Auschwitz: The Camp of Death
Auschwitz was regarded as the most effective concentration camp established by the Nazi regime in pursuit of the “Final Solution.” Unknown numbers of people of various nationalities perished in the camp. Even today the name holds a cold and somber connotation.
In September 1939, the town of Oswiecim and its surrounding areas in Poland joined to become Auschwitz. During that same year, Gestapo Inspector SS-Oberfuhrer Wiegand initiated the idea of transforming Auschwitz into a major concentration camp. Auschwitz was located at the center crossroads of many Polish cities, and, therefore it was an ideal location for the shipping of incoming prisoners from German occupied Europe.
Rudolf Hoss was promptly named the commandant of the camp. He designated as its main goal the extermination and elimination of all the prisoners admitted to the camp.
The concentration camp at Auschwitz had a total camp area of 40 square kilometers with a surrounding radius of five kilometers for isolation. The 28 two-story buildings which made up the camp were divided into three sections: Auschwitz I (the base camp and central office), Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monoscwitz with the sub-camp and buna).
When first entering the camp of Auschwitz I, the prisoners saw over the main entrance the words; “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will give you freedom). These words were to promote the false hope that hard work by the prisoners would result in their freedom: however, the sad truth was that the prisoners were doomed to slave labor and death was the only real escape.
Auschwitz I was the main base and smallest part of the camp. It held the commandant’s office and living quarters, the administration building, the “death block,” the prisoners kitchen and infirmary, the main guard station, the first crematorium and gas chamber, the Gestapo camp, and the group gallows. Auschwitz I was surrounded by double barbed wire electric fences and nine watch towers.
The “death block” housed the criminals in the camp. These barracks held the “court rooms” where the prisoner was tortured into confession, unfairly tried, and sentenced to death. The “firing wall” located at the side of the block was the location for carrying out the sentences by lining the prisoners against the wall and shooting them. Their bodies were placed in gravel pits in and around the main camp.
Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, was built in March 1942 to accommodate more prisoners, and, therefore, it was the largest section of Auschwitz. At its peak, up to 200,000 inmates were housed in the Auschwitz II barracks. The 250 barracks located throughout Birkeneau were modeled after horse stables that were meant to house 52 horses.
After the buildings were designed, the Nazis fit approximately 800 to 1,000 people in each barrack. On August 16, 1942, a section of the barracks was designated the women’s camp. It held 15,000 working females. The conditions in Auschwitz II were far worse than those in Auschwitz I. There was no running water or sanitary equipment, resulting in the rapid spread of disease. Vermin and insects infested the living quarters and work sites of the inmates.
Auschwitz II also contained the gas chambers and Crematoria II, III, IV, and V. The presence of the death chambers near the barracks served as a constant reminder to the inmates that at any moment they could be sent in to the showers to be gassed and cremated. The strong scent of charred flesh and burned hair were detected from the living quarters to the work sites.
Auschwitz II held the Birkenau commandant’s office, the kitchen barracks, the “experimental block” for medical experiments conducted on the prisoners, execution barracks mass graves for Soviet prisoners of war an incarceration area, and a storage area for the personal items of the dead and captured prisoners. The entire perimeter of the camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and 28 watch towers with armed guards. This made prisoner escapes virtually impossible.
Auschwitz III, also known as Monoschwitz, consisted of a small area that contained the subcamp and the “buna.” The main function of this sector was the production of synthetic fuel and rubber. As a result of expansion of the main Auschwitz camp in October 1942, Auschwitz III also was utilized for holding prisoners.
Scattered throughout the camp in all three sector of Auschwitz were huge pits used as mass graves for thousands of stacked bodies, individual common graves, and large pyres. Typically, the mass graves held about 107,000 corpses and were used extensively after the Nazis discovered the inefficiency of burying the bodies individually. Even in death, the prisoners lost their identity, as they simply became part of a stack containing thousands of bodies.
A Day in the Life of a Typical Auschwitz Prisoner
Before dawn, the prisoners were roused from their overcrowded, unsanitary wooden beds for roll call. The inmates were required to make their beds, each of which consisted of a small thin blanket and a mattress of wooden boards. If the job was not done to the satisfaction of the SS guard, punishment followed.
