Encyclopedia

Concentration Camps

(Konzentrationslager; KL), places of detention where people were imprisoned often under barbaric conditions. They were a repressive feature of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. The camps were under the jurisdiction of the SS and Heinrich Himmler.

Initially established to house political prisoners, they evolved into an elaborate camp system. Although the term is sometimes used generically to designate all Nazi camps, there were distinctions between them. The extensive camp system included forced labor camps (Arbeitslager), prisoner-of-war camps (Kriegsgefangenlager) and extermination camps (Vernichtungslager). There were almost three thousand camps in the vast camp system established across Europe.

Concentration camps contained political opponents, Communists, Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, male homosexuals, and common criminals. The Jews and the Roma, having been selected for eventual extermination, received the worst treatment. Also selected for extermination were certain groups of Soviet prisoners-of-war.

Each category of prisoner had different conditions of imprisonment which affected their chances for survival. In the camp hierarchy the common criminals and the political prisoners got the best treatment. The different categories were identified by color badges worn on the prisoners' clothes. Yellow triangles were for Jews.

Certain features were common to all camps: Violations of orders were punished severely by beatings or torture. Prisoners were also liable to be beaten for no reason at all. Kapos, chosen from the ranks of common criminals or political prisoners, were assigned to supervise their fellow inmates. They were often as brutal as the guards. Guards and Kapos might bribed with cigarettes, food or gold, if prisoners could get these contraband items through their camp jobs or connections. Roll calls which could last many hours were a daily feature of camp life and were held outdoors in all kinds of weather. Roll calls were especially feared by the Jewish prisoners because they would sometimes be accompanied by selections where the weaker prisoners would be culled for extermination.

Food was inadequate and many prisoners were in advanced states of starvation. The morning meal was a kind of ersatz coffee and a small ration of bread. A watery turnip or cabbage soup would be the midday meal. The evening meal might be a repetition of the morning. Survival might depend on augmenting the standard food rations by bribery or by "connections" or by holding a special job in the camp kitchen, in the camp hospital, or in camp administration. Many camps did not provide adequate fresh water and the water was polluted.

The prisoners slept on hard boards in tiered bunks in poorly ventilated barracks. Overcrowding added to the misery. If the prisoners were assigned to work, it was often to dangerous and exhausting labor. The accusation of sabotage was punishable by death. In penal sections the work might consist of meaningless tasks, such as moving rocks from one place to another.

Illness was rampant, particularly dysentery, typhus, scabies and tuberculosis. If the camp had a hospital, it was dangerous to go there because there were frequent selections. Lice were impossible to keep under control as there was no soap and little water to wash with. In those camps where uniforms were assigned, they were the characteristic blue and grey striped jacket and trousers or striped dress. No underwear was issued. Many prisoners succumbed to the ill treatment and lack of food. If they died at work, their bodies had to be carried back for the evening roll call. Many would be found dead in the morning having died during the night. Some prisoners committed suicide, the most common method being to touch the electrified barbed wires that surrounded many camps.

The prisoners who survived the camp experience in addition to plain luck usually had some sustaining reason to keep them going. Often that reason would be another prisoner who was a comrade or a relative who could be depended upon and with whom one shared food and information. Or the reason might be to rejoin loved ones after the war. After liberation many survivors suffered from what today has become known as post-traumatic shock syndrome. Psychiatric problems, nervousness and recurrent nightmares were frequent symptoms.


Sources: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; USHMM, Stars, Triangles and Markings educational poster; various survivor memoirs (see Bibliography).


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