Part of the Final Solution
Auschwitz was a place designed by the Nazis to bring about the Final Solution. Death of all undesirables was brought about within the deadly parameters of this concentration camp. Though it was a place to extract all the Nazis could from the prisoners, it was also a world of its own trying to survive.
Those who lived there, German and Jew alike, shaped a unique society within its deadly borders.
More Than a Death Camp
Surprisingly, Auschwitz was not just a dumping ground for those destined to die. Unlike cattle that are just pushed into a corral to sit and wait for what comes next, the concentration camps were extremely organized and laid out. It was a society all its own.
All prisoners were placed in particular sections of the camp called Lagers. Primo Levi described his own particular Lager as being “a square of about six hundred yards in length…consists of sixty wooden huts, which are called Blocks…there is the body of the kitchens…an experimental farm…the showers and latrines…” Even the Blocks were organized and divided by type and functionality. There was structure even within the death camps which actually kept it functioning and helped many survive..
Selected to Die
Prisoners who entered the concentration camps were not always destined to die immediately. The weak, the old, and the sick were pulled out upon reaching the camp. All that were new to the camps “were immediately ‘selected’ by Nazi guards and medical examiners, deciding who would live and who would die.”
The Final Solution meant death for many but not until the strong could be made weak. Levi notes that all women, children, and elderly were pulled out. He could only describe it as “the night swallowed them up, purely and simply.”
Used Them for Labor
Those who were not killed upon arrival in the camps were put to work. They worked twelve hours a day to supply the German army. The Germans had decided that they would use the labor as much as they could to save on costs before disposing of them all.
Instead of death, they worked...until they died.
Like work camps outside the barbed wires, they formed their own lives. Unlike the work camps in the world they once knew, death was the end of the road for them.
Like the rest of the world, there was a pecking order within the prisoners in camp. They were designated by their ‘crime’: “the criminals wear a green triangle…the political wear a red triangle; and the Jews, who form the large majority, wear the Jewish star, red and yellow.” In addition to this list were the gays who wore pink triangles, Jehovah’s Witnesses wore purple, and brown was given to the gypsies.
The organization of the camp went deep into the religious, ethnic, and sexual orientation of each individual. Even the prisoners looked differently upon the various groups.
As ‘normal’ society has rules and laws, so did that of the Auschwitz concentration camp which were “incredibly complicated.” Ironically, many of the rules emulated that of a military camp: “to sleep with one’s jacket, or without one’s pants, or with one’s cap on one’s head; to use certain washrooms or latrines…to leave the hut with one’s jacket unbuttoned, or with the collar raised…”
The Germans, who ran the camp, might have looked upon the prisoners as animals, but they still desired to see order within the camp. Beds were to be made up each morning. Bunkhouses had to be kept orderly. The soldiers did not want the camp to become a dump as they had to live in it as well. If rats and other rodents took up residence, disease would spread. That included the need to control lice. Policies were put into place to fight off disease and contamination and were strictly followed.
Civilization Existed...Even as a Shadow
One might feel ashamed to dare say that civilization existed in the death camps. Everything about it was inhumane, but yet as one studies the camps, one can see how even in such conditions a sense of civilization prevailed.
Both the soldiers who kept them prisoner and the prisoners themselves had to have a social framework to exist by. It was ingrained in them even in the midst of hell that order was needed.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. Trans. Stuart Woolf. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1960.
Supple, Carrie. From Prejudice to Genocide: Learning about the Holocaust. Straffodshire: Trentham Books, 2009