Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Key Nazi personalities in
the Camp System
The Labor &
The Labor Camps
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Reception and Registration
Generally the reception and registration of transports went as follows:
The unloading of rail transports of prisoners took place on a ramp beside the camp in the vicinity of the prison huts of Auschwitz I.
In 1942 a second unloading ramp(Judenrampe) came into use for transports of Jews brought to Auschwitz for extermination. From May 1944 rail transports were unloaded at a special ramp situated within the perimeter of KZ Birkenau.
Once arrived at the camp, new arrivals (Zugang) were taken to buildings containing bath facilities. In Auschwitz l it was in Block 26, while at Birkenau in sectors Bla and Blb in a brick building known as the Sauna.
The first thing new arrivals had to do was surrender all their clothing, including underwear, all valuables and proof of identity and virtually all other personal possessions.
Next the prisoner received a card with his camp number before being taken to the camp barber where all body hair was removed. The shaved parts were then rubbed by disinfectant.
After being undressed and shaven the prisoners were then driven to the showers, which was followed by the issuing of camp clothing.
The registration of newly arrived prisoners took place after the issuing of clothing and consisted of filling out a personal form, including details of next of kin. These forms were kept in the camps Political Department.
Thus registered, the prisoner received a camp serial number, which would serve instead of their name, for the duration of their stay in the camp.
The registration process also included the tattooing of the prisoners camp number on their left forearm, and photographs were taken of the prisoners from three angles. On the first shot, taken in profile, the prisoner’s camp number and letter symbol of his category and nationality were marked. Jewish prisoners, who from the spring of 1942 were brought in mass transports, were not photographed.
Every prisoner registered in Auschwitz Concentration Camp received a camp number, which he had to wear on his striped uniform in a precisely defined place.
The number, stamped on a small strip of canvas, was sown onto the blouse at the level of the left breast and on the outer seam of the right trouser leg.
The first was the series of numbers issued to male prisoners from May 1940 and continued up to January 1945, reaching a total of 202,499 numbers. Up to mid-May this series also included Jewish prisoners.
In the Nazi concentration camp system there were various categories of prisoners. The category a prisoner belonged to could be identified by the colour of the triangle on his camp uniform. These triangles were originally sewn on separately and later they were painted beside the number on the same square piece of canvas.
Newly arrived prisoners were isolated and kept in quarantine in order to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the camp.
Depending on current needs various places were set aside for keeping prisoners in quarantine: blocks, huts even tents holding several hundred persons apiece.
In 1943 one of the construction sectors in Birkenau – Blla was set aside for quarantine purposes. There in sixteen stable huts several thousand prisoners were kept at a time. New arrivals at the women’s camp were also kept in quarantine.
The time spent in quarantine was a shattering experience for every prisoner, for it was then the new arrival first became acquainted with concentration life, and the rules governing the prison community.
An SS man responsible for a block was called a Blockfuhrer, and he exercised unlimited authority, aided by trusties in the block, the block senior and their subordinates.
The rigorous daily regimen, beginning with a brutal awakening in the morning and the prisoners being driven from their straw pallets, and continuing with exercises lasting for hours on end, learning how to fall in on the Appellplatz, taking off and replacing caps at the word of command, learning how to sing various German songs and learning the correct pronunciation of a number of typical German phrases, filled the entire period spent in quarantine.
The primitive facilities and overcrowding, the dirt and lack of personal hygiene opportunities, combined with rampant terror had a disastrous psychological effect on the prisoners, especially those held in Birkenau, in the shadow of the mass extermination facilities.
In the main camp Auschwitz l twenty brick buildings were set aside as prisoners quarters in 1940. These buildings measuring 45.38 meters by 17.5 meters each.
The number of prisoners living in one block varied and depended on the overall number of prisoners in the camp, throughout the first year of the camps existence the inmates slept in rows on straw mattresses laid out in the various rooms.
The first three-tiered wooden bunks were delivered to Auschwitz at the end of February 1941 and in the following months they were gradually installed in the blocks used by the prisoners as living quarters.
One such bunk measuring 80cm wide by 200cm long and 225cm high with three straw mattresses was theoretically intended for three prisoners. In practice two or more prisoners slept on the one mattress.
