Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

SS concentration camp system

This map shows all of the major camps established by the Nazis by January 1944.

This map shows all of the major camps established by the Nazis by January 1944.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Early camps in Germany were controlled by different groups in different parts of the country, with different structures and conditions in each.

As the SA became less prominent following the Night of Long Knives in 1934, the SS and Heinrich Himmler consolidated control of all camps in Germany.

Their first move in consolidating control over the camps in the Third Reich was to shut down SA camps, such as Oranienburg.

Next, Himmler and the SS used Dachau, the original SS camp, as the blueprint for all camps. Camps that had not been shut down were re-organised in line with the Dachau model, and any SA, police, or civilian guards were dismissed and replaced with SS soldiers.

This section will explore how the SS developed the notorious Nazi concentration camps from 1934 onwards, who they imprisoned, and how the inmates lived.

Whilst this section aims to give an overview of the SS concentration camp system, it is important to note that not all camps had the same, or similar, practices. Even within the punitive atmosphere of the camps, there were lots of variations. 

Development of the SS camps

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was opened in 1936. Here, prisoners perform forced labour at the camp.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was opened in 1936. Here, prisoners perform forced labour at the camp.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

From 1934 onwards, the SS developed and then operated the camp system, which lasted until Germany’s defeat in the Second World War in 1945.

Shortly after the Night of Long Knives, the SS became an independent organisation (rather than a sub-section of the SA). The SS began shutting down SA  camps, and restructuring existing camps on the original Dachau SS camp model.

By 1935, the camps had secured central funding from the Reich budget, rather than their previous reliance on regional budgets. On 17 June 1936, Himmler was appointed Chief of Police giving him unrestricted control of all police forces in Germany.

This control, together with the guaranteed funding for the camps, secured their future.

The SS soon began building new, large, permanent, purpose-built camps. Sachsenhausen was opened in 1936, and was swiftly followed by Buchenwald in 1937. In 1938, Flossenbürg and Mauthausen opened, and in 1939 Ravensbrück became the new camp for women.

Who was held in the SS camps?

As the camps expanded, so did the number and different categories of prisoners. Until 1938, political prisoners remained the majority. However, from that point onwards, different groups of society who were either viewed as racially inferior, or who opposed the Nazis, also began to be targeted.

Criminals – 1937 onwards

People with previous criminal convictions were among the first to find themselves targeted by the Nazis. From 1937 onwards, many previous criminals were rearrested in large raids. One such raid, ordered by Himmler and carried out on the 9 March 1937, saw two thousand people arrested across Germany and sent to camps.

Asocials – 1934/5 onwards

The arrest of those considered to be ‘asocials’, such as Roma, homosexuals, prostitutes, the homeless and the ‘work-shy’ also intensified under SS rule from 1934, and again following the start of the Second World War in 1939. Similarly, following the introduction of conscription in 1935, Jehovah’s Witnesses started to arrive in camps for their refusal to fight or be involved in the army.

Jews – primarily from 1938 onwards

After years of intensifying persecution, the mass imprisonment of Jews began following Anschluss and then Kristallnacht towards the end of 1938. These two events, and the resulting arrests and deportations, meant that Jews became the largest prisoner group for the first time since the introduction of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany in 1933.

Whilst many Jewish people were subsequently released (in line with the Nazis’ policy of forced emigration as opposed to murder at this point), the summer of 1938 marked a radicalisation of the concentration camps. The Nazis no longer needed justification for their arrests, and being Jewish soon became, in the Nazis’ eyes, a crime equivalent to imprisonment.

Foreign nationals – 1939 onwards

As the Second World War started, foreign citizens from newly occupied countries such as Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands also began to be imprisoned in concentration and forced labour camps.

The largest prisoner group of early foreign nationals was Poles. The invasion of Poland in September 1939 was seen not just as a war for Lebensraum  but a racial war. The majority of the polish people were seen as racially inferior by the Nazis. As such, thousands were deported or arrested and sent to forced labour or concentration camps.

