Camps Unbound

Dust was swirling in the long and narrow tunnel, deep inside the Kohnstein mountain. Through the haze, illuminated by five dim lights, one could make out rows and rows of wooden bunks, four tiers high, crammed together on the slimy ground that was filled with pools of water seeping from the walls. Slumped on the low bunks lay gaunt figures in torn uniforms, some covered with thin blankets, others with empty cement bags; the mattresses were full of lice and filth, as were the masses of prisoners. It was the same scene in three adjacent underground chambers, all of them some 250 to 300 feet long and 40 feet wide. Together, these four tunnels were the sleeping quarters for around ten thousand KL prisoners who toiled in the Dora satellite camp in late 1943.

Dora assaulted all the senses. The air in the sleeping tunnels was unbearable, a mix of sweat, urine, excrement, vomit, and rotting corpses. During five months inside the Dora tunnels, the Polish inmate Wincenty Hein recalled, he only had three brief showers; some prisoners urinated on their hands to wash the dirt from their faces. There were no toilets anyway, just open petrol drums that added to the stench. Prisoners gasped for breath, and they were also tormented by hunger and thirst, forbidden to touch the underground water pipes. Sleep was almost impossible inside the chambers, not least because of the deafening noise of machines, pickaxes, and explosions coming from other tunnels nearby, which reverberated through the prisoner quarters. Dora never fell silent, as inmates worked in two shifts around the clock, digging, moving machinery, and laying tracks through the maze of tunnels. Roll calls on the outside had long been abandoned and prisoners lost all sense of night and day. “I felt like I was buried alive,” the Dutch prisoner Albert van Dijk later wrote.

The Dora prisoners ate, slept, and worked underground. Before long, they were barely recognizable. When he arrived in early 1944, the Dutch prisoner Hendrikus Iwes was shocked by the sight of men who “were no[t] real persons anymore.” Conditions improved somewhat during the following months, as inmates were gradually transferred to a new barrack camp above ground and a growing number of them were used in skilled production jobs. But this came too late for many: by the end of March 1944, more than one in three Dora prisoners were already dead. Most died from illness and exhaustion, though there was also an unusually large number of suicides.1

Dora had been established hastily in August 1943, following a British bombing raid on the village of Peenemünde on a small island on the Baltic coast. The central German military testing facility for missiles, Peenemünde was the site of the production plant and development works of the A-4 rocket, later known as the V2, masterminded by the young engineer Dr. Wernher von Braun (recruited by the United States after the war, the former SS officer became the father of NASA’s space program). The attack on Peenemünde caused great concern among Nazi leaders, who had invested much hope in their “miracle weapons”; Heinrich Himmler had visited the facilities, where some six hundred KL prisoners toiled, only a few weeks earlier. Just days after the air raid, Hitler, Himmler, and Speer agreed to relocate V2 production to an underground location, with the help of concentration camp labor; this, Himmler promised, would guarantee the program’s secrecy. In the end, the new plant became a joint venture between the SS, the army, and Speer’s Ministry for Armaments. Himmler carved out a major part for his SS, including the construction of the new underground facility.

The location of the plant was quickly settled: an existing tunnel system in the Harz Mountains near the city of Nordhausen (Thuringia) in central Germany. Under construction since 1936 as an army fuel depot, it offered over one million square feet of manufacturing space in two parallel tunnels, almost a mile long, which were connected by forty-six side tunnels resembling a giant, curving ladder. Using KL labor, this huge tunnel system would now be extended and made operational for rocket production. Dora, a new satellite camp of Buchenwald, was set up on site, and the first prisoners arrived on August 28, 1943, just ten days after the Peenemünde attack. Seven weeks later, Heinrich Himmler appeared for an inspection.2

More subterranean concentration camps followed. Nazi leaders saw the underground relocation of arms production as a surefire way to protect key resources from Allied bombing, and the KL system was meant to play an important part: in mid-December 1943, Heinrich Himmler pictured his troops as “new cavemen” who would establish the “only truly protected production sites.”3 By then, several new sites had emerged already. In addition to Dora, more than five hundred prisoners were held in the Mauthausen satellite camp Ebensee (code-named Kalk, later Zement). The prisoners slept inside a former factory building, before moving to a barrack camp, and had to dig two huge underground tunnels for the Peenemünde rocket development works. Another new Mauthausen satellite was set up in Redl-Zipf, some fifteen miles from Ebensee. By the end of 1943, some 1,900 prisoners worked near the camp (code-named Schlier), extending the cellars of a local brewery for an oxygen factory and digging tunnels to connect it to test ranges for V2 engines (produced in Dora) on a mountain behind; in December alone, ninety-three of the prisoners lost their lives here.4 The German navy also used KL labor for building shelters. In Farge, a new satellite of Neuengamme outside Bremen, prisoners were helping to erect a massive bombproof bunker (code-named Valentin) that would hold a high-tech factory for submarine assembly. By the end of 1943, some five hundred KL prisoners worked on site, sleeping in an empty fuel tank.5 Pioneering projects like these paved the way for prisoner mass deployment in gigantic and often pointless underground relocation schemes.