At roll call, the entire camp stood in their meager rags as the SS guards called out the names of the prisoners. With no protection from bad weather, the inmates stood for up to four hours in the rain and snow. The striped dresses or shirt and pants were not changed for months and were inefficient against the cold and damp. Some of the extremely weak and sick prisoners would die in the lines during the roll call.
The penal roll call was given as a collective punishment for the wrongdoing of one prisoner. “All night long the prisoners remain standing in the courtyard … shivering with cold, tortured hunger, fainting from exhaustion. In such conditions, the human rag has only one hope left….it wants to die.” These roll calls lasted all night and included beatings and shootings.
After the daily roll call, the prisoners received their ration for breakfast. The rations allocated to the prisoners were just barely enough to keep each prisoner alive for the slave labor, but still in the state of malnutrition. They were given 10 ounces of bread with a small piece of salami or one ounce of margarine and brown, tasteless coffee, with no sugar.
Directly after breakfast, another roll call was announced with a siren. The prisoners combined together into their work groups and they were escorted to their sites by SS guards armed with automatic weapons and attack dogs to ensure that no prisoner escaped.
One such site was called “Canada” which was a slang name given because this was the land of plenty. It was a huge, open compound, containing many sheds and covered areas. These buildings held the possessions taken from the incoming prisoners after entering Auschwitz.
The goods were to be sorted for the Nazis. The prisoners were taken into the sheds, given scissors, and told to cut the lining of fur coats to look for items hidden inside. This job was considered to be a privilege, but the workers found it deeply depressing to be sorting out the belongings of the deceased and to be looking at the photographs of broken and ended families. It was a shock to realize that their relatives were lost forever and that they would only be reunited in heaven.
The workers labored about 11 or 12 hours daily. At noon, a soup was given to the prisoners that consisted of a quart of water with a few carrots and rutabagas. The inmates resumed working until dusk when they were escorted back to the camp for the four-hour evening roll call. The final meal was bread with rotten salami or margarine and jam. Sometimes a piece of rotten skim cheese was included.
The camps had no heat or running water and only a few toilets which the inmates could only use for a monitored 10 seconds. After retreating into the barracks, the prisoners lay 10 per bed and each person had to lay sideways to fit.
Insects and vermin also shared the beds. Particular menaces were bed bugs that landed on the prisoner and sucked his or her blood. Lice and rats also plagued prisoners. The prisoners slept on their possessions, such as a bowl, a cup, or a cap to prevent them from being stolen by other inmates. Many times a prisoner woke up to find his or her bed-mate dead.
The entire function of the Auschwitz camp was the extermination of the prisoners within its fences. Every part of the camp functioned to that end. Everyone from the SS guard separating the workers from the doomed, to the kitchen workers serving unhealthy, rotten food worked to that end. The prisoners were tattooed with a number and afterwards their identity was lost.
The inmates were treated more like animals than humans by the Nazis. The worst atrocities were revealed within Auschwitz, and this was illustrated when the Nazis tried to hide their actions by destroying a crematorium. However, the Nazis were eventually defeated, and the few survivors were rescued. The memory of those who perished in the death camp live on.
A Russian internee in the infamous Buchenwald Concentration camp confronts one of his tormentors in this photo take after the camp’s liberation by elements of the U.S. 3rd Armored Division.
from the collection of the Virginia War Museum Newport News, Virginia
Essay (back to top)
In December 1943 in northern Italy, a small anti-fascist, anti-Nazi resistance group with only 9 members, including a Jewish Italian named Primo Levi, was infiltrated by the Fascist Militia and its members were sent to a detention camp in Fossoli, Italy. Just two months after their capture, on February 21, 1944, all the Jews at Fossoli were shipped to Auschwitz where most of them would meet their death. This is where Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s memoir of the ten months he spent in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, begins. From this point onward Levi never goes farther than 400 yards outside the camp as he describes his experiences at the Lager (the German word for camp).
As a new prisoner to Auschwitz, Primo Levi had to learn the routine, the layout of the Lager, and the rules, spoken and unspoken, of camp life. He describes arriving at the Lager as hitting the bottom, being stripped completely of his manhood and everything and everyone he had known before. He was now Häftling (German for prisoner) number 174517, and the only way out, Levi quickly learned, was “by way of the chimney” (29). During the middle chapters of the book, Primo tells stories of occurrences and reflections, not necessarily chronologically, on certain aspects of the camp. These include the tale of his time in the Krankenbau, or infirmary, in addition to the day to day events that seemed life-giving such as remembering the lyrics to a poem, or the slight warmth of the sun as the winter cold subsided. He recounts the harshness of life and work in the Lager, which he could not escape, even in his dreams. Levi also gives reflections on the blurred moral lines and natural selection within the camp as he discusses the inherent and developed traits that allowed prisoners to survive.