Poles were soon followed by Soviets and prisoners of war (POW’s) after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Whilst many were murdered instantly by the Einsatzgruppen , others were incarcerated in makeshift POW camps or transported to larger concentration or labour camps.

Who was in charge at the SS camps?


The majority of the camps followed a similar organisational structure created by the SS .

Theodor Eicke, an SS Lieutenant General, had established a structure for how to run a camp from his experience of running Dachau . The systems and buildings Eicke had developed at Dachau soon became the basic model by which all concentration camps would be established and managed.

The camps were split into five sections:

  1. Commandants office (This office oversaw the whole camp).
  2. Political department (This department was responsible for registration of prisoners, interrogations, the camp prison and crematoria).
  3. Protective custody camp (This section oversaw the prisoners complex. It was ruled by the infamous SS Death’s Head Units).
  4. Administrative department (This department was responsible for all administration for the camp, such as the maintenance of the camps own equipment and facilities).
  5. Medical department (This department was run by the camp physician, and provided medical care for the SS and prisoners – though the quality of this care varied greatly between the two).

In the protective custody camp, prisoners were also used as staff in the form of Kapos.


Kapos were inmates of Nazi camps who were appointed as guards to oversee other prisoners in various tasks.

There were three main types of Kapos: work supervisors, block elders, and camp administrators.

  1. Work supervisors oversaw prisoners at work, and were responsible for ensuring efficiency, making sure that no one escaped, and reporting delays.
  2. Block elders supervised the barracks. Typically, there was one block elder per block, and they ensured all prisoners kept the barracks clean, made their beds, and got to roll call on time. They were also responsible for counting the prisoners (accounting for any that had died or were ill), and handing out food.
  3. Camp administrators undertook various other jobs, such as supervising work in the kitchen, in the storeroom, or working as secretaries/interpreters.

Kapos had more authority than regular prisoners and were typically given preferential treatment, such as extra rations, not having to complete hard physical labour or more hygienic and larger sleeping spaces.

Whilst there were incentives to becoming a Kapo, there were also disadvantages. Kapos were under the direct authority of the SS, and had to report to them daily. Any failures meant they could quickly be removed from their post. In addition to this, their authority, especially in regards to punishing or informing on other fellow prisoners meant that they were often unpopular and disliked.

Transportation to camps

Prisoners were transported to the camps in a number of ways: usually by train, but people also arrived on foot if the camps were close by from their original destination, or occasionally by truck.

The prisoners were generally not told their specific destination, although in later years it was often made clear that they were being sent ‘to the east’. By the early 1940s, most prisoners had heard rumours of camps in the east, and the conditions inside. This, in addition to the experiences they had already lived through, would have resulted in crippling fear and anxiety.

The journey to the camps usually took several days, although some transports could take weeks. Prisoners were extremely tightly packed onto their transport, so much so that it was usually impossible to sit or kneel down. A typical transport contained approximately 1000 people, though this varied greatly across the Third Reich and depended on both the original location and the final destination.

Conditions inside the transports were extremely inhumane, and, for some, lethal.

The transports usually held little to no food or water, and had no toilet facilities except one bucket in the corner (which quickly became overfilled). The smell of vomit, urine, and excrement was overpowering, and most transports had no windows or ventilation.

As such, many prisoners died on route to the camps from dehydration, starvation or suffocation.

Arrival at camp

Once the prisoners had arrived at the camp, they were unloaded from their transportation vehicles.

If they arrived at a camp with both male and female inmates, they were then usually separated into two groups: men and then women and children separately.

Prisoners would often then be registered, and given a prisoner number. From this point onwards, they would typically only be referred to by this number rather than their name. At Auschwitz, this number would be tattooed onto their arms. At most other camps, it was stitched onto their clothing. Prisoners were also usually assigned to a barrack and work detail at this stage.

After registration the prisoners were told to undress. They were then forced to have their head shaved, and forced to shower, usually in front of hundreds of other people and the SS guards.