Inmate numbers reached staggering heights in 1944, as did inmate deaths. The KL population more than doubled, shooting up from an estimated 315,000 prisoners (December 31, 1943) to 524,286 (August 1, 1944) and then 706,650 (January 1, 1945).6 Hundreds of thousands were now working for the German war effort. Most inmates were sent to new satellite camps that sprang up at an incredible rate near factories and building sites. Prisoners were constantly on the move, or so it seemed, taken from one site to the next. Everything was in flux, reflecting the camps’ breakneck economic mobilization. Recent calls to improve conditions often went unheeded as SS officials focused their energies on the exploitation of slave laborers at any price. It was imperative, Oswald Pohl lectured the Monowitz SS in September 1944, “to report lazy prisoners for punishment.”7

The wider changes in the KL system in 1944 were exemplified by Dora, the first relocation camp for war production.8 Not content with the rocket program inside the Kohnstein tunnels, the planners in the Ministry for Armaments, supported by industry, handed many more projects in the region to the SS, which was soon building new tunnels for airplane and motor manufacturing. Losing touch with reality, these plans became ever more outlandish, turning Dora into a big KL complex in its own right. Prisoner numbers reached over thirty-two thousand in late October 1944, and they were still rising. Most inmates worked in the surrounding satellite camps, which eventually numbered around forty, with names like Hans, Anna, and Erich betraying the SS penchant for camouflage; in addition, almost all SS Building Brigades were stationed nearby, supporting the gigantic relocation effort. WVHA leaders officially recognized the importance of Dora in autumn 1944. Previously a satellite camp, it was now awarded the status of main camp. Called Mittelbau, it would be the last main concentration camp founded in the Third Reich.9


Sometime in late May 1944, Ágnes Rózsa was deported to Auschwitz, together with her parents, from her hometown of Nagyvárad. The city had been part of Romania between the wars, as it is again today (Oradea), but in 1940 it was annexed by Hungary with the rest of north Transylvania. This is why Ágnes Rózsa, a thirty-three-year-old high school teacher, was sucked into the maelstrom of the Nazi deportations of Hungarian Jews, which began soon after the German invasion in March 1944. Rózsa arrived in Auschwitz on June 1, 1944, during a period when the Birkenau killing apparatus reached its murderous peak. At the same time, the SS pressed more prisoners than ever into the war economy and Ágnes Rózsa was among those spared for forced labor. After several months in Birkenau, she was deported to a small satellite camp of the Siemens-Schuckert works in Nuremberg.10

Rózsa belonged to the vast number of Jewish slave laborers who poured into camps deep inside the old German borders during 1944, following the regime’s U-turn on the deployment of Jews. For the first time since late 1938, Jewish inmates became a major presence across the KL system as a whole, as several older camp complexes, which had held virtually no Jews since 1942, quickly filled up. The prisoners from occupied Poland brought with them news of the Nazi Final Solution. In camps like Dachau, some veteran inmates already had a general idea of what was happening in the east, after the earlier arrival of clothes, shoes, suitcases, and other belongings of murdered Jews from Auschwitz and Majdanek.11 But only now did they learn more details about the deportations, the selections, and the crematoria. The truth came out quickly, sometimes at the moment Jewish newcomers stepped into the showers and screamed, “Not gas! Not gas!”12

Going Underground

What started in autumn 1943 as a project to move the secret German missile program underground quickly extended to the air industry as a whole, which would eventually occupy more than one-third of all working KL prisoners.13 When German airplane factories were hit in late February 1944, during a major Allied bombing campaign (the “Big Week”), the Air Ministry was planning dozens of underground projects. Some were already under way, in fact, and many more would soon follow. On March 1, 1944, the so-called Fighter Staff (Jägerstab) was formed, one of several powerful new Nazi agencies aimed at overcoming critical setbacks to war production, which added even more layers to the polycratic Nazi dictatorship in its twilight years. The remit of the Fighter Staff was to protect and increase the production of planes for defending German airspace, which was beginning to be penetrated almost at will by Allied bombers, and there was widespread agreement from the start that the best solution was to move the facilities underground. In a conference on March 5, 1944, Hitler himself announced that this was just the beginning of relocating “all German industrial plants under the earth.” The scramble for underground construction had well and truly begun.14

The KL played an important role in these plans. The Fighter Staff brought together senior officials from the Armaments Ministry, Air Ministry, and private companies. But the SS also sat at the table, greatly raising its profile, as the aviation sector had become the biggest part of the German arms industry by 1944. The main reason for the SS involvement was its mass of slave laborers and its promise of providing even more. Labor shortages were biting harder than ever. Brutal efforts by Fritz Sauckel to capture millions more foreign laborers had failed, as the German stranglehold over much of continental Europe was broken, leaving the SS as one of the last sources of available labor.15

The SS was put in charge of special construction orders within the Fighter Staff, having impressed Albert Speer and others with its apparent success in Dora. Soon, the SS oversaw a range of high-profile relocation projects for the air industry, working together with private contractors. Satellite camps were set up near these new sites, and by June 1944 around seventeen thousand prisoners were toiling there, with many more on the way. Some schemes aimed at the speedy conversion of existing tunnels and caves. But the aircraft industry soon realized that this was a dead end, since corrosion and cramped spaces undermined efficient production. Instead, hopes turned to more complex projects: vast purpose-built tunnels, also dug by the SS. The closer the Third Reich came to defeat, the more monstrous these plans became, in terms of their size and speed of construction, and their human cost.16

Among the largest schemes was a network of tunnels near the town of Melk in Lower Austria; this was to house a factory (code-named Quarz) of the Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG, which had lobbied hard for the project and was heavily involved in its implementation. To provide the necessary labor, a satellite camp of Mauthausen was set up in Melk in April 1944, holding some seven thousand prisoners by mid-September. Conditions were infernal; there were constant accidents and most of the tunneling and cementing had to be done by hand. In all, almost one in three prisoners deported to the camp lost their lives there—more than the entire civilian population of the adjacent town of Melk.17

