special camps) were established for Hungarian Jews in Austria on the borders with Czechoslovakia and Hungary.


In October 1939, Hitler signed an order empowering his personal physician and the chief of the Fuehrer Chancellory to put to death those considered unsuited to live. He backdated it to September 1, 1939, the day World War II began, to give it the appearance of a wartime measure. In Hitler’s directive:

Reich leader Philip Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy killing.

What followed was the so-called euthanasia program, in which German men, women, and children who were physically disabled, mentally retarded, or emotionally disturbed were systematically killed.

Within a few months, the T-4 program (named for Berlin Chancellory Tiergarten 4, which directed it) involved virtually the entire German psychiatric community. A new bureaucracy, headed by physicians, was established with a mandate to take executive measures against those defined as ’unworthy of living.’

Patients whom it was decided to kill were transported to six killing centers: Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Grafeneck, Bernburg, Hadamar, and Brandenburg. The members of the SS in charge of the transports donned white coats to keep up the charade of a medical procedure. These camps were fertile ground for the training of staff that later served the Final Solution, both in leadership capacities and in secondary and tertiary positions. It also was used to master killing by gas.

The first killings were by starvation. Then injections of lethal doses of sedatives were used. Children were easily put to sleep. But gassing soon became the preferred method of killing. Fifteen to 20 people were killed in a chamber disguised as a shower. Chemists provided the lethal gas, and physicians supervised the process. Afterward, black smoke billowed from the chimneys as the bodies were burned in adjacent crematoria. It was a technique that was later used to kill millions.

Prison Labor

In 1938, the SS began to exploit prison labor in its DEST (Deutsche Erd-und Steinwerke Gmb-H) enterprise, in coordination with Albert Speer, the man responsible for the Nazi construction program for rebuilding Berlin and Nuremberg. This policy determined the sites for new concentration camps – Flossenbürg, a punishment camp, and Mauthausen, established in mid-1938.

The war effort reinforced the function of the camps as a source of manpower for forced labor. Under Oswald Pohl, the concentration camps became centers for the exploitation of the inmates. According to German calculations, the fee for 11 hours (by day or night) of prisoner labor was 6 RM (= $1). The fees from prisoner labor, totaling hundreds of millions of marks, were one of the SS’s principal sources of income. The SS incurred inconsequential expenses for the prisoner’s upkeep, amounting to no more than 0.70 RM daily for food and depreciation in clothing. Taking into account the average life span of a slave laborer (about 9 months) and the plunder of the corpse for further profit, the total income to the SS for each prisoner averaged 1,631 RM. This excluded industrial exploitation of corpses and property confiscated before internment.

Private suppliers of military equipment, such as I.G. Farben, Krupp, Thyssen, Flick, Siemens, and many others used the camp prisoners as a source of cheap labor they could exploit. Prisoners constituted 40% of the industries’ labor force. Working conditions in private enterprises, worse than those in the concentration camps themselves, were the direct cause of a high death rate. In the Bunawerke (artificial rubber factory) belonging to I.G. Farben at Monowitz near Auschwitz, the manpower turnover was 300% per year. The employers were not authorized to mete out punishment, but with the aid of the Kapos, they instituted so brutal a system of punishments that the SS sometimes intervened on the prisoners’ behalf.

Approximately 250,000 concentration camp prisoners were employed in private industry, while about 170,000 were utilized by the Reich Ministry of Munitions and War Production. The death rate in the concentration camps (60% in 1942 and 80% thereafter) appeared excessive even to the Inspection Authority, who, for fear of depleting their manpower reserve, were ordered to absorb new prisoners and lower the death rate.

The desire to exploit the prisoners was in direct tension with the killing program. This opposition resulted in a continual battle between the employers, the SS-Wirtschafts-und Verwaltungshauptamt (Economic and Administrative Main Office WVHA), and the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), who were responsible for the extermination policy. The former wanted workers; the latter dead Jews. The scenes of these conflicts were those concentration camps in which mass extermination facilities had been installed, such as Auschwitz, where SS officers and SS doctors sorted out the transports, sending the weak (including children) to their deaths and the able-bodied to work. The latter became camp prisoners and were registered accordingly. They were kept alive for as long as they could work. Reality had created a sort of compromise; the conditions of employment of prisoners helped to kill them and served merely as an extension of life until they completely collapsed and were sent as refuse to the crematories. These concentration camps thus became large-scale extermination centers where in the end Jewish slave labor was regarded as a consumable raw material to be discarded in the process of manufacture and recycled into the war economy.