Typically, their regular clothing was taken away and replaced by a striped uniform, although, again, this depended on both the camp and the prisoner.

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

Daily routines

Inmates’ daily routines in the camps were monotonous but at the same time unpredictable, with torture and beatings a regular occurrence.


The day usually began between 4am and 4.30am (although in winter this was sometimes an hour later) when prisoners were awoken in their barracks. The prisoners then had between 30-45 minutes to use the toilet, get dressed, make their beds, clean the barracks and have breakfast. Toilet and washing facilities (where there was usually only dirty water and no soap or toilet paper) were shared by up to 2000 prisoners. Anyone who completed these tasks too slowly faced punishment.

Prisoners then lined up for the morning roll call, a registration of all prisoners in the camp (including those who had died in the night or those that were ill), on the Appellplatz The prisoners would be counted twice, and any discrepancies meant that they were recounted. This meant that the morning roll call could take hours. Throughout this time, prisoners would have to stand outside – often in extreme weather.  Any prisoners that collapsed or were found to be missing faced beatings, torture or execution.


Once roll call was finished and the sun rose, prisoners set off for work. The type of work carried out varied between each camp. Prisoners were usually forced to march to each place of work on foot. The length of these journeys ranged from a few hundred metres away to a few kilometres away. The prisoners were often forced to sing belittling songs about themselves or others in the camps along the way, for the amusement of the SS officers. Despite the sheer exhaustion that many felt after malnourishment and fatiguing routines, keeping up with the speed of the march was essential. Those that fell behind were subject to severe punishment and torture.

At noon, prisoners were sometimes forced to march back for a noon roll call, and to collect their lunch. In later years, in many of the camps, lunch was brought to the prisoners work places, in order to reduce the amount of time walking and increase the amount of time working.


Work typically finished at approximately 5pm or 6pm each day, or sundown in winter (although this varied greatly – some prisoners could be forced to work through the night).

Once work had finished, prisoners were marched back to the camp to participate in evening roll call. Those that had died during the day were also brought out to the roll call to be counted. This, again, could take hours due to inaccuracies and beatings. Roll call was also sometimes extended for long periods of time as a form of punishment.

After the evening roll call was completed prisoners were sent back to their barracks, where they had ‘free time’. Some prisoners used this period to barter between each other for additional food or repair their clothing. Others, exhausted, simply retired to their beds.

At 9pm lights were switched off, and prisoners were expected to sleep.

Uniform and clothing

In most camps, prisoners were stripped of their own civilian clothing and forced to wear a uniform. Typically, this uniform was patterned with blue stripes, although this wasn’t always the case.

Men were given a cap, trousers and jacket to wear. Women wore a dress or skirt with a jacket and kerchief for their head. Some uniforms, especially those of higher-ranking prisoners such as Kapos  had pockets, which were extremely useful for concealing extra rations or having useful luxuries such as spoons or cutlery.  Some prisoners also secretly sewed pockets into their uniforms.

On their feet, prisoners wore wooden or leather clogs. Socks were not supplied, and as a result many prisoners suffered with sores from rubbing. This could be very dangerous in the poor and unhygienic conditions of most of the camps.

The uniforms usually had each prisoner’s number stitched onto front left hand side of the uniform, as well as a triangle to show the category of prisoner to which they had been classified.

Jews wore two yellow triangles which formed the Star of David, political prisoners wore red triangles, Roma wore brown triangles, although they were also sometimes classed as ‘asocials’, which was represented with black triangles, homosexuals wore pink triangles, and Jehovah’s Witnesses wore purple triangles.

Prisoners clothing was usually inadequate for the conditions in which they were expected to work and live.


A testimony given by Mr. Reinhold of his experience in several camps. Here he describes the small amount of daily food given in Auschwitz-Birkenau ‘Food: early ¼ coffee, midday ½ water gruel, evenings 200 grams bread with 20 grams margarine, or a slice of sausage'.