The manager of the gigantic SS-run underground program was Dr. Hans Kammler, the leading technocrat of terror in the WVHA. The trained architect had joined Pohl’s sprawling organization full-time in 1941 to oversee SS construction (from 1942 as chief of Office Group C), having proven himself, during his time as a civil servant in the Nazi Air Ministry, as a capable manager of large building projects. He impressed his new SS superiors with his technical expertise, drive, and ideological commitment (he had joined the Nazi Party in 1931, and the SS two years later), and quickly became a key figure in several major projects, from the vast settlement plans to the killing machinery in Auschwitz. In 1943, his career really took off, propelling him toward the top of the German war industry. The first major step was his commission by Himmler and Speer, in late August 1943, to turn Dora into an underground missile factory. This was followed in March 1944 by an even more prestigious post: managing all SS relocation projects for the Fighter Staff, as the head of a new “Special Staff Kammler.” He pressed ahead regardless of prisoner lives; what counted was the rapid completion of building tasks, not how many died in the process. After all, there still seemed to be enough new prisoners ready to be “pumped” into his projects, as Kammler put it.

Kammler quickly gained a formidable reputation. A restless workaholic in his early forties, this gaunt man, with his thin and haggard face, cut an intimidating figure. He spoke resolutely and rapidly, making clear to everyone that he knew what he wanted and how to get it. Heinrich Himmler was an early admirer and frequently met with him, and Hitler placed equally great faith in Kammler. Albert Speer paid his respects, too. Soon after he had inspected the Dora tunnels on December 10, 1943, Speer commended Kammler for the “near-impossible” speed with which he had built the underground factory, “which has no equal anywhere in Europe.”

Dr. Kammler became the man for the most difficult SS missions. Heinrich Himmler expected results, whatever the obstacles, and the loyal Kammler promised to deliver. However, ruthlessness did not equal effectiveness, and several of his high-profile projects failed to live up to his hubris. And yet, there was no stopping his rise. After the Fighter Staff folded in summer 1944 into the Armaments Staff (Rüstungsstab), Kammler’s remit for underground relocation expanded from airplanes to other arms programs. His attention also turned back to rocket production, which gained added urgency after the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944. More and more missiles were rolling out of Dora, and it was Kammler who traveled to supervise their deployment, with the rank of army general; the first V2s fell on England in September 1944 and the rockets later hit France, Belgium, and Holland. Over the coming months, Kammler accumulated yet more projects—including the construction of an enormous underground headquarters for Hitler in Ohrdruf, a top-priority project where more than ten thousand KL prisoners worked by late 1944—and by spring 1945 he controlled almost the entire arms production for the air force. Kammler was even talked about as a successor to Speer as armaments minister. At this late stage, of course, with the Third Reich already in ruins, there was no more armaments output to speak of, as Speer pointedly noted in his memoirs.18

Powerful as Hans Kammler was, he had no monopoly over underground construction for the German air industry. While his SS office oversaw most of the major Fighter Staff relocation projects, the rival Organization Todt (OT) established itself as another key player. This Nazi construction agency, set up along military lines in 1938, had grown rapidly during the war. Relying largely on foreign labor, the OT ran a huge number of building projects all across Nazi-occupied Europe—including bridges, roads, and defensive installations—and it expanded into German domestic construction, as well. This led to tensions with the SS, after Hitler commissioned the OT in April 1944 to build gigantic concrete bunkers for fighter aircraft factories. Even though this urgent project was supervised by the OT, the SS had to supply much of the labor force. Starting in June 1944, a total of fifteen Dachau satellite camps were established around Kaufering and Mühldorf am Inn, where several tens of thousands of prisoners built four huge bunker complexes. The OT, which subcontracted the work to private firms, was now the largest slave driver of the Dachau prisoners.19

This was not the only major OT project using concentration camp labor. In April 1944, the OT took over the construction of a big network of bunkers for Hitler and the top echelons of the regime (code-named Riese, or “giant”). Turning a large wooded area of Lower Silesia into a building site, KL prisoners and other forced laborers had to erect huge underground structures and infrastructure. In all, thirteen thousand Jewish men were held in some twelve new satellite camps of Gross-Rosen, known collectively as “Work Camp Riese”; around five thousand of them lost their lives.20

Elsewhere, KL prisoners were exploited during desperate Nazi efforts to protect the fuel supply. Following major Allied bombing raids on German hydrogenation plants in May 1944, Hitler invested Edmund Geilenberg, a top official in Speer’s Armaments Ministry, with special powers to keep tanks rolling and planes flying. The main aims of the new Geilenberg Staff were the repair of damaged hydrogenation plants, the construction of new plants, and the underground relocation of production. Many of the construction projects were once again run by the OT, but the SS was involved, too, managing some sites and supplying slave labor to others. By late November 1944, an estimated three hundred and fifty thousand workers toiled on the Geilenberg sites, including tens of thousands of KL prisoners, dispersed across several satellite camps. Some of these camps had originally been erected for other purposes; in Ebensee a huge fuel refinery was set up in the tunnels originally intended for the V2 development works. Other sites were hastily set up from scratch. In Württemberg, for example, the SS created three new Natzweiler satellites to push ahead with project “Desert” (Wüste), extracting local shale oil for fuel production. Together with inmates from associated satellite camps, over ten thousand KL prisoners were forced into project “Desert,” mostly working in construction; thousands died.21

The relocation of the German war industry transformed concentration camp slave labor. It is impossible to say exactly how many prisoners were deployed in this way, but numbers were very substantial. At the end of 1944, according to an estimate by Pohl, around forty percent of all the working KL prisoners came under Kammler’s authority, the vast majority of them in relocation camps; many more worked on similar projects managed by the OT.22 In all, hundreds of thousands of KL inmates were forced into the new relocation camps, and while there were many differences between individual sites, all of them placed inmates in mortal danger. To keep alive their hopes of a miraculous German victory, Nazi leaders sacrificed entire armies of prisoners.