Besides the three –tiered wooden bunks each block contained the following furnishings, coal fired stoves, about fifteen wooden cupboards, a few wooden tables and several dozen primitive stools.
Sanitary facilities usually to be found only on the ground floor were shared and consisted of latrines – 22 toilet seats and urinals and a washroom with earthen-ware gutters over which 42 taps were installed.
In Birkenau two kinds of barrack huts were used for housing prisoners – brick and wooden. The brick huts constructed in great haste in sector Bl were built on marshy soil and not made damp proof.
These huts, 36.25 meters long by 11.40 meters wide and 5.80 meters high had seventeen permanently closed windows, two ventilators and one door on either side of which were two rooms, one for the Block Elder, the other for storing bread.
Initially these huts did not have electric light either.
In each of the huts 60 sleeping compartments were built, each with three tiers, constituting a total of 180 sleeping places measuring four square meters on each of which in turn four prisoners were to sleep.
Such a density – over 700 persons to a hut worked out at only about 1.7 meters of air per person.
These huts possessed practically no heating although two iron stoves were installed in each for the sake of appearances.
Instead of a floor there was originally just bare earth, which was later replaced by a layer of bricks laid out flat-wise or a thin layer of concrete. Sanitary installations were lacking. Not until 1944 was a small space set aside for washrooms and WC’s.
The camp was liberated before they could be completed.
The other type of prisoners living quarters provided at Birkenau were wooden stable huts known officially as Pferdestallbaracken, OKH –Typ 260/9.
These huts were erected from prefabricated elements supplied to the camp. These huts measured 40.76 meters long by 9.56 meters wide and were 2.65 meters high.
These huts had no windows but merely a row of skylights running along the top at both sides. The walls were formed from thin, ill –fitting boards, and the roof, which was also the ceiling, was composed of a layer of planks covered with tar paper. The roof was supported by the outer walls and two rows of pillars. These divided the hut width-wise into three parts.
At each end of the hut was a double door and the interior was divided into 18 compartments originally intended to serve as stalls for 52 horses.
In every such hut part of one of the compartments near the entrance was set aside for the Block Elder, while at the back of the hut by the rear entrance containers for faeces were placed.
In the remaining fourteen compartments were three- tiered wooden bunks or plain boards measuring 280 cm by 185cm and 200cm high. On these fifteen prisoners each were to sleep making a total of 400 persons by hut.
A chimney flue running almost the entire length of the hut completed the furnishings. These huts contained no sanitary facilities, and the density assumed in theory three cubic meters of air per person.
In the brick huts the bunks occupied by the prisoners were covered by a thin layer of straw, while in the wooden huts the bunks or boards were covered with paper mattresses stuffed with so-called wood wool. Blankets were issued as coverings.
The damp prevailing in the huts, the leaking roofs and the soiling of the straw and pallets by prisoners suffering from dysentery, aggravated the already bad living conditions, the more so as the regulations forbade the opening of the doors at night for ventilation purposes.
The huts were infected with insects of all kind and the rats that roamed the camp attacked the prisoners in their sleep and gnawed at the bodies of the dead.
Because of the lack of facilities for washing the prisoners had to remain dirty and unwashed for months on end and had to perform their natural functions in primitive field latrines that were totally exposed.
Thus it was not surprising that in these conditions and given such overcrowding various epidemics broke out time and time again, decimating the prisoner population.
Prisoners arriving at the camp were issued upon registration with special prison clothing made of coarse cloth with blue-grey stripes, which made prisoners clearly distinguishable even at a distance and undoubtedly made concealment difficult in the event of escape.
Male prisoners received a shirt, long-underpants, a blouse and trousers. There were summer and winter outfits.
For footwear the prisoners were issued with clogs of the Dutch type, made from a single piece of wood, or clogs with leather uppers.
Prisoners in the camp received three meals daily – in the morning, at midday and in the evening.
In the morning the prisoners received only a half litre of black coffee or of a herbal brew known as tea. These liquids were generally unsweetened.
The midday meal consisted of one portion of soup measuring about three quarters of a litre, with a value of 350 –400 calories. The soup was foul tasting and watery, with ‘meat’ four times a week and the rest with vegetables.