The Camps and the Final Solution

The killing of Jews began in June 1941 as the Einsatzkommando (“mobile killing units”), which accompanied the German army invading the Soviet Union, went into towns, villages, and cities and killed Jews, Soviet kommisars, and gypsies, one by one, bullet by bullet. This system of sending mobile killers to stationary victims was slow, public, and horrifying, however, even for the SS. Thus, by late 1941 the system was reversed. The victims were made mobile – they were sent by train from ghettos and cities to stationary killing centers, where mass murder could be effected in an assembly line process with economies of scale and personnel. Soviet prisoners of war – often Ukrainians – staffed the camps, prison labor was employed to build and run the camps, and a few Germans could oversee the entire operation, most especially the killing.

From December 1941, Jews had been gassed in trucks at the Chelmno extermination camp at a pace that did not satisfy those responsible for carrying out the solution to the “Jewish Question.” After the Wannsee Conference (1942), which was convened to smooth the cooperation toward the liquidation of the Jews, the establishment of new killing centers, mainly on German-occupied Polish soil, was hastened. The first to use gas chambers was Odilo Globocnik, chief of the SS and Police Force in Lublin, who set up a Jewish labor camp in 1940 in the Lublin district. He later transformed this camp into a killing center.

At Chelmno, situated in German-occupied Poland, gassing by carbon monoxide fumes introduced from exhaust pipes into hermetically sealed trucks was employed. It was also used in Yugoslavia. The use of trucks was facilitated by local mechanics, who improvised by reconfiguring existing vehicles and even strengthened the rear axles to prevent their breakdown as the victims pushed to the rear.

Mobile gas vans, which could deal with a limited number of victims, 1,000–2,000 a day, had many disadvantages and were superseded in 1942 by the use of stationary gassing installations. A second method was that of gas chambers, disguised as shower room facilities, with shower room notices in various languages. At first, the gas used was diesel exhaust fumes, and the victims often waited outside for hours in long queues because the motor had broken down. At Auschwitz, Zyklon B, a disinfectant provided by I.G. Farben, first employed to destroy insects, was used. It seems that bureaucratic rivalries between camp commandants prevented its universal use.

Between 1942 and 1943 Jews were gassed in Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor. Near Vilna, Riga, Minsk, Kovno, and Lviv, there were smaller killing centers where Jews were executed by firing squads. The large concentration camps became death camps, e.g., Majdanek, and the largest of all, Auschwitz, which at the height of the extermination program accounted for more than 10,000 victims per day.

Adolf Eichmann gave priority to the murder of Polish Jews and those expelled from the Reich, since in their case the problem of transport was nil and particularly because Hans Frank, governor of the General-Gouvernement, was urging that his area be “cleansed” of Jews, whose number he overestimated at 3,500,000. Thus in early 1942, the evacuation of the Polish ghettos began in an operation deceptively termed Umsiedlung (“resettlement”), the evacuees being sent to killing centers. The liquidation of the Jewry of the General-Gouvernement, organized by Globocnik, was termed Aktion Reinhard in memory of Reinhard Heydrich, who had been assassinated in June 1942. When the operation ended (October 1943), many Jewish labor camps still remained, but all of them were turned into concentration camps in 1944.

The deportations from the rest of Europe to the extermination camps (including transports from concentration camps) began in March and April 1942 and continued until late 1944. The pace of the killing was related to the availability of transports and many deportations and subsequent gassing occurred after it was clear that Germany would lose the war. It did not want to lose the war against the Jews. At first, those able to work were brought because the construction of the extermination camps had yet to be completed.

Belzec was operational between February and December 1942; killings had ceased before the new year began. Its mission was complete.