War and Slave Labor

Heinrich Himmler liked to sing the praises of KL labor. His boasts about its contribution to the war economy became set pieces in speeches to senior Nazi officials in 1944. Typically, Himmler pictured the concentration camps as brutally efficient modern arms factories, with long hours and strict discipline; after listening to one of his speeches, Joseph Goebbels summed up Himmler’s approach as “pretty rigorous.” But the Reichsführer SS stressed that there was no reason to pity prisoners: though it was hard to believe, he told an audience of army generals in June 1944, inmates in his camps were better off than “many workers in England or America.” As for their output, the prisoners put in millions of hours each month, supposedly turning out a vast arsenal of high-tech armaments. Himmler was particularly proud of the underground missile and fighter plane factories, where “this race of subhumans produces the weapons for the war.” The startling successes were due, Himmler concluded, to the technical brilliance of the SS and the productivity of the prisoners, who worked twice as hard as foreign workers.23 None of these claims bore any resemblance to reality, though given Himmler’s capacity for self-delusion it is possible that he believed his own hype.

Slave labor in the concentration camps was far less effective than Himmler claimed. Many prisoners were not employed at all, either because they were too sick or because there was no work; according to SS figures from spring 1944, more than one in four Auschwitz prisoners were either invalids or ill in infirmaries.24 As for the majority of working prisoners, they were much weaker than regular laborers. Food rations for KL inmates (and other Nazi prisoners) were cut once more in 1944, by central order of the Reich Ministry for Food and Agriculture, condemning more inmates to exhaustion and death; some prisoners now received no more than around seven hundred calories per day.25 WVHA efforts to improve matters remained largely cosmetic; empty words could not feed any prisoners.26

The overall productivity of KL prisoners fell far behind the expectations of the SS and industry.27 True, some skilled and better-fed prisoners delivered outputs approaching those of other workers.28 But this was impossible for the great mass of inmates. Compared with that of regular German workers, their productivity reached an estimated half in industrial production, and even less in construction, perhaps one-third.29 And despite some exceptions, such as the Heinkel works in Oranienburg, concentration camp labor was not particularly cost-effective, either. Once all the overheads were deducted, it often came no cheaper than free German labor. But it was still useful: Why else would so many firms have pursued KL prisoners so energetically in 1944? The decisive factor here was not that prisoners came cheap, but that they were available, allowing state and private companies to take on additional arms and building projects.30

Although it had secured a more prominent place for the KL system in the German arms industry by 1944, the mass exploitation of its prisoners came at a cost to the SS. Internal rivalries broke out within the WVHA, as Hans Kammler pushed aside Gerhard Maurer (from Office Group D) as the main manager of slave labor; in a new camp like Dora, it was Kammler who had the final say.31 Meanwhile, armaments minister Albert Speer extended his own reach over forced labor, culminating in a decree on October 9, 1944, that put him in charge of prisoner deployment. New requests for KL labor no longer went to the WVHA but to Speer’s ministry, a significant loss of power and prestige for the SS.32 Private industry chipped away at SS control, too, with managers traveling directly to concentration camps to select slaves. Above all, the managers wanted strong and skilled prisoners, ideally with some knowledge of German. “We were chosen like cattle on a market,” the Ukrainian prisoner Galina Buschujewa-Sabrodskaja recalled after Heinkel employees descended on Ravensbrück in late 1943: “They even forced us to open our mouths, and inspected our teeth.”33 An ambitious attempt by the WVHA to steer prisoner deployment by creating a modern machine-readable database in 1944, using punch-hole cards and number codes (the so-called Hollerith technology), was soon abandoned and did nothing to help the WVHA regain the initiative.34The more the Camp SS became involved in the German war industry, the less control it had over its prisoners.

What is more, the contribution of the camps for the war economy remained marginal, despite Himmler’s bombastic claims. In summer 1944, when German armaments production reached its highest output during the war, KL prisoners working in the arms industry made up no more than around one percent of the Third Reich labor force. To be sure, the SS presence was more marked in relocation projects.35 But most of these projects were strategically pointless even before they got under way; the move of war production underground was the last throw of the dice in a game that was already lost.36 The SS was the perfect partner for such a doomed plan. Undeterred by previous failures, SS leaders like Oswald Pohl still harbored delusions about their economic prowess.37

Even the most high-profile projects launched with SS involvement made little difference to the progress of the war. Despite the investment of hundreds of millions of Reichsmark and the abuse of tens of thousands of slave laborers, the huge IG Farben complex under construction in Auschwitz was never completed and failed to produce any synthetic rubber or fuel.38 Similarly, few projects of the Geilenberg Staff went past the initial stage. The first factories of project “Desert,” provisionally operational from early spring 1945, turned out an oily sludge that was useless for the remaining German tanks.39 And Dora never became the high-tech underground factory of Himmler’s dreams, either. The number of the much vaunted V2s manufactured, around six thousand by spring 1945, remained well behind schedule. And although the rockets killed thousands of civilians abroad and proved a potent propaganda tool inside Germany, their strategic impact was negligible. The uniqueness of the weapon lay elsewhere, as the historian Michael J. Neufeld has pointed out: “More people died producing it than died from being hit by it.”40 This verdict sums up the SS involvement in the war economy as a whole. Its main output was not fuel or planes or guns, but the misery and death of its prisoners.41