For supper the prisoners were given about 300 grams of bread and something extra in the shape of about 25 grams of sausage or margarine, or a spoonful of jam or cheese. The food value of supper came to about 900 – 1000 calories
Given such hunger rations most prisoners after a few weeks in the camp began to develop symptoms of exhaustion, which led in consequence to people being reduced to the state of ‘Moslems’.
Thousands of starved prisoners in the last stages of emaciation strove at every opportunity to get something to eat, unable to restrain themselves from rummaging in the refuse bins outside the kitchens.
The eating of raw peelings and rotting cabbage, turnip or potatoes instead of appeasing hunger pangs, brought on hunger-induced dysentery,
The Prisoners Day
At about four o’clock in the morning the sound of the gong rang out for reveille. Hustled, cursed and beaten, the prisoners had to get up as fast as possible. Where there were three-tiered bunks and straw mattresses, they had to be turned down with blankets in a military fashion.
After reveille very little time remained for answering the call of nature, washing joining the queue for ‘breakfast’ and then consuming the coffee, if it had not run out before they were served.
At roll call the prisoners fell in rows of ten to facilitate counting by the SS.
After roll call at the command to form work squads the prisoners made for designated spots in the camp, and then the squads marched off to work.
While marching out of the camp the camp orchestra played, once outside the gates the working group was joined by SS guards who supervised the prisoners at work.
The normal working day was eleven hours from six in the morning until five in the evening, with half an hour break for lunch.
In the initial period of the camps existence work had to be performed at the double. The SS guards and prisoner overseers drove prisoners relentlessly with shouts and beatings. The terror of the prisoners – especially the women – were the dogs, specially trained by their SS handlers to attack people.
Some SS men who wanted to get an extra few days leave would order a prisoner to go beyond the guarded perimeter and then shoot them down with a machine gun burst. Upon the squad’s return to the camp the SS would report that he had shot a prisoner attempting to escape, for this he might receive a commendation or a few days special leave. So it was not surprising that many prisoners perished at work, their comrades having to carry their bodies back to the camp.
Upon returning to the camp in the evening the exhausted prisoners worn out with labour and harassment had to brace themselves as they passed through the gate for yet another effort.
They had to march in even ranks to the beat of a march played by the camp orchestra to make it easier for the SS men to count them.
At the gate returning prisoners were also searched. Those caught carrying anything at all – even a piece of turnip – could expect severe punishment.
After evening roll-call came supper which was followed at about nine o’clock by lights out, after which prisoners were forbidden to leave their quarters. Those who broke this rule were fired on by the SS guards in the watchtowers.
Occasionally the sound of shots breaking the night silence would mean that one of the prisoners spiritually broken was trying to ‘go into the wire’. In camp jargon this meant to commit suicide by throwing oneself into the electrified wire of the camp fence.
Punishments and Executions
Every SS man could kill a prisoner without incurring any responsibility. This kind of behaviour was accepted and supported not only by the camp command but by the state.
The commonest causes of punishment were failure to report to work, avoidance of work, leaving one’s place of work without permission, sabotage at work, preparation of meals during work, procurement of food or clothing with civilian workers, illegal posting of letters and smoking where no smoking was prohibited.
A frequently applied official punishment was flogging. This was usually carried out in public during roll call on a special bench constructed in such a way that the prisoner lying on it could not move his legs.
The beating was administered with a stick or, less frequently according to regulations, a whip.
The number of strokes, which the rules said should be laid on quickly, could not exceed 25 at a time.
Women were also subject to flogging, Seweryna Szamaglewska recalled in her memoirs:
“Two hundred women are to be flogged, to receive 25 strokes each. In the streaks of light can be seen the procession of women approaching in slow and orderly fashion the place where each of them lies down under the whip. The stooping figure of Schultz is outlined against the door of the block, the whip in his hand flashing.
Suddenly confusion breaks out. In the darkness women are trying to slip from the queue waiting to be whipped to the group of women who have already received their punishment.
Schultz perceives this, throws down his whip and seizes an emaciated figure wading with difficulty through the mud. He grasps her hips, lifts her high up inj the air and hurls her head downwards to the ground. Then, having looked at his swollen hand, he resumes the beating. Shrieks, howls and groans re-echo in the darkness of the autumn evening”.
Another, equally painful punishment was that known as the “pillar” which consisted in suspending a prisoner by his hands, which were tied behind his back, in such a way that his feet could not touch the ground.