For the later chapters of the book, however, Levi picks up a timeline and tells of the events, which he describes as lucky, that led to his survival. Primo shares his fortune to have the companionship of his best friend Alberto and the chance relationship with Lorenzo, an Italian civilian worker who slipped Primo food and marketable items, and more importantly, gave him a glimpse of humankind’s ability to be good. The friendship of Alberto and goodness of Lorenzo reminded Levi that there was something outside the hellish reality of Auschwitz worth living for. Later, Levi was one of three prisoners chosen to be a specialist in the laboratory, a result of his interview earlier in the year. The lab was clean, sheltered from the cold, and he was given a full ration of food, satisfying the physical needs that could keep prisoners alive longer. As the war neared its end, Primo had a final realization when a prisoner’s last words made him aware of his compliance with the camp system. However, the system soon collapsed and Auschwitz was bombed almost completely to the ground, deserted by the Germans, and its prisoners were evacuated, except those who were in the infirmary, including Levi, who had scarlet fever. This proved a fortunate circumstance because almost all the evacuated prisoners “vanished,” including Alberto (155). Levi’s final chapter recounts the last ten days during which he and his fellow sick prisoners searched for food and provisions in the empty Lager. It was in those last ten days that Primo felt like a man again, and on the eleventh day the Russians came and rescued him and the remaining few survivors.
Primo Levi was a shy, frail chemistry student from Turin, Italy who survived nearly a year in a Nazi concentration camp. Survival in Auschwitz is his memoir, and it answers the basic question posed in the title, how did he, and others, survive? What kept people from giving up and surrendering to death, that is, if it was not forced upon them? It also addresses another goal, one explicitly stated by Levi in his preface. He writes “…it should be able, rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9). The first part of this statement which is of importance is the word “documentation.” The book is Primo’s way of ensuring that the prisoners’ story is heard so that the memory of what happened in Auschwitz is not forgotten. Primo Levi describes this purpose as “The need to tell our story to ‘the rest’, to make ‘the rest’ participate in it…” (9). The book was also written “to study certain aspects of the human mind,” a goal perhaps more apparent in the original title of the book, If This Is a Man, or in Italian, Se questo è un uomo. This translates into the question: what made someone human and what happened when men and women were subject to dehumanization in the Lager? If Jews were less than human, what made a person, in Primo’s case, a man? Through his own experience, Primo Levi attempts to answer questions of survival and manhood and in doing so, he ensures that the reality of their experience (when describing features of the Lager and general experiences of prisoners, Levi writes in the plural) will not be forgotten. In the Lager, luck, the skills he brought with him, the skills he developed while in Auschwitz, and his companions in the camp enabled Levi to maintain a semblance of humanity and even to survive in the face of the Nazis’ dehumanizing system.
Levi’s memoir is certainly not a romantic version of life at Auschwitz and his tone throughout the book is one of brutal honesty, without sarcasm or humor. This tone accounts for the harsh reality of life as a prisoner at Auschwitz, which stripped its prisoners of anything that might remind them of their previous life or their human sensitivities. When Levi describes the night before he left for Auschwitz, he speaks as a man who knew he was going to die, as if death were synonymous with Lager. Of his initial experiences at the camp, Primo Levi writes these cold words: “It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name.” He continues, “Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man” (27). At Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s identity – that which he once defined himself by: his name, his appearance, his property, his family, and his education – was stripped of him and reduced to a number, a number tattooed on his arm so that he would never forget this. To have one’s self perception so shattered is to take away a central feature to being human: self awareness.
Levi also portrays the severe physical suffering endured by prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp. He tells of the freezing cold, for which they were left ill equipped to endure, the paralyzing hunger that never left, and the brutal labor they were forced to complete. Levi describes: “I am at the limit of what a person is theoretically able to support: my knees bend, my shoulder aches as if pressed in a vice, my equilibrium is in danger” (67). The author gives endless details throughout the book of the intricate pains which they were forced to endure and which permeated every aspect of life. When one suffering passed, like the cold winter, they were instantly reminded of another, such as their hunger.