Far more registered prisoners died in 1944 than during the previous year. The general conditions claimed countless victims, and the SS also extended its murderous selections (which had been cut back during the previous year), because the sick were seen as obstacles to effective war production and as threats to the health of other slave laborers. Many died inside satellite camps. Other victims returned to the main camps, after they had been worked to complete exhaustion, and perished in one of the fast-expanding sectors for the weak and ill.42 Or they were deported to their deaths elsewhere. In Mauthausen, where those isolated in the infirmary sector sometimes outnumbered all other inmates, the SS took a particularly radical step. It renewed its links to the Hartheim killing center, dating back to Action 14f13, and sent at least 3,228 Muselmänner to the gas chambers between April and December 1944.43 More commonly, transports of doomed prisoners went to other parts of the KL system. Deportations to Auschwitz, for example, now included weakened Jewish prisoners selected in satellite camps inside the old German borders.44

In addition, two other main camps—Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen, both largely untouched by the economic mobilization for war—were designated for dying inmates from other KL. Majdanek had lost much of its purpose in November 1943, following the murder of its Jewish prisoners, and was used from December onward as a dumping ground for men and women from concentration camps inside the Third Reich. Some died en route, thousands more inside; in March 1944 alone, when around nine thousand prisoners were held in Majdanek, the SS registered more than 1,600 deaths.45 Bergen-Belsen took over from spring 1944 onward, as Majdanek prepared for evacuation in advance of the Red Army. By January 1945, some 5,500 sick prisoners from other KL—judged “an unnecessary burden on the industrial firms” that employed them, in the words of Camp SS leaders—had been taken to Bergen-Belsen.46 The first transport had arrived in late March or early April 1944 from Dora. The frail men, many of them with bandaged arms and legs, had been thrown into the trucks “like sacks of coal,” according to one Dora prisoner; the screams started before the train had even pulled away. After their arrival in Bergen-Belsen, the survivors were left for days inside empty barracks without food or blankets. “We wasted away very quickly,” the French prisoner Josef Henri Mulin recalled later.47

The Prisoner Population

KL inmate numbers reached record heights in 1944, relentlessly pushed upward by Heinrich Himmler. He promised Kammler as many prisoners as he wanted and became obsessed with statistics charting the growth in inmate figures: Himmler’s mantra, Rudolf Höss recalled, became “Armaments! Prisoners! Armaments!”48 The camps just kept on growing, and even some of the smaller sites now expanded exponentially; the number of prisoners registered in Flossenbürg, for instance, grew more than eightfold, from 4,869 (December 31, 1943) to 40,437 (January 1, 1945).49The momentum behind the camps’ expansion was only stopped by the Allied armies.

Secret SS statistics reveal two major trends. First, after the balance of the KL system had tilted eastward from 1942, it now swung back again. As the Red Army gained ground, more and more camps in occupied eastern Europe closed down in 1944. Auschwitzwas gradually emptied, too, and consequently lost its status as the biggest site. By January 1, 1945, the largest KL complex of all was Buchenwald, in the heart of Germany; 97,633 prisoners were registered there, compared to 69,752 in Auschwitz. Second, the sharp rise in female prisoners, which had begun with the mass deportations of Jewish women during the Holocaust, continued. By the end of 1944, there were almost 200,000 female KL prisoners (up from 12,500 in late April 1942), making up twenty-eight percent of the total prisoner population. They were distributed across the whole KL system. Back in 1939, female prisoners had been confined to a single purpose-built camp, Ravensbrück; now they were registered in every camp complex, except for Dora.50

The vast rise in prisoner numbers cannot be reduced to Himmler’s hunger for slave laborers alone. Just as in previous years, economic motives coincided with other matters of national interest, as defined by the Nazi regime. Police arrests broadly followed the pattern established in 1942–43. As defeat came closer, Nazi paranoia about the home front grew even more intense. There were further crackdowns on Germans suspected of criminal activity, defeatism, and subversion. In August 1944, shortly after the failed bomb plot on Hitler’s life, more than five thousand left-wing activists from the Weimar period, as well as some one-time officials of Catholic parties, were dragged into the KL as part of Operation Thunderstorm; some, like the sixty-six-year-old former SPD Reichstag deputy Fritz Soldmann, had already been tormented in the KL several times before.51 The police also focused on resistance activities by foreigners inside Germany and expanded its general assault on foreign workers: many tens of thousands were arrested in 1944 for “breach of contract” and often taken straight to concentration camps, in line with Himmler’s orders.52

Outside the Third Reich, meanwhile, more people were rising up, and the German occupiers answered with extreme force; many resisters were murdered on the spot, and many more deported to concentration camps.53 Among them were several tens of thousands of men and women arrested inside France.54 Even more new KL prisoners arrived from occupied Poland, in the wake of the doomed Warsaw Uprising. The insurgency had been triggered on August 1, 1944, by the Polish Home Army, which hoped to drive the German occupiers out just before the seemingly imminent arrival of the Red Army. But the Soviet advance stalled, and the uprising was put down with extraordinary brutality by Nazi troops, who had long seen the city as the hotbed of Polish resistance. After nine terrible weeks, some one hundred and fifty thousand local civilians had been killed and much of Warsaw lay in ruins (among the dead were several hundred prisoners from the local KL, who had briefly tasted freedom during the uprising). As for the survivors, SS officials were determined to add them to their slave labor force; in mid-August, the SS dreamed of four hundred thousand extra prisoners for the concentration camps. In the end, an estimated sixty thousand men, women, and children were deported from the remains of Warsaw to the KL. Among them was a twenty-one-year-old seamstress (her name is unknown), who was forced out of her destroyed building in September 1944 with her husband and neighbors. After several days in packed cattle trucks, the men were dragged out near Sachsenhausen. “Families that were separated screamed and cried,” she recalled. Then the train took the remaining women and children to Ravensbrück, where some twelve thousand prisoners from Warsaw arrived in all.55