A testimony given by Mr. Reinhold of his experience in several camps. Here he describes the small amount of daily food given in Auschwitz-Birkenau ‘Food: early ¼ coffee, midday ½ water gruel, evenings 200 grams bread with 20 grams margarine, or a slice of sausage’.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Food for prisoners was scarce throughout the camps’ existence, but became significantly more so following the outbreak of the Second World War.

Prior to the war, prisoners would typically be given an early breakfast of bread or porridge, accompanied by tea or ersatz coffee served in tin bowls and mugs. Lunch would be vegetable soup, occasionally served with bread, and dinner would be more soup, or in some of the earlier camps, bread and cheese.

In January 1940, following the outbreak of war, prisoners food intake was further rationed. Food portions became smaller and less nutritious. Typically, this reduced the prisoners to soup for lunch and dinner, with just one piece of bread. These rations were further limited by the SS guards, who often stole or limited the amount of food that the prisoners actually received.

Calories per person per day typically averaged at 1300 calories. The modern day recommendation is 2500 calories per day for men and 2000 calories per day for women.

In October 1942, Himmler ordered that prisoners be able to receive packages from outside. This was a tactical move, aiming to reduce the number of prisoner deaths so that they could be exploited to work for longer. In some camps, food could then be sent in by family members or organisations such as the Red Cross.

For many, this move was a lifeline. However, a majority of prisoners remained unaffected by the change, as the packages from institutions such as the Red Cross were not equal to the number of prisoners, and many prisoners families were also imprisoned and therefore could not send parcels.

In 1944, with the German war economy failing, the rations for camp inmates were cut again. Some inmates now received as little as 700 calories per day, forcing them quickly into starvation.

Some prisoners managed to survive by trading goods on the thriving black market in the camps. Anything and everything was traded, from food to buttons or clothing. Prisoners who worked in places such as Kanada or the camp kitchens were at an advantage, with access to goods such as extra clothes or food to steal. Others were not so lucky, and had to steal from other prisoners.


In Buchenwald, prisoners were issued with labour assignment cards, which details where they were to be forced to work. This labour assignment card belongs to Janina Czerwinska, a Polish political prisoner who arrived in Buchenwald from Ravensbrück on the 13 September 1944. On arrival, Czerwinska was assigned to work in Altenburg (signified by the word Alt next to KDO, which meant Kommando or detail). Altenburg was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, which provided forced labour for the German metalworks company Hugo Schneider Aktiengesellschaft Metallwarenfabrik.

In Buchenwald, prisoners were issued with labour assignment cards, which details where they were to be forced to work. This labour assignment card belongs to Janina Czerwinska, a Polish political prisoner who arrived in Buchenwald from Ravensbrück on the 13 September 1944. On arrival, Czerwinska was assigned to work in Altenburg (signified by the word Alt next to KDO, which meant Kommando or detail). Altenburg was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, which provided forced labour for the German metalworks company Hugo Schneider Aktiengesellschaft Metallwarenfabrik.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library, International Tracing Service Digital Archive, Document Number 7541345.

Prisoners were forced to work in some form in most Nazi camps throughout their existence. Whilst in the earlier camps forced labour was less common, when the SS  took over control of the camps system in 1934, labour became more central. Initially, in the prewar years between 1934 and 1939, forced labour focused on building new camps or maintaining or extending current camps.

Preparations for war

As the Nazis began preparations for war, the SS economy expanded and prisoner labour became even more important. Building materials became scarce, and to supply the demand, in 1938 camps using mass forced labour at Flossenbürg and Mauthausen were opened.

The movement of labour to the forefront of prisoner life had a negative impact on their life expectancy and general wellbeing in the camps.

As the Second World War began, the need for building materials increased. This again increased the need for forced labour. As a result, forced labour from both concentration camp prisoners, [glossary_tooltip term_id=”6469″ /], and foreign workers was greatly extended.

Types of labour

The types of labour that prisoners carried out depended greatly on which camp they were placed in. Heavy physical labour, such as construction, was common throughout almost all camps. This labour could be based on the camp itself, or for external companies, such as building the infamous IG Farben complex which was part of Auschwitz.