The Jews of Galicia were dead. All that remained in 1943 was to exhume the dead, burn their bodies to destroy all evidence of the crime, and plow the camp under. Following the rebellion at Treblinka (August 1943) and at Sobibor (October 1943) and the advance of the Soviet army, these two camps were abolished, and the killing moved westward to Auschwitz, which only in the summer of 1944 became the most lethal of the death camps, and Stutthof. The gassing of Jews continued until November 1944, when it was halted on Himmler’s orders, perhaps to keep some Jews alive who could be used as barter for peace with the West.

From 1941, crematoria were built in several concentration camps to solve the problem of body disposal. In a few death camps, the crematorium was an all-purpose facility complete with its own gas chamber and undressing room. Prisoners would be entered into the building, forced to undress, instructed to remember where they had left their clothes, as part of the effort to deceive them, and then forced into gas chambers disguised as showers. Men, women, and children were undressed together, and killed together. Because of the large numbers of corpses, they were not all dissected before cremation, but nevertheless, the Selektion provided the physicians in German universities with “specimens” for study and for collection.

The Sonderkommando (“special squad”) of prisoners who worked in the crematoria were routinely murdered and replaced by new squads, in order to prevent the leaking of information. After all, they were the most dangerous of victims. Much to the surprise of historians and also of the SS, several Sonderkommando survived to bear witness to what had happened. Camps of a special type were set up late in 1941 for the sole purpose of the extermination of “undesirable populations.” These were the first equipped with gas chambers and crematoria and differed from concentration and labor camps and from those camps with a combined program of concentration and murder.

Train transport to the camp was often in crowded cattle cars with merely a bucket for sanitation. Conditions were primitive and cramped and upon reaching their destination the new arrivals mistakenly thought they had survived the worst. At the entrance to each of the death camps – the reception area – the dead were removed from the trains and the living were divided according to their ability to walk. Those able to walk were sent on, and people unable to walk were taken away. Those who could walk then faced the first Selektion. An SS officer pointed to the left or to the right. Elderly people, pregnant women, young children, and the infirm were immediately condemned to death. Segregated by sex, they surrendered their valuables and removed their clothes before entering the gas chambers.

At Auschwitz, those selected for work were registered, branded, and shared. Their hair was shaved, and their arms were tattooed with a number. Uniforms were issued. Their ordeal as inmates was just beginning. They would face additional “selections” in the future. The officer in charge of the “selection” was a physician. His “expert opinion” was required to determine who would live and who would die. The most infamous of all of them, Dr. Josef Mengele, who also oversaw some of the cruelest quasi-medical experiments conducted on inmates, was often to be found at the ramp in Birkenau. At other death camps, no selection was needed; arriving Jews were all sent to their death.

Those marked for Selektion were forced to run to the “showers” to the accompaniment of a band playing music. Between 700–800 men and women, elderly people, and children were crammed into a chamber measuring 25 square meters (225 sq. ft). Certain tasks were restricted to the Germans; they alone emptied the Zyklon B into the chamber through slits in the roof; the gassing took about 20 minutes, depending on the number of persons in the chamber, and then the gas had to be evacuated from the chamber. They alone pronounced the dead, dead.

Terrible shrieks could be heard from the hermetically sealed chamber when those inside began to suffocate, and their lungs burst. One Sonderkommando from Auschwitz recalled, “People called one another by name. Mothers called their children, children, their mothers, and fathers. Sometimes we could hear Sh’ma Yisrael.” Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, the traditional line recited by Jews at death. Rudolph Reder, one of two survivors of Belzec and the only one to bear witness said: “Only when I heard children calling: ’Mommy. Haven’t I been good? It’s dark.’ My heart would break. Later we stopped having feelings.”