Diverse as the KL population was, there was one prisoner group that grew faster than any other—Jews. In the course of 1944, the German authorities forced more Jewish men, women, and children to the KL than ever before. According to one estimate, almost two-thirds of all new arrivals between spring and autumn 1944 had to wear the yellow star. By the end of the year, more than two hundred thousand were registered as KL inmates; any Jews in German-controlled territory were now most likely held inside concentration camps.56 Among them were many Polish Jews who had survived outside the KL system until now. Tens of thousands came from abandoned forced labor camps, including the so-called Schmelt camps in Upper Silesia.57 Others arrived from the last ghettos. During the final liquidation of Lodz in August 1944, almost sixty-seven thousand Jews were deported to Auschwitz; around two-thirds were murdered on arrival.58

Auschwitz also continued to receive deportation trains from the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe, as the RSHA pursued Jews who had so far escaped its clutches. Among the largest transports in 1944 were those from France, Holland, Slovakia, Greece, and Italy. One of these trains, which arrived late on February 26 from a camp in Modena, brought Primo Levi to Auschwitz, together with 649 other Jews; 526 of them were gassed on arrival.59 Further prisoners arrived from Theresienstadt. In May 1944, some 7,500 Jews, many of them old, orphaned, or ill, were deported to Auschwitz during a Nazi effort to put the ghetto into better light for the impending visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross; many thousands more, especially younger prisoners, followed in the autumn.60

By far the largest number of Jews deported to Auschwitz in 1944 came from Hungary. After Hungary had distanced itself from its German partner, seeking a separate peace with the Allies, Nazi forces invaded the country in March 1944. The German occupation was a catastrophe for Hungarian Jewry, which had so far been spared from the Holocaust. German troops were accompanied by Adolf Eichmann and his team. Drawing on their experience with round-ups, deportations, and extermination, Eichmann’s men proceeded with great speed and efficiency. Mass transports began in mid-May 1944, and by July, when they were stopped after an intervention by the Hungarian regent Horthy, at least four hundred and thirty thousand Jews had been taken to Auschwitz.61

After SS units removed Horthy in mid-October 1944, the Nazis renewed their effort to deport the remaining Hungarian Jews. Trains were scarce now, as transport shortages started to bite, so tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were forced on marches to the distant Austrian border. By the end of 1944, an estimated seventy-six thousand Jews had been driven toward Austria. Here, some survivors were forced to build fortifications, while others were taken to the KL. Among them was the teenager Eva Fejer, who eventually reached Ravensbrück. “At first,” she later said, “we thought we were coming into a decent camp, not least because we had been made to believe that it would be good as long as one behaved properly.” She soon learned the truth.62

Nazi leaders and industrialists saw the Hungarian Jews as an important addition to the workforce. Even before the mass deportations began, there were plans—pushed forward by Hitler and Himmler—to send one hundred thousand or more as slave laborers to the KL inside Germany. In particular, the prisoners were earmarked for Fighter Staff relocation projects. When Albert Speer asked in a meeting on May 26, 1944, when these prisoners would arrive, he was assured by Kammler that the transports were already “on their way.” But before they reached the building sites inside the old German borders, these Hungarian Jews had to pass through Auschwitz. After all, the SS was only interested in slaves who could work; all those who were too young, old, or weak would be murdered.63

The Murder of Hungarian Jews

Auschwitz was never more lethal for Jews than in spring and summer 1944. Among the dead were many regular prisoners, including most inmates from the Theresienstadt family camp.64 The overwhelming majority of victims, however, had only just arrived. Huge numbers poured into Auschwitz—between May and July 1944, more Jews were deported to the camp than during the entire preceding two years—and nearly all came from Hungary. Their murder marked the climax of the Holocaust in Auschwitz, at a time when most European Jews under German control had long since been killed.65

The man who oversaw the extermination of Hungarian Jews was a familiar figure in Auschwitz: Rudolf Höss, the old commandant. Around late April or early May 1944, shortly before the deportations started, Höss traveled to Hungary to meet his friend Eichmann at his temporary residence in Budapest (Eichmann, in turn, visited Auschwitz several times in spring 1944). The two men brooded over the deportation schedules to determine how many trains “could be dealt with” in Auschwitz, as Höss put it. In addition, Höss wanted to inform his WVHA superiors how many slave laborers they could expect, once those deemed unfit had been gassed. Höss conducted trial selections in Hungary, and concluded that most Jews had to die; at best, he estimated, twenty-five percent would be selected for labor.66

Next, Höss traveled to Auschwitz, returning to the scene of his earlier crimes, and on May 8, 1944, took over temporarily as senior commandant of the Auschwitz camp complex.67 In view of the scale of the impending genocide, WVHA leaders had dispatched their most experienced manager of mass murder.68 In their eyes, the reappointment of Höss was all the more pressing because the position of the current senior commandant, Arthur Liebehenschel, had become untenable. Apparently, the reserved Liebehenschel had gained a reputation as a soft touch, though the immediate reason for his removal was a private drama.69 Back when Liebehenschel had worked in the WVHA, he had fallen for Richard Glücks’s secretary, who eventually joined him in Auschwitz after his divorce. But after Liebehenschel sought permission to remarry, his superiors learned a dark secret: early in the Third Reich, his fiancée had been arrested for a relationship with a Jew. Oswald Pohl was horrified. He dispatched his bullish adjutant Richard Baer to tell Liebehenschel to terminate the relationship. After Baer broke the news in the Auschwitz officer mess late on April 19, 1944, Liebehenschel sobbed and got drunk. Then he confronted his pregnant fiancée, who protested her innocence. Two days later, the love-stricken Liebehenschel, his eyes swollen from crying, told Baer that he stood by his lover, adding that the Gestapo must have forced her into a false confession all those years ago. There was no way back now for Liebehenschel, who had broken the SS racial code (by consorting with a suspected “race defiler”), its unspoken rules (by accusing the Gestapo of torture), and its social norms (by acting “anything but manly,” as Baer called it). Pohl swiftly removed Liebehenschel and after a brief stint as caretaker of the depleted Majdanek camp, he left the Camp SS embittered and sick.70

