The prisoners selected for work were housed in wooden or brick built barracks.
The brick barracks were constructed in the autumn of 1941. The Germans originally intended the barracks to house 40 prisoners, but very often more than 700 would be placed in each of them. The total number of prisoners to each barrack depended on the number of transports arriving. The prisoners slept in 60 spaces, with three bunks in each space. Prisoners slept on straw spread over the wooden bunks. The barracks had earth floors and few sanitary facilities.
The wooden barracks had once been stables. The walls were thin and had gaps at the bottom and top, which let in the bitterly cold wind in the winter. Near the entrance door were two rooms to house the ‘functionaries’ or kapos. The barracks had no windows, but instead had a row of skylights at the top of the roof. Each block had wooden three-tiered bunks. Prisoners slept under thin blankets or rags on their straw mattresses.
Each barrack had two stoves with a brick heating flue running between them. However, fuel was not provided. As a result many prisoners died during the extreme cold of the Polish winters.
Sanitary facilities for prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau were extremely poor. It was impossible for inmates to keep clean or have a change of clothes. For the first two years of the camp’s existence, the prisoners had no access to water for washing. When there was later water, it was not clean. Prisoners, therefore, spent their existence in the camp dirty and in filthy clothes, which increased the likelihood of them contracting infections and diseases.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of access to clean water, soap and a change of clothes, many prisoners continued to go through the motions of washing each morning. This was because, even though it was not possible to carry out the activities of a normal life, it was extremely important to preserve the ‘spirit’ of life, not to give up. This can be seen so vividly in the writings of Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, who went on to become a distinguished writer,
He remembered having a conversation with a fellow prisoner one morning:
“I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude chest, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) [He] sees me and asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day longer?…. Does Steinlauf not know that after half an hour with the coal sacks every difference between him and me will have disappeared?….
[Steinlauf says] ‘…even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but… … we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.’”
– Primo Levi, “Survival in Auschwitz”