Inmates were also forced to complete other types of work. This work was hugely varied, from counterfeiting money and testing the soles of shoes in Sachsenhausen, to secretarial work, to sorting new arrivals possessions in the Kanada warehouses in Auschwitz.



At most camps, prisoners had their belongings confiscated on arrival. At Auschwitz specifically, a group of primarily Jewish prisoners were assigned to collect and sift through these confiscated possessions. Valuables were separated and sorted in large warehouses and then transported back to Germany. These warehouses were ironically nicknamed Kanada, the German spelling of Canada. Although the origin of the name is not clear, it may have been because Canada was a country that represented wealth, and the warehouses were full of people’s valuables.

Prisoners who worked as part of the Kanada commando were in a privileged position. They were able to obtain extra rations and clothing from the possessions – items which could saves lives in the harsh conditions of the camp. However, prisoners also faced extreme punishments if caught.


Medical experiments

In addition to forced labour, the Nazis used prisoners incarcerated in camps as live test subjects for medical experiments. These experiments were usually extremely painful, debilitating , and in many cases, lethal.

The experiments had various purposes: experiments attempting to prove the supposed superiority of the ‘ Aryan ’ race, experiments to try and find solutions to military or common war related injuries, and or experiments to further individual doctors’ research interests.

Experiments attempting to prove the superiority of the ‘Aryan’ race

Just six months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, on 14 July 1933 the Nazis passed their first sterilisation law, which forced people with certain hereditary conditions to be sterilised by law.

Following the mass imprisonments after the start of the Second World War, the Nazis escalated this sterilisation policy and also targeted other racial enemies such as Jews. The Nazis conducted a number of experiments on concentration camp prisoners in an effort to discover a method for mass sterilisation. These experiments primarily took place on women prisoners at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.

Experiments to find solutions to military or common war related injuries

The start of the Second World War also led to a number of medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners in attempts to discover new, cheaper and quicker treatments for common military injuries. Some examples of these experiments include hypothermia experiments at Dachau, which attempted to discover ways to quickly reverse the effects of hypothermia . This set of experiments forced inmates to be submerged in cold water. Out of the 300 inmates involved, between 80-90 died – typically of heart failure. Other experiments at Dachau involved attempts to make seawater drinkable, in case troops were marooned with no running water, attempts to find a similar drug to penicillin , which involved infecting prisoners with sepsis , and attempts to find a cure for malaria . Almost all of these experiments resulted in a significant number of deaths or physical and mental deformities among the prisoners tested on. Prisoners were typically given little to no pain relief during experiments, and the Nazis saw their deaths as inconsequential due to their inferior status.

Dachau was not the only site of war-related medical experiments on prisoners. Experiments to find a cure for typhus  also took place at Natzweiler and Buchenwald (where 154 inmates out of the 729 used died, in addition to 120 carrier patients who died whilst being used to keep the infection alive so it could be further tested). Hepatitis experiments took place at Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler, and bone, muscle and nerve regeneration experiments took place at Ravensbrück.

Experiments to further individual doctors’ research interests

Concentration camp inmates were also used as live test subjects in individual doctors research experiments. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was the experiments performed by Dr. Joseph Mengele on inmates of Auschwitz. Mengele was particularly interested in twins, people with different colored eyes, and people with physical impairments. Mengele did not spare any thought for the wellbeing or health of the inmates subject to his experiments, and many of them died or were purposefully killed so that their corpses could be examined.

Another example of medical experiments on inmates driven by personal interest was the Tuberculosis experiments carried out by Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer in June 1944 in Nuengamme. Heissmeyer hoped that his experiments would find a cure for tuberculosis .  All of Heissmeyer’s experiments failed. Despite the lack of positive results, Heissmeyer continued his experiments, and started new rounds on children in 1945. All of the inmates involved in the experiments either died as a result of them, or were murdered on Heissmeyer’s orders directly afterwards.

What happened in July