of Auschwitz were comprised of men and women coming from varying
European nationalities, diverse social backgrounds and occupations.
These differences soon lost their meaning as a new set of criteria
beyond the accepted European model was established for social organization
within the camp. The basis of social organization dictated the odds
for survival for any prisoner at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was the exclusive domain of the
SS and a novel and intense form of political influence and economic
power was soon established. "The hand of the SS was as the
hand of God," (Vashem 155) recalls one prisoner. In the most
literal sense, an order from any SS man could move thousands or
sentence a prisoner to death. The SS staff in Auschwitz was headed
by a camp commandant (Lagerkommandant) in charge of departments
such as the clinic, the sub-camps, and the SS units responsible
for defense. The Lagerfuhrer, or Prisoner's Commander managed
the core of the camp. The Rapportfuhrer, or Office Clerk
was next in line in the SS hierarchy while the Blockfuhrer
or Block Commanders - a group of SS men accountable for one or more
blocks or barracks for prisoners - occupied the lowest rung on the
SS staff ladder. Those in charge of the labor battalions were called
Kommandofuhrer and SS doctors administered the prisoner
and staff hospitals. Members of the Gestapo dominated the camp's
political department, or Politische Abteilung.
While the SS was responsible for the overall
management of the camp, the direct administration of affairs concerning
the camp was relegated to appointed prisoners in positions of leadership.
An authorized prisoner usually acted as a mediator between the SS
and his fellow prisoners. He imposed discipline, supervised labor,
etc. The above prisoner is part of the three main groups of prisoners
in positions of influence. These three main groups somewhat parallel
the hierarchical structure found among the SS staff. The Lageralteste,
the camp elder, who affected the degree of brutality within the
internal camp society, headed this network. The camp clerk, or Lagerschreiber,
was in charge of the number of prisoners at roll-calls, and prisoner
movement to and from the camp. A prisoner in charge of labor service,
the Arbeitsdient, supplied the manpower for the labor battalions
and transferred prisoners from one work station to another. Within
the camp itself, the block elders (Blockalteste) controlled
barracks containing hundreds of prisoners while the block clerk
(Blockschreiber), who checked the exact number of prisoners
in the block, was directly under him. Aides called chamber servants
(Stubendienste) cleaned, tidied pallets, and distributed food within
sections of the block. Prisoner-in-authority were often more brutal
than their SS counterparts as they had to take the blame for any
mistakes or accidents committed by their fellow prisoners. In fact,
they felt they had more to lose, as their position was in itself
precarious and subject to the whims of an SS commander.
The second group included prisoners accountable
for labor battalions. They would lead, escort, and supervise the
prisoners into their work-areas. A Capo headed each labor battalion;
a large labor battalion held an Oberkapo as well as regular Capos.
The third group of prisoners belonged to the class nicknamed "privileged."
They were employed in the camp hospitals, offices, kitchens, orchestras,
and other special positions that offered shelter and contact with
food, clothing, medicines, and other basic necessities. These groups
survived longer at Auschwitz than their fellow counterparts.
As a result, antagonism between prisoners
was prevalent in the camp. Most prisoners in the camp received these
favored positions due to their national origins and race. German
Aryans (Reichsdeutsche), state criminals who were imprisoned
at Auschwitz -various sexual offenders and the like- received the
most favor from the staff. Second to the German Aryans were prisoners
hailing from Western European countries, then the Poles and the
Russians, and finally the Gypsies and the Jews. Jews of any kind
occupied the lowest strata and suffered the cruelest punishment
and standard of living. Not surprisingly, the German Aryans occupied
the most senior positions within the prisoners' hierarchy. For instance,
only "Aryan" Germans were able to become Camp Elders.
Jewish prisoners in authority were few
and far between. In general, Jews suffered the worst discrimination
by both camp authorities and prisoners in command alike. They were
given the most arduous of tasks and were all sent straight to the
punishment battalions, where torture and sever malnutrition (worse
than the rest of the camp) dominated. Most of the Jews became muselmann,
a term describing a prisoner who showed symptoms of the advanced
stages of starvation. These prisoners were merely hollowed-out representatives
of their old selves, shadows of humanity. No Jews who arrived with
the first transports to Auschwitz survived. In addition, prisoners
of non-Jewish decent enjoyed rights not relegated toward the Jews.
For example, Jews were banned from writing letters while other prisoners
of different ethnicities and nationalities were given this privilege.
Furthermore, Jews and Russians were not allowed to receive food
parcels, which could have ameliorated the level of stark starvation
within the camp, from home. Most horrifying of all was the continued
murder of Jewish prisoners in the sickbays when selective murders
of prisoners from other nationalities had been ceased.
Most of the time, the elderly, the women,
and the children were exterminated due to their lack of strength
and physical endurance. These prisoners occupied the lowest strata
due to their dispensability. To the SS, they were merely more mouths
to feed. These prisoners could neither participate in the labor
battalions nor stand acute physical assault. As is, they were considered
more prone to sickness, etc.
While Auschwitz prisoners suffered brutal
assault daily, a form of resistance movement was nevertheless established.
Mutual aid was the primary concern for fellow members, and practical
steps were taken for a planned uprising. Explosives were stolen
in small quantities, plans were forged, and contracts planned from
other resistance organizations. While these plans were never realized,
this action magnified the courage and fervor of the prisoners all
the same. Few could have maintained the kind of mental stability
after the horrors of Auschwitz.
Gutman and Berenbaum. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Deathcamp.
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Pawelczynska, Anna. Values and Violence in Auschwitz. California:
University of California Press, 1979.
Vashem, Yad. The Nazi Concentration Camps. Jerusalem, 1984.