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Section: What were the camps?

How were camps run?

SS guards at Belzec extermination camp, Poland
SS guards at Belzec extermination camp, Poland © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

An SS Death’s Head Unit, using the model established in Dachau, administered each camp. The SS unit was split into two groups.

The first of these was responsible for life, security and conditions inside the camp, whilst the second group was responsible for guarding the perimeter of the camp, in addition to an exclusion zone around it.

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Often the SS officers and orderlies would be extremely brutal to prisoners. Punishments were carried out at the whim of the guards.

Architecture, buildings and sub-sections

Some camps had been in existence in another guise before the Nazis came to power. They were then adapted. However, all camps followed the general guidelines set up by SS ‘Inspector of concentration camps’ Theodore Eicke, who had developed systems and guidelines for the administration of camps during his time as commandant of Dachau.

More often than not, camps would have an electrified barbed wire perimeter fence or a wall, each with guard towers. On both the inside and outside of this would be deep ditches running the whole length of the perimeter.

At the main entrance there would be a gatehouse, where the camp administration would often be located. There would be many support buildings; containing the kitchen, laundry, showers and workshops, as well as a prison block. There was always an Appell Platz (roll call square) where prisoners would often have to stand for hours whilst they were counted. Sometimes they were kept there as punishment or at the whim of the SS. This would often be the place where executions took place.

Camps were usually divided into sections, each separated by rows of barbed wire fences. In most camps there were separate sections for male and female prisoners, with children often being housed in the same barracks as the women.

Different categories of prisoners were also segregated. For example, there would be separate compounds for political prisoners, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roma.

Prisoners were housed in wooden or brick-built barracks. Each of these was intended to accommodate between 250 and 400 prisoners, but they would often house 700 to 1200 prisoners each. As a result they were extremely overcrowded and diseases and epidemics therefore spread very quickly. Prisoners slept on wooden bunks three layers high, with often three to five people sharing one level. Those on the bottom layer received all the waste from those lying above them.

Later on, camps would have a crematorium to dispose of those prisoners who died of starvation, disease, over-work, mistreatment or murder by the Nazis. This crematorium would be administered by the SS, but staffed by prisoners who were selected as members of the Sonderkommando (special work unit).

Kapos

The supervision arrangements across the various camps varied slightly, but in general each barrack or block would have its own a male or female guard or commander, usually a German or Ukrainian. These block commanders were extremely ruthless and cruel. There are countless stories of brutality against prisoners.

The German commander would appoint prisoners to supervise the other inmates. They were known as ‘Kapos’. During her time at the Hessisch-Lichtenau work camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, Trude Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was asked to become a work leader

Trude said: “It was tempting, but work leaders also had duties. To push around their mates, to spy on them, denounce them.”  She, therefore, refused to cooperate with the Nazis: “I wanted to survive but not at any price – I had a choice about how to behave. She said that: “most girls would have been overjoyed to obtain such a privileged position, as it meant extra rations and other perquisites.” “I did not want to live without my integrity.”

Uniform and clothing

On arrival at concentration camps prisoners had their clothing taken away, often to be replaced by a striped uniform (now known as striped pyjamas). Men would wear a vest, trousers, hat and coat. Women would be supplied a smock type dress. On their feet prisoners wore wooden or leather clogs. As socks were not supplied, clogs would rub on feet and ankles, causing foot sores. This could be very dangerous, as the conditions in barracks and around the camp were extremely poor. Prisoners could very easily get an infection, which could then lead to death.

Clothes would be changed approximately every six weeks. As prisoners would have to work and sleep in the same clothes, they would be very dirty. Prisoners were identified by a number printed on their clothing and also an inverted triangle with lettering to signify the reason for imprisonment. Criminals were marked with a green triangle, political prisoners with red, homosexuals with pink, whilst Jehovah’s Witnesses wore a purple triangle and asocials (including Roma) wore a black triangle.

In some camps, Jews were usually marked by a yellow triangle over a red triangle to form the Star of David. However, in others a yellow star identified them as being Jewish.

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