His fall eased the return of Höss to Auschwitz in late spring 1944. Here was a man SS leaders could trust with the largest extermination program the KL system had ever seen. Höss surrounded himself with a handful of close associates and killing experts, whom he had known for years. Among them was the Camp SS veteran Josef Kramer, who had served as Höss’s first adjutant in Auschwitz in 1940, and now returned from Natzweiler to become commandant of Birkenau. Another familiar face was Otto Moll, who had gained plenty of experience at the Birkenau gas chambers in 1942–43, and was called back from a satellite camp to oversee the crematoria complex once more.71 After Höss and his men had completed some last-minute preparations, the mass deportations from Hungary began. Between mid-May 1944 and mid-July 1944, trains came on an almost daily basis and Auschwitz was soon overwhelmed; on some days, as many as five transports arrived, carrying around sixteen thousand Jews (between January and April 1944, during the Liebehenschel era, a daily average of around two hundred Jews had arrived in Auschwitz). While Adolf Eichmann marveled at the “record performance” of his men, Höss implored his friend to slow things down. But even a dressing down from Oswald Pohl made no difference, with Eichmann pushing for even more transports, citing “force majeure during wartime” (as he told his sympathizers after the war).72

As they emerged from the trains, the Hungarian Jews had little idea what awaited them; few had heard of Auschwitz and fewer still of the gas chambers. The Camp SS, meanwhile, swung into action. SS doctors subjected all these new arrivals to selections, in contrast to some other Jewish deportation transports in 1944. In general, the SS applied the same criteria used previously; those classified as unfit for labor included pregnant women, older prisoners, young children, and their accompanying parents. At the end of each day, the Auschwitz SS sent statistics about the selections to the WVHA, to update the managers about newly available slave laborers. Overall, the local SS officers stuck to Höss’s forecast and picked out around one in four Jews from Hungary for slave labor. The fate of these approximately one hundred and ten thousand prisoners differed: some were formally registered in Auschwitz, some were sent to other KL, some perished in Birkenau transit compounds. The remaining three hundred and twenty thousand or so Hungarian Jews, declared unfit, were killed straightaway, during a murderous frenzy that lasted until the mass deportations stopped in July 1944.73

Rudolf Höss threw himself into mass murder with customary zeal, knowing that he would return to the WVHA once he had completed his mission (he was succeeded as senior commandant of the Auschwitz camp complex on July 29, 1944, by the ruthless Richard Baer, who liked to show off his experience as a frontline SS warrior by wearing his old Death’s Head division uniform).74 During his time in charge, Höss did his best to accelerate the extermination process. Trains from Hungary no longer stopped outside the camp but followed a single track to a hastily completed ramp right inside Birkenau; as they lined up here on arrival, the deported Jews could hear the incongruous tunes of one of the camp orchestras, brought in to lull them into a false sense of security. After the SS selection, the great majority of the newcomers walked directly toward their deaths, carrying small children and supporting the weak as they filed past several Birkenau compounds on the way to the gas chambers. Left at the ramp, after the trains pulled away to collect yet more victims, were all the suitcases, bags, and bundles, gathered up by the greatly expanded Canada Commando.75

The Birkenau crematoria burned longer than ever, stoked by the Special Squad, now some nine hundred prisoners strong and working around the clock. The SS also put bunker 2 back into use for gassings and reactivated crematorium V (out of commission since autumn 1943). But because the SS still murdered more Jews than it could burn in the crematoria, it decided to use open-air pits for cremation, as well, just as in 1942. To hide these crimes from new arrivals, Oswald Pohl gave the go-ahead—after an inspection of the camp on June 16, 1944, at the height of the murder—to erect a fence around the crematoria areas.76 SS men stationed inside the killing complex lost their last inhibitions. They murdered in such a rush that some victims were still breathing when the doors of the gas chambers were unlocked. Sometimes the killers bypassed the gas chambers altogether, shooting Hungarian Jews at the burning pits, beating them to death, or throwing them into the flames alive. This inferno was overseen by Otto Moll, who made Dr. Mengele look human, according to one survivor.77

Because of the sheer number of incoming deportation trains in summer 1944, the SS was sometimes unable to carry out its selections at the Birkenau ramp. In such cases, new arrivals were taken to transit compounds, where their ultimate fate would be decided later. The largest of these compounds was a huge, unfinished extension of Birkenau known as “Mexico” (BIII), which held an estimated seventeen thousand Jewish women from Hungary and elsewhere by early autumn 1944. Living conditions were worse than almost anywhere else in the camp. There was no running water and barely any food. Huge vats served as toilets, and instead of clothes, many prisoners wore blankets draped around their shoulders (this apparently reminded some of ponchos, hence the name “Mexico”). Barracks, each holding around one thousand women, were unfurnished, with prisoners lying on the muddy ground; Ágnes Rózsa, the teacher from Nagyvárad we encountered earlier, shared a small urine-soaked sheet with four other women. Some prisoners, like Rózsa, were eventually deported elsewhere for forced labor. But many others wasted away or were led to the gas chambers. This was the perpetrators’ preferred solution to the human catastrophe they had created. A former Camp SS man later testified that his colleagues had often talked about murdering the prisoners left in “Mexico.” The catchphrase was: “Let them go through the chimney.”78

