Prisoner experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The infamous camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau has been represented in a multitude of Hollywood films over the last twenty years. Films such as Schindler’s List and not to mention countless TV documentaries have all attempted to display the horrors and atrocities which occurred at this Nazi extermination camp. The term “Auschwitz” has become synonymous with death to generations of people who have neither visited the site, or have friends or relatives affected by the events which occurred there. However what few people are aware of are the complexities of the camp itself. The strict prisoner hierarchy within the camp, the different subgroups of prisoners which constituted the inmates, the relationship of the different groups of prisoner with the SS guards and the group of ‘privileged’ prisoner’s, all amount to the fact that there was no uniform prisoner experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

One of the most common images portrayed of not just the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, but also the entire concentration camp system is that of the prisoner huts. When visiting the camp at Birkenau today some of these huts have been rebuilt in order to fulfil this image and give the visitor an idea of the conditions in which a significant amount of the prisoners lived. However as the rest of the camp was destroyed, there only remains an open field with the space left from the destroyed prisoner huts. The imagery this creates of one of uniformity. Upon reading memoirs of some of the few prisoners who survived Auschwitz however, this imagery of uniformity is less apparent. While prisoners arrived by train, were subjected to forced labour and were mostly executed, the conditions which prisoners lived in was largely determined by the way they were classified upon arrival. In his book entitled ‘Auschwitz: a Doctors Eyewitness Account,’ Dr Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who was forced to assist the infamous Dr Mengele in his medical experimentation with prisoners provides details of on how some of the different subgroups of prisoners lived. These different living conditions were related to the prisoner classification system, as well as the jobs certain prisoners were assigned to.

The prisoner classification system at the Auschwitz camp was largely derived from the distorted Nazi interpretation of the concept of ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ which translates roughly in English to ‘peoples community,’ whereby the Nazi’s were attempting to build a racially pure German society. The Nazi’s divided people into 2 categories, ‘volk’ or in English ‘folk’ and ‘volksfeind,’ translating to ‘foe’, with the latter being excluded from the ideal society which the Nazi’s were attempting to create. The ‘volksfeind’ however were not seen as a uniform group. Certain groups of people were seen as more objectionable than others. This was strongly reflected in the prisoner classification system whereby a hierarchy of prisoners developed which determined the conditions the prisoner lived, the food they received, the jobs they were given, the level of respect they received from the SS guards, and if or when they were to be executed. However while there were ideological reasoning’s behind how the Nazi’s treated certain prisoners, they were happy to create exceptions to their rules if it suited them. As explained in the book entitled, ‘Anatomy of Auschwitz’ by Michael Berenbaum and Yisrael Gutman some German speaking Jewish women were given the privileged jobs of working as secretaries for the camps political department. Such jobs were highly sought after as it meant they avoided working outside in the cold Polish winter. As these prisoners also came in direct contact with the guards, they were given far better living quarters to avoid the spread of disease from prisoners to guards. No matter what country their came from, Jews were at the bottom of the hierarchy in Auschwitz, and such privileged jobs and living conditions were usually reserved for political prisoners who the Nazi’s saw as less objectionable than the racially inferior Jews. However by 1943, the SS required German speaking prisoners to assist in their increasing clerical work and were happy to override their ideological principles to accommodate this.

A prominent group of prisoners, largely neglected in popular culture’s depiction of Auschwitz, however who had been given much attention by both camp survivors and Auschwitz historians were the Sonderkommando. These were Jewish prisoners who were given they ghastly job of disposing of the gassed bodies, were housed in comfortable barracks received adequate amounts of food, yet were themselves executed after only four months of work. Their plight and their living conditions was reflected in the 2001 film ‘The Grey Zone.’ The experience of the Sonderkommando highlights just how diverse prisoner’s experiences were in Auschwitz. However it also reinforces, that while no prisoner experience was the same, most prisoners still underwent extraordinary psychological and physical anguish prior to their ultimate death.

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3 comments on “Prisoner experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau

  1. Lang Reid says:

    Hi Alissa, thanks for a very informative post. I hadn’t realised before the extent of the different categorisations of prisoners and that there was an operational hierarchy that affected how they were treated, their roles and living conditions. When I visited the Jewish museum this year, I listened to a firsthand account of a holocaust survivor of his experience. I also heard of the kapo who enforced labour camp rules and were often brutal towards other prisoners. That was the extent of my knowledge, so it was very interesting to read of the different types of prisoners based on the German concept of Volksgemeinschaft and how this affected prisoners’ experiences in the camps.

  2. mickihatfield says:

    Hi Alissa,
    What an interesting topic! You’re right that it is easy to think of the experiences of prisoners in Auschwitz as homogenous, but as you’ve outlined, the prisoners experiences were often very different. I found your example of female prisoners of war, and sometimes jewish ones, doing secretarial work for the SS soldiers quite fascinating. This was definitely something I was not aware of and I didn’t really think that prisoners were given differentiated treatment. I also thought your description of the experiences of Sonderkommando’s was particularly interesting as I had no idea that this happened. In my mind the disposal of gassed bodies would have fallen to the soldiers and would have been kept secret from the other prisoners. I don’t really know why I thought that though, possibly due to movie representations of concentration camps such as the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
    Great job on your research project, I really enjoyed your blog post!

  3. candicedwyer says:

    Hi Alissa,

    What a great article to read. You had me captivated from beginning to end (and I didn’t want it to end). I have previously studied World War 2 however I had no idea about the working hierarchy that went on within the concentration camps or the different subgroups that prisoners lived in. This blog was extremely eye opening for me.

    What I found really interesting was that despite the Germans believing Jewish people were at the bottom of the picking order. They were willing to manipulate their ideological principle to accommodate there increasing clerical workload. I had no idea that this was happening within the concentration camps.

    I would love to have read your research project! 🙂

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