This was an extremely agonising punishment, during which prisoners lost consciousness from the pain. Prolonged suspension on the pillar could tear the arm tendons and as a result the prisoner could not work. This then meant certain death.
Another very harsh punishment was confinement in the standing cell. Such cells were located in the main camp in the cells of Block 11. Each of the four cells there had a floor area of less than one square meter. The way in was by a low opening covered with a grating and sealed doors.
Inside the cell it was completely dark, as even the small opening measuring twenty-five square centimetres, which provided the only ventilation, was covered with a metal lid.
Four prisoners were confined to one cell at a time, which made movement impossible.
An extremely harsh punishment was relegation to the penal company, which was formed in August 1940. The function of Blockfuhrer supervising the penal company was held in turn by:
SS- Unterscarfuhrer Gerlach, SS –Rottenfuhrer Sternberg, SS-Haupscharfuhrer Otto Moll and SS-Unterscharfuhrer Umlauf.
The prisoners of the penal company received the poorest food although they were employed on the most arduous work for example in the gravel pits. The prisoners had to push barrows laden with gravel up the planks to the edge of the pits at a run.
For a moments rest the SS men and Kapos would beat them mercilessly, if someone fell, they would step on his throat and throttle him.
In May 1942 the penal company was transferred to Birkenau and located in Block I of the men’s camp, the company worked on the digging of the central irrigation ditch known as the “Konigsgraben”
The place was notorious for bestial murders. On 10 June 1942 open rebellion broke out, followed by escapes. Taking advantage of the confusion caused by a sudden downpour , some of the prisoners tried to escape.
Momentarily taken aback, the SS came to their senses and opened fire on the prisoners and together with the Kapos, managed to gain control of the situation. Thirteen prisoners were killed, but nine managed to escape. The remainder were chased back to the camp by the SS under the control of Kommandofuhrer Otto Moll.
The next day in the courtyard of the penal colony an improvised investigation was held during which, upon encountering refusal to answer questions, the Lagerfuhrer Hans Aumeier shot seventeen prisoners and three others were shot by SS-Hauptscharfuhrer Franz Hossler. The remaining 320 prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs with barbed wire, after which they were sent off to the gas bunker and killed.
Shortly after the creation of the women’s camp a women’s penal company also came into existence, which at first was located in the village of Budy and later in the camp at Birkenau.
It numbered about 400 women who were employed in cleaning out the fish ponds, damming up streams and similar work. Regardless of the time of year, these women had to work in cold water up to their waist.
In October 1942 the German female convicts performing the functions of Kapos in the course of a single night murdered 90 Frenchwomen who had allegedly been preparing a rebellion. The camp commandant Rudolf Hoss upon arrival on the scene noted that “the Frenchwomen had been killed with iron bars and axes, some had had their heads cut clean off, others had been killed after being thrown out of an upstairs window.
Another of the punishments used in the camp was the drill known in the camp jargon as “sport”. It consisted with a group of prisoners performing on the command various kinds of exercises such as marching while singing, running, crawling on elbows and toes and rolling over ground covered with gravel and broken bricks. These exercises were performed at a brisk pace regardless of the prisoner’s age or state of health.
Among other punishments was the withdrawal of the right to write or receive letters.
The maximum penalty applied in the camp was execution, these were usually carried out on the orders of Maximilian Grabner the head of the Political Department, who undertook reviews of the camps cells.
Such a review is described by SS man Perry Broad one of Grabner’s subordinates:
“Grabner was in the habit – as he used to say cynically – of using every weekend to ‘sweep out’ the bunker. After briefing the whole unit had to go to Block 11. In fact only three or four officers are needed but Grabner takes everyone, as he feels good surrounded by numerous staff.
In the orderly room of Block 11 we wait for Lagerfuhrer Aumeier, to appear.
After a delay to underline his importance, the little Bavarian strode into the room. His harsh screeching voice betrays the drunkard.
The bunker superintendent and several Blockfuhrer are added to the commission, which now heads for the cellars to begin the ‘sweeping out’.
The air in the cellar is so stale, as to be hardly breathable – the Superintendent opens the door of the first cell with one of his bundle of keys. Aumeier props up against the door a list of the detainees upon whom he and Grabner now past judgement.
