Meal times were the most important event of each day. After morning roll call the prisoners would be given their morning ‘meal’ – imitation coffee or herbal ‘tea’. For lunch prisoners would be given a litre of watery soup. If they were lucky, they might find a piece of turnip or potato peel.
In the evening prisoners would be given a piece of black bread weighing 300 grams, together with a tiny piece of sausage, or margarine, marmalade or cheese. The bread was supposed to last the prisoners for the morning also, so prisoners would try to hide it on their person whilst they slept.
Kity Hart-Moxon, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, remembers the high value placed on food, and so much wanting to survive the camp. She would sometimes take the piece of bread from the body of someone who had died during the night:
“The dead body had a piece of bread...” “... I’m taking this piece of bread from this dead body... ... and I’m taking this one pair of boots and I can sell it. With this I can buy myself a place to live. I can buy myself a place to sleep. With this bread I bought myself a bit of access [to wash]. Your bowl was your life, without your bowl you didn’t eat.” (Kitty - Return to Auschwitz, YTV 1979)
The lack of food, poor diet and hard labour caused the prisoners to suffer from starvation sickness. They lost weight and muscle tissue and many thousands died. Others became too weak to work and were then murdered in the gas chambers.
The appalling conditions in the camp were made worse by the fact that Auschwitz-Birkenau had been built on a swamp. The barracks were often damp. Lice and rats were everywhere. As a result, epidemics of contagious diseases were frequent.