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Section: What were the camps?

Daily life

For those who survived selection, life in the camps was a daily struggle for survival.

Deportation and transportation

Deportation and transportation to camps often took days. Individuals, families and whole communities together with their personal belongings were packed into cattle trucks. They were locked in and transported for days. They had no information. They did not know where they were going, the length of the journey or what would happen to them when they eventually arrived at their destination.
The conditions on the journey were appalling.

We can learn about these journeys from the many child survivors who wrote of their experiences:

Agnes, an 11 year-old girl from Czechoslovakia, wrote: “Later we were moved and driven into railway wagons – the sort that transport animals – which were part of a long train. Some of the wagons were open-topped, some closed.”

Jack, 15 years old, from Greece, talks of his experience at the start of what must have been a very long journey: “Some 20 railway cars were waiting for us… There were 70 to 80 people in a car… After a while, there was a muffled sound of closing latches… the whistle blew and the train started moving slowly. It was April 7, 1943. Penned in and cramped, we departed from our homeland, without being able to see it.”

Moshe, aged 17, from Hungary, then explains that: “the doors were shut, leaving us almost in darkness. The grills, too, were closed to prevent escape. Air entered only through the cracks. So we travelled for 24 hours, without food or water. We were hungry and thirsty. But the desire and hope to see our families made us forget everything else.”

David, a Polish Jew aged 13, graphically describes how cramped it was on the train: “There is no room to sit. In order to make room we are forced to stand with our hands above our heads…. Suddenly, the door is slammed shut and sealed. A water bucket is tossed into the car for use as a disposal container for human waste.”

The packed railway wagons would often be shunted around from one railway siding to another for days on end, and for what must have seemed like an eternity. Many of the very young, the old and the sick would die because of the inhumane conditions during the journey. Those who did survive were severely traumatised by the experience.

Arrival at the camp

Eventually, after days of travelling in the most cramped conditions, the railway carriages arrived at a camp. The doors of the carriages would be pulled open to give the prisoners their first glimpse of daylight, at a place they had never seen before.

Freddie remembers his journey to Auschwitz

In this video Freddie talks about his journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau during October 1943. Freddie talks about how people were squeezed into cattle wagons for a journey of three days and three nights with no food, water or sanitation.

Listen to Freddie’s testimony, and then read the rest of this section. Reflect on how the Nazis treated other human beings during the period we now call the Holocaust.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

 

Processing and routines

Dehumanisation

Having arrived at a concentration camp and been unloaded from the cattle trucks, men and women were separated, children staying with their mothers. After registration, prisoners had to undress and have their hair shaved before showering. They usually had their own clothing taken away, which would be replaced by a striped uniform.

This process was designed to remove any remnants of human dignity or personal identity.

Anna, aged 11, from Poland, describes the effect of having her hair cut: “I look around and I see young girls with scissors and clippers cutting hair off clean to the scalp… when the cold scissors touch my scalp and my hair slowly falls down, I can’t help it, my tears fall down, mixed with my black curls.” Mel, aged 15, from Czechoslovakia, goes on: “We all looked alike… Rich, poor, young, old. We shared the same fate as in no way before. I hardly recognised my father. Friends would pass you by. It was a nightmare.”

Jacob, aged 17, describes the clothing he was given: “From there we went to the next room. We were handed a striped jacket, striped pants, wooden shoes and a striped cap.”

Jack, aged 17, who had travelled from Greece to Auschwitz in Poland, says “They gave us striped pyjamas. Some of us got sizes too big or too small, but we changed among ourselves.”

Daily routines

Daily routines were also designed to reduce prisoners to mere numbers.

After an early wake-up, daily concentration camp routines would begin with the Appell, the daily roll call. During the Appell prisoners had to stand in rows, completely still, for hours at a time, and in all weathers. Long lists of orders and instructions would be read out. The number of prisoners would be counted. Often, the kapos would announce that the total number of prisoners in a block was inaccurate, leading to a recount at the whim of the SS. After waking and before roll call, up to 2,000 prisoners at a time would have to share toilet facilities. The toilet would be a concrete or wooden board with often 100 holes for seats. No privacy and no real sanitation was provided. Prisoners would have to wash in dirty water, without soap and with no change of clothes for weeks or months on end.

After eating a meagre ration of watery soup, a piece of bread and some imitation coffee, a prisoner’s day would follow with work details.

Meals

Prisoners being given food at Plaszow forced labour camp, Krakow, Poland.
Prisoners being given food at Plaszow forced labour camp, Krakow, Poland. © 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

For prisoners, 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 may have been given watery soup. If they were lucky, they might find a piece of turnip or potato peel.

In the evening prisoners may have been given a small piece of black bread; they may also have received a tiny piece of sausage, or some 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)

Hunger was one of the greatest problems. The meagre rations were merely intended to keep the prisoners alive. The Nazis did not provide prisoners with sufficient nutrition to carry out heavy manual work. Many thousands died from starvation or illnesses brought on by lack of nutrition. Others became too weak to work and were then murdered in the gas chambers.

Work

Depending on the type of camp, prisoners were assigned to a whole range of different duties. Some remained inside were the camp, working on a variety of jobs, from administration tasks to heavy manual labour. Most prisoners worked outside in one of the many factories, construction projects, farms or coal mines, owned by German companies and for whom they now provided free slave labour.

Most prisoners worked outside the camps in one the many factories, construction projects, farms or coal mines. They would quite often have to walk several kilometres to their place of work.

Sonderkommando

The Sonderkommando (Special Work Unit) consisted of Jewish prisoners who were selected to work in the crematoriums in camps. They were selected due to their strength and fitness. The life-expectancy of a Sonderkommando was about four months in the camp.

Processing belongings

While the prisoners were being processed after their arrival, their belongings were taken away. A group of prisoners was assigned to collecting the valuables, while others sifted through the possessions. These were then transported back to Germany. The prisoners working on this task were in a privileged position. They were able to ‘organise’ (steal) extra food on which to survive, a pair of shoes or extra clothing to protect themselves from the severe winter weather.

There were examples of prisoners smuggling valuables which could be used to bribe guards. However, if caught, they risked death.

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Freddie remembers his journey to Auschwitz

Freddie remembers his journey to Auschwitz

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