Some of the victims understood what was about to happen. Others were deceived to the very end. When the doors were reopened, the Sonderkommando entered to take out the corpses. If anyone was left alive, he was beaten to death. The contorted and entangled bodies were separated, body cavities were inspected for possible valuables, and after rings and gold teeth were removed and hair was shorn, they were piled in tents for inspection and then taken and burned. Later, furnaces and cremating pits were constructed. As the rate of extermination increased, heaps of ashes accumulated in the pits, whose smoke was visible from far away. The distinct smell of burning flesh permeated the area. The economic exploitation of the corpses involved the extraction of tons of gold teeth and rings, which were sent to the Reichsbank and credited to the SS account; the hair and bones were employed in industry; the ashes were used as fertilizer; and the clothes were sent to other camps after fumigation. There is no credible evidence that body fat was used for soap.

The murder rate was so intense that at the beginning of 1942 eight out of ten of the Jews who were to die in the Holocaust were still alive. Fourteen months later, the figure was reversed, 80% of the Jews were already dead. The rate of extermination, which was subject to the rate of transports, took its toll on the communications system just when the army needed it, and the extermination of manpower undermined the war effort.

Medical Experiments

Pseudo-medical experiments were carried out in several camps. Prior to World War II, governments routinely used vulnerable populations for experimentation, but German physicians operated without limits and with routine disregard for the humanity of those upon whom they experimented. Even before World War II, interned Jews had been used for pseudo-biological “race research.” Upon Himmler’s initiative, unlimited supplies of live men and women were put at the disposal of the SS medical organization for the purpose of “medical” experiments in the camps and outside.

Under the program of the biological destruction of the “inferior races,” Viktor Brack, who had also been one of the heads of the Euthanasia Program, was charged in 1941 with developing a quick system of sterilizing between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 Jews who were fit for work. The logic was simple: if Jews could be sterilized, then the imposition of the “Final Solution” would take but a generation as there would be no danger of their reproducing and perpetuating the Jewish people. In the interim, the German people could enjoy the benefits of their labor. The Brack system, employed in Auschwitz by Horst Schumann, consisted of the irradiation of the reproductive organs of men and women. Another system was also tested in Auschwitz by Karl Clauberg, who, during the gynecological examination of women, injected them with matter, which burned out the womb.

Gerhard Madaus and Ernst Koch worked on the development of an herbal means of sterilization, using Caladium seguinum; Roma were used as guinea pigs. August Hirt worked on shrinking skulls for his collection at the anatomical institute at Strasbourg, for the purposes of “racial research.” The “specimens” were put to death at Natzweiler. Upon orders received from the air force, experiments subjecting humans to conditions of high pressure and freezing were held at Dachau, to investigate the possibilities of the survival of pilots.

In the name of “medical research,” humans were infected with contagious diseases and epidemics, to try out new drugs and poisons. The SS doctors also amputated bones and cut muscles for transplantation purposes; they removed internal organs and introduced cancer into human bodies. Those victims who did not die immediately were left to perish from neglect and agony. Some of them survived, crippled, or maimed for life.

In November 1943, Mengele became the chief physician of Birkenau. Mengele wanted to “prove” the superiority of the Nordic race. His first experiments were performed on Roma children supplied to him from the so-called kindergarten. Before long he expanded his interest to twins, dwarfs, and people with abnormalities.

Mengele subjected his experimental group to all possible medical analyses that could be performed while the victims were alive. The tests he performed were painful, exhausting, and traumatic for the frightened and hungry children who made up the bulk of his subjects.

The twins and the crippled persons designated as subjects of experiments were photographed, their jaws and teeth cast in plaster molds, and fingerprints were taken from hands and legs. On Mengele’s instructions, an inmate painter made comparative drawings of the shapes of heads, auricles, noses, mouths, hands, and legs of the twins.

When the research was completed, some subjects were killed by phenol injections, and their organs were autopsied and analyzed. Scientifically interesting anatomical specimens were preserved and shipped out to the Institute in Berlin-Dahlem for further research.

On the day he left Auschwitz, January 17, 1945, Mengele took with him the documentation of his experiments. He still imagined that they would bring him scientific honor.