The first prisoner gives his name and tells how long he has been in the bunker. The Lagerfuhrer asks the Rapportfuhrer briefly the cause of detention.
In cases where the prisoner was detained by Department ll, the deciding voice belongs to Grabner.
Then the two camp dignitaries decide if it is to be punishment report 1, or punishment report 2. With a blue pencil Aumeier marks a thick cross, so that everyone can see, by the name of a given prisoner – it was no longer a secret to anyone what punishment report 2 meant”.
Those condemned to be shot were led from the cellars of Block 11 to the washroom on the ground floor where they stripped naked and awaited execution. In a neighbouring room women, also naked, waited to be shot.
In the first years of the camp’s existence, when the prisoners did not yet have their numbers tattooed on their arms, each of the condemned had his camp number written on his chest with an indelible pencil.
Up to the end of 1942 the condemned had their hands tied with wire, but later this was abandoned, as cases of resistance were rare.
In the face of inevitable death, the prisoners behaved with calm dignity. They were shot singly or in pairs in the back of the head. The place of execution was the yard between Blocks 10 and 11, which was sealed off by two walls.
Here there was a wall, specially painted black, built of wood, sand and insulating board. At the foot of the wall, sand was sprinkled to soak up the blood of the victims. This wall was known as the “Wall of Death” or “Black Wall”.
Regardless of the time of year, the latter were shot naked and barefoot, first the women, then the men.
The still bleeding bodies were then taken by van to the crematorium. As the vans passed along the camp streets, they would leave trickles of blood behind them.
The SS man responsible for a significant number of deaths at the “Wall of Death” was Rapportfuhrer Gerhard Palitzsch, using a small- bore rifle from a Katowice slaughterhouse.
He admitted killing 25,000 people, but there is no evidence to confirm or refute this claim.
Every few weeks a summary court of the Gestapo headquarters in Kattowice sat in Block 11 and dealt with Poles from Silesia accused of illegal political activity hostile to the occupying power.
Those condemned to death by the Court were also shot at the “Wall of Death”.
In view of the practice of executing in the camp civilians and prisoners not entered in the camp files, and the fact that most of the camp records were destroyed, it is impossible to establish how many persons were executed in the camp.
It has been estimated that at least 20,000 people were killed at the “Wall of Death” alone.
In the case of particularly renowned and bold escapes from the camp the recaptured prisoners were executed by hanging. These executions were public – in order to terrorize the camp population and convince them that escapes were senseless.
They were carried out during roll call, so that everyone should be present. There were two special mobile gallows kept in the courtyard of Block 11.
Makeshift gallows were also erected when necessary – it was on such a gallows – a rail fastened to three upright posts – that on 19 July 1943 twelve prisoners of the surveying party were hanged, having been accused of assisting in the escape of three of their colleagues.
On 6 December 1943 nineteen prisoners in the sub-camp of Neu –Dachs at Jaworzno were hanged being suspended of preparing an escape by digging a tunnel – and in July 1944 the Pole Edward Galinski was hanged, having been caught making a joint escape with the Jewess Mala Zimetbaum, who was also executed by this method.
A source of particular horror in the camp was execution by starvation. In the case of a prisoner escaping, the camp commandant or Lagerfuhrer would choose during roll call ten or more prisoners from the block in which the escapee had lived or the commando in which he had been working, and they then would be locked up in one of the cells in the basement of Block 11.
There, receiving nothing to eat or drink, they would die in the course of a few days, at the longest a fortnight, in terrible agony.
On 23 April and 17 June 1941 ten prisoners each were picked out and starved to death following escapes. During one such “selections” conducted at the turn of July and August 1941 the Franciscan Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish missionary stepped forward and asked the Lagerfuhrer Karl Fritzsch, to be included in the group intended for death instead of one of those chosen, Franciszek Gajowniczek.
After surviving nearly two weeks in the bunker of Block 11 and seeing the deaths of most of his companions, Father Kolbe was killed on 14 August with a phenol injection.
Aushwitz-Birkenau Museum -Poland
Auschwitz Nazi Extermination Camp – Interpress Publishers 1985
KL Auschwitz – Seen by the SS – Auschwitz Museum
Anus Mundi – Five Years in Auschwitz – Wieslaw Kielar
Copyright SJ H.E.A.R.T 2007