When the personal, mental loss of identity was combined with physical stress, a bleak creature emerges that was once fully human, and now retains only a fraction of its former self. The prisoners at the Lager whom Levi describes had lost their inclination toward intelligent thought or hope or memories of the past, those only led to sensitivity, which Levi realized were weaknesses. He explains their futility when he says: “Why worry oneself trying to read into the future when no action, no word of ours could have the minimum influence?” (116). The impossibility and helplessness of the prisoners’ situation made all breaks from the norm, all activity outside that which was necessary for survival, futile. Rather, Levi and his comrades complied with the demands of the guards, whose unquestionable authority loomed over them, reminding them of their place. The effect this had on Levi is evident in this statement: “I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself” (144). Thus, the Lager had completed its work of dehumanization.
The other strand throughout the book, however, follows Primo Levi’s opportunities for survival and the brief moments of joy that broke the monotony of despair. Levi recounts various moments during his ten months at Auschwitz that were at times luck, at times due to his own skill, which physically allowed him to survive. His talent for chemistry earned him one of three open positions as a specialist which put led him to be “the object of envy of all the ten thousand condemned” and to “suffer neither hunger nor cold this winter” (140). Levi knew this advantage would increase his chance for survival at least for a brief period of time, as did the food and scraps passed on to him from Lorenzo. To have such a relationship was a stroke of luck, much like his fortune to have contracted scarlet fever at the end of 1944. Because Primo was in the Krankenbau (hospital barrack) when Auschwitz collapsed, he was not among the majority who died shortly after being evacuated into the harsh winter weather. Primo Levi also developed survival skills while at the camp that increased his life-chances on a day to day basis. For example, his collection of belongings that consisted of small tools he used to fashion knick-knacks that could be traded for food or other necessities (151).
It was this luck, cleverness, and good circumstance that covered the physical bases for survival, but these were worth nothing without the necessary counterparts which could give the prisoners their spirit and some temporary relief. For example, Levi points out that being assigned a latrine farther away in the yard at work meant having a longer break. He even describes the latrine as “an oasis of peace,” certainly not a string of words one would expect to follow the word “latrine” (68). Also, if not thinking or not remembering was a cause of dehumanization, then to think or remember would bring back a sense of what it meant to be human. The simple act of recalling a poem was so life-giving that Levi goes so far as to say “I would give today’s soup to know how to connect ‘the like on any day’ to the last lines” (114). Levi is constantly mentioning the hunger he felt while in the Lager, so to make such statement demonstrates the value of that poem. For Primo it briefly brought back his love for knowledge, something, according to Carol Angier, that defined him as a boy and at the University of Turin.
Levi also had people in the Lager who gave him companionship, reminded him that life could be good again, and, in his final days at Auschwitz, helped him come back to life. First, he had Alberto, his best friend and fellow Italian prisoner whom he traveled with from Fossoli and who Primo would become inseparable from until the very end. As Levi reflects on their relationship he states they were “bound by a tight bond of alliance” and goes on to describe how they divided all their food and tradable assets between the two of them (138). As often as they could, the pair shared food, conversation, and friendship which helped keep them both alive, because friendship was not something seen often in the camp, it was something free people did, and to have that within the boundaries of the Lager was quite unique. There was also Lorenzo, whose gift was not only the tangible items he provided, but “his natural and plain manner of being good,” which reminded Levi that there was a “remote possibility of good… for which it was worth surviving” (121). During his last days in the Lager, Primo began to finally experience this goodness with one generous action. Towarowski, one of the eleven huddled in their small room in the infirmary, suggested that the men share food with those who had been working on getting heat for their small room. Levi describes “It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge to men again” (160).
So what does it mean to be a human being according to Primo Levi? It is to work in community, to do something good for someone, as Levi did with his eleven comrades during their finals days in the Lager. It is remembering, even if only to recall the rhymes of Homer’s Canto of Ulysses for a brief hour. It is acting like Lorenzo, “someone pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to the hatred and terror,” who stood in stark contrast to everyone else in the camp and who was “a man” (121, 122). While Levi’s memoir depicts a desolate place of inhumane treatment, it also portrays survival and small moments of life in the midst of lifelessness, and it was these moments that he believes truly saved him and reminded him that he too was “human being.”