Structure and Administration

On July 7, 1934, Himmler appointed Theodor Eicke inspector of concentration camps and Fuehrer of the SS Wachverbaende (“guards”). A fanatic, brutal Nazi, and efficient organizer, Eicke determined the uniform pattern of the concentration camps, fixed their locations, and headed their inspection authority until his transfer to the front in November 1939. The economic administration, including the financing and equipping of the SS Death Head Unit, members of which served as guards, was handled by Pohl. As a result of conflicts between the Gestapo and SS, a division of tasks was made: the Gestapo made arrests and the SS actually ran the camps. This, however, did not prevent the struggle between the various authorities and the resulting tangle of bureaucracy, which kept the prisoners from knowing which office decided their fate.

The different types of concentration camps were classified into three categories in accordance with the severity of their detention conditions. In practice, the various camps resembled one another in their inhumanity. Dachau served as the model camp, where guards and commandants were trained. Eicke created a combination of concentration camp and labor camp by exploiting the prisoners for profit and to finance the camps themselves.

The gate of the camp was a one-story construction in the center of which stood a tower with a clock and a searchlight. The gate usually bore a motto, such as “Arbeit macht frei” (“Labor makes free”). The parade ground (Appellplatz) stretched from the gate to the wooden huts where the prisoners were housed. The structure of the command was fixed in 1936 and included:

(a) the Kommandantur, comprising the Kommandant, who held authority over the heads of divisions;
(b) the Political Department, an autonomous authority in the Gestapo, responsible for the file cards of the prisoners and, from 1943, in command of executions (it confirmed the lists of Jews chosen through Selektion (“selection”) for death in the gas chambers);
(c) the Schutzhaftlager (“protective custody” camp), under command of the Schutzhaftlagerfuehrer, whose Blockfuehrer were responsible for order and discipline in the prisoners’ quarters (there were also Arbeitsdienstfuehrer, responsible for the division of labor, and the Kommandofuehrer, who led the labor detachments);
(d) the administration, which dealt with administration, internal affairs, and economy (Concentration camps that absorbed transports of Jews had a special staff to classify their goods and send them on to the Hauptversorgungslager in Auschwitz.);
(e) Lagerarzt, the SS physician.

Guard duties were carried out mostly by the SS Death Head Units. In 1944, 1,000,000 prisoners were kept by 45,000 guards, of whom 35,000 were SS men and 10,000 were army or navy men or non-German auxiliaries. The guards were allowed the unstinted use of weapons against escapees or rebels, and if a prisoner escaped the guard was tried, while guards who killed escapees were rewarded.

The prisoners were classified as follows: political prisoners, including smugglers and deserters (after the outbreak of war these included all non-Germans); members of “inferior races,” Jews and Roma, and criminals; asocials, such as tramps, drunkards, and those guilty of negligence at work. Homosexuals constituted a special group. Each group wore a distinctive badge, a number, and a triangle colored according to the different categories. The Jews wore an additional yellow triangle, inverted under the first, thus forming a Star of David. At a later stage, in some concentration camps the prisoner’s number was tattooed on his arm.

The prisoners’ administration, whose structure resembled that of the concentration camp command, cooperated with the SS, and this structure resulted in dual supervision of the prisoners. Sadists and disturbed persons in administrative posts could brutalize their fellow prisoners. The prisoners’ administration was headed by a Lageraeltester (“camp elder”), appointed by the camp commandant. Each block of prisoners’ dwellings had a Blockaeltester, assisted by Stubendienste (“room orderlies”), who was responsible for maintaining order and for the distribution of food.

The work detachments were headed by Kapos, work supervisors responsible to the SS Kommandofuehrer and assisted by a Vorarbeiter (“foreman”). These posts were generally given to criminal offenders, who often exceeded the SS in their brutality, either from sadism or from fear of the SS. The Kapos spied on their fellow prisoners and ingratiated themselves with their masters, but their hopes of survival through the oppression of their fellow men failed, as they too usually fell victim to the machinations of the SS. In hard labor detachments, a prisoner could escape the punishments meted out by the Kapos and remain alive only by bribing them. The Kapos created a regime of corruption and blackmail, which gave them a life of comfort and ease as long as they held their posts.

