“Time there is not like it is here on earth… The inhabitants of this planet had no names, they had no parents nor did they have children… They breathed according to different laws of nature, they did not live – nor did they die – according to the laws of this word. Their name was the number.”
Ka-Tzetnik (Yechiel Dinur)
Jews were made to work on farms, repair roads, clear forests and, especially, toil in industrial and armaments plants. Large concerns (businesses) and private enterprises unhesitatingly exploited the labour of Jewish prisoners, who were beaten relentlessly by supervisors and were subjected to reduced and pilfered food rations by staff at all levels. Deprived of medicines and exposed to ceaseless brutality, more than half a million Jews died in the labour camps.
Labour and Concentration Camps
On March 9, 1933, several weeks after Hitler assumed power, the first organised attacks on German opponents of the regime and on Jews broke out across Germany. Less than two weeks later, Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, was opened. Situated near Munich, Dachau became a place of internment for German Jews, Communists, Socialists, and liberals – anyone whom the Reich considered its enemy. It became the model for the network of concentration camps that would be established later by the Nazis.
Nazi Germany exploited the labour of the occupied peoples from the onset of the occupation. More than 14 million people and 2.5 million prisoners of war were transported to Germany for labour.
Jews were enslaved and interned in a far-reaching network of forced-labour camps across Europe, in the Reich itself, in the west and, foremost, in the east. The SS Central Office for Administration and Economy defined the new goal: labour exploitation of concentration camp prisoners, who would be taken to hundreds of labour camps on service on behalf of the German war machine.
Employing the Jews in forced labour did not signify a change in the overall plan of extermination. Economic needs and the prolonging of the war established the need to utilise the Jews as a labour force. However, this was only a temporary setback in the extermination process – extermination by means of merciless forced labour. “Extermination by labour” – as this “compromise” was called between those who called for immediate extermination and those who sought to exploit Jewish labour until their very end.
Despite the Germans’ military reversals and the imminence of the Allied victory, the network of camps continued to operate until the final downfall of the Third Reich and the end of the war. At this stage the last Jews in Europe – apart from a few who were living in hiding under false identities, in the forests and in hideouts, or in the Soviet interior – were incarcerated in concentration and labour camps.
Daily Life in the Camps
The hierarchic structure of the concentration camps followed the model established in Dachau. The German staff was headed by the Lagerkommandant (camp commander) and a team of subordinates, comprised mostly of junior officers. One of them commanded the prisoners’ camp, usually after being specifically trained for this duty. Male and female guards and wardens of various kinds were subordinate to the command staff.
The prisoners had a hierarchy of their own. Prisoner-supervisors (kapos) were considered an elite that could wield power. The prisoners had different opinions about them: most Jewish supervisors tried to treat their brethren well; some were harsh towards the other inmates.
The appel, the daily lineup that took place every morning after wakeup and each evening after returning from labour, was one of the horrific aspects of the prisoners’ lives in the camps. They were forced to stand completely still, often for hours at a time, exposed to the elements in the cold, rain, or snow and to the terror of sudden violence by SS men, guards or kapos. The camp routine was composed of a long list of orders and instructions, usually given to all but sometimes aimed at individual prisoners, the majority of which were familiar yet some came unexpected. All of one’s strength had to be enlisted to overcome the daily routine: an early wakeup, arranging the bed’s straw, the lineup, marching to labour, forced labour, the waiting period for the meagre daily meal, usually consisting of a watery vegetable soup and half a piece of bread which was insufficient for people working at hard labour, the return to the camp, and another lineup, before retiring to the barracks.
Despite their terrible conditions, cultural and religious activity continued in the ghettos, labour camps, and even concentration camps. Literary and artistic works that survived the war reflect the Jews’ lives, agonies and efforts to maintain their human and Jewish identity. These works are direct and authentic testimonies and depict the Jewish victims’ daily life during the Holocaust. Writing a diary on scraps of paper, producing drawings and illustrations of camp life, making jewellery out of copper wire, writing a Passover Haggadah, and conducting prayer services on the eve of Rosh Hashanah are all manifestations of the tremendous psychological strength maintained by these frail, starving people. Even at the end of the gruelling days they had to endure, they refused to abandon their creative endeavours. Prisoners in concentration and labour camps exhibited heroism and resourcefulness in their daily lives, struggling to sustain not only the ember of physical life but also, and primarily, their humanity and basic moral values, friendship and concern for others – values that facilitated their survival.