The prisoners, who reached the camps in a state of hunger and exhaustion, were forced to hand over the remainder of their personal property and in return received a set of clothing, which included a navy- and white-striped shirt, a spoon, a bowl, and a cup. They were allotted space in the tiers of wooden bunks in huts containing three or four times the number of persons for which the structures were originally intended. The prisoners’ daily life resembled the outside world only in the names given to everyday objects. Horrific realities were often hidden under accepted words such as “food,” “work,” “medicine,” and “neutral” words such as Sonderbehandlung (“special treatment,” i.e., execution) Selektion (the selection of those to be sent to their death), or Desinfektion (i.e., gassing).

The prisoners’ diet bordered on starvation and deteriorated further during the war years. The terrible hunger did more than anything else to destroy the human image and even reduced some to cannibalism. The extremely poor conditions of health and hygiene and the lack of water also aided the spread of disease and epidemics, especially typhus and spotted fever. The camp doctor and his prisoner assistant often caused or hastened death through neglect, mistreatment, or lethal injections.

End of the Camps

As the Russians advanced from the east and the British and Americans from the west, Himmler ordered the emergency evacuation of prisoners from camps in the occupied territories. No means of transportation was available for the evacuation, and in early 1945 most of the prisoners were dragged by the thousands in long death marches lasting several days in cold and rain and without equipment or food. The German prisoners were given weapons to help the SS. Exhaustion, starvation, thirst, and the killing of escapees and the weak accounted for hundreds of thousands of victims. The local populations, who had been incited against the prisoners, attacked them and refused sanctuary to those who escaped. At the reception camps, masses of new arrivals died of starvation and overcrowding, which hastened the spread of epidemics such as typhus and spotted fever. The evacuation operation cost the lives of about 250,000 prisoners, many of them Jews.

The concentration and extermination camps constituted a terrifying example of the “new order” that the Nazis were preparing for the whole world, using terror and the impersonal murder of millions of anonymous victims to turn “ideology” into reality. The murder itself was the end process of the destruction of the victims’ identities and their ethical personalities. The splitting of groups into individuals, and individuals into atoms reduced most of the prisoners into mere shadows of men; some became hungry animals fighting for their existence at the expense of their neighbor’s lives; others became “muselmann” – the walking dead who had lost the will to live. Nevertheless, there were prisoners, many of them Jews, who had the energy and the ability to organize revolts (as at Treblinka and Sobibor) and try to escape, individually or in groups (e.g., from Auschwitz), but only a small percentage succeeded.

When the Reich crumbled there was no one to give the order to exterminate the prisoners. The SS fled, dragging the remnants of the prisoners with them westward for extermination, in the hopes of destroying all remains of their crime. Only 500,000 concentration camp prisoners and those destined for extermination remained alive, most of them physically crippled and mentally broken. These surviving remnants, together with many documents which authorized the reign of terror, bore witness to the horrors of the phenomenon.

Exact data are lacking, but there is a consensus that at Auschwitz 1.1–1.3 million people were gassed, 9 out of 10 of them Jews; at Treblinka, between 750,000 and 870,000 Jews were killed; at Belzec, some 500,000 Jews were murdered; at Chelmno, some 150,000 Jews were gassed; at Sobibor at least 206,000 Jews were murdered; at Majdanek some 170,000. The total may exceed 2,750,000 in the killing centers alone.


International Tracing Service, Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-Occupied Territories, 2 vols. (1949–51); idem, Vorlaeufiges Verzeichnis der Konzentrationslager… (1969); imt, Trial of the Major War Criminals, 42 vols. (1947–49); idem, Trial of German Major War Criminals, 23 vols. (1946–51); Jewish Black Book Committee, Black Book (1946); E. Kogon, Theory and Practice of Hell (1950); G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (19682); R. Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz (1959); H. Krausnick et al., Anatomy of the SS State (1968), 397–504; H.G. Adler, in: World Congress of Jewish Studies. Papers, 1 (1967), 27–31; A. Ungerer, Verzeichnis von Ghettos, Zwangsarbeitslagern und Konzentrationslagern… (1953); E. Kossoy and E. Hammitsch, Handbuch zum Entschaedigungsverfahren (1958); R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961, 1985, 2003). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (1995); Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Camps (1987); Y. Gutman and M. Berenbaum (eds.), Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (1994).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.