The Gypsy Camp

During the Holocaust, Auschwitz turned first and foremost into a KL for Jews, who replaced Poles as the largest inmate group. Numbers shot up further in the wake of the Hungarian deportations; according to one estimate, around seventy-five percent of all the men, women, and children held in Auschwitz in late August 1944 were Jews.79 In popular memory, the move of the camp to the epicenter of the Holocaust has sometimes overshadowed the fate of other prisoner groups. This is particularly true for Gypsies, the third-largest group in Auschwitz, whose treatment in some ways mirrored that of Jews.80

The so-called Gypsy camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau had grown rapidly from late February 1943, as the mass deportations from the German Reich arrived.81 Within weeks, over ten thousand prisoners were held here, and numbers were still rising. There were thousands of children, making up half of all children registered in Auschwitz. The oldest prisoner, meanwhile, was said to be 110 years old. The Gypsies were held in sector BIIe, at the far end of Birkenau, just below the infirmary sector and close to the crematoria. Like most other sectors in Birkenau, the Gypsy camp was almost two thousand feet long and four hundred feet wide, and contained two rows with barracks on either side of a muddy path. Inside the converted horse stables, it was dark (there were no windows except for small skylights), dirty (most floors consisted of clay), and overcrowded (with whole families crammed onto a single bunk). There was no separation by sex, one of several differences from other Birkenau sectors. Also, the prisoners’ hair was not fully shaved and they often kept their clothes, too, marked with a red cross on the back.

When the deportations to Auschwitz started in spring 1943, the Gypsies’ fate had not been decided. Even so, the conditions in Birkenau condemned the vast majority to death. In addition to the usual SS tortures such as “sport,” many prisoners—labeled “work-shy”—had to perform extremely heavy labor. Boys and girls as young as seven carried heavy bricks. As for sanitation, things were even worse in the Gypsy camp than elsewhere in Birkenau. In the early months, with the compound still under construction, there were no toilets or washrooms. “We washed when it rained,” the German Sinto Walter Winter recalled, “making do in the puddles … Adults and children had to relieve themselves outside, to the rear of the blocks.” Conditions barely improved after the SS added rudimentary facilities; the overflowing latrines were rarely emptied, and water was scarce and contaminated.

Soon, disease ravaged the Gypsy camp. More and more space was set aside for sick and dying prisoners, and by autumn 1943 the infirmary inside the compound had grown from two to six barracks. Perhaps the most terrifying sight was that of boys and girls suffering from Noma, an oral infection, caused by extreme deprivation, which cut deep holes into their cheeks. Hardly any medical treatment was available. Instead, the Camp SS relied on death. When a typhus epidemic spread through the Gypsy camp, with up to thirty prisoners perishing each day, the SS placed it under quarantine and led many of the sick to the gas chambers. Some survivors tried to alert the outside world to their suffering; in a coded message, one of them referred to Baro Nasslepin, Elenta, and Marepin—the Romany words for “great illness,” “misery,” and “murder.”

Entire families died together in the Gypsy camp. Elisabeth Guttenberger, who had been deported from Germany in spring 1943, later testified that she lost around thirty relatives. “The children were the first to die,” she said. “Day and night they cried for bread; soon they had all starved.” The morgue in the infirmary was piled high with corpses of children, covered with rats. Many of the dead babies had been born inside the Gypsy camp. In all, some 370 children were delivered here, with prisoner numbers tattooed on their tiny thighs; more than half were dead within three months. Most parents soon followed their children. Elisabeth Guttenberger’s father starved to death early on, together with her four siblings, and her mother soon lost her life, too. Survival seemed almost impossible; by the end of 1943, around seventy percent of prisoners who had been locked into the Gypsy camp were dead.82

The final liquidation of the Gypsy camp came in 1944, as mass murder in Auschwitz reached a fever pitch.83 The fate of the surviving prisoners became increasingly intertwined with that of the Hungarian Jews. Several Gypsies worked on the extension of the railway spur into Birkenau; and when the new ramp was completed and the trains from Hungary started to arrive, thousands of Jews were taken to the half-empty Gypsy camp, which now doubled as a transit camp. One of the new arrivals from Hungary was Josef Glück, who recalled that the compound was divided “so that Jews were on one side and the Gypsies on the other.” Many of these Jews were later murdered in the nearby gas chambers, and the carnage was witnessed by the remaining Gypsies. “What I saw was so dreadful that I fainted,” testified Hermine Horvath, who had come from Austria with her family in early April 1943. Many prisoners in the Gypsy camp had premonitions that they would be next, and their fears soon came true.84

Late on August 2, 1944, as darkness descended over Birkenau, the SS surrounded the Gypsy camp with a large number of uniformed men. Over the next few hours, all the remaining 2,897 Gypsies were driven by truck to crematoria II and V; first up were the orphaned children, rounded up by drunken SS men. Some prisoners knew they would die; there were scuffles and shouts of “murderers!” To deceive their victims, the SS drove the trucks by a circuitous route. But after the prisoners were finally forced out, they all knew what would happen and their screams echoed across Birkenau all night. Some fought until the end. “It was not easy,” Rudolf Höss later wrote, “to get them inside the [gas] chambers.” Obersturmführer Schwarzhuber, the Birkenau camp compound leader and an old confidant of Höss, reported that it had been the most difficult mass extermination action so far.85

Few Gypsies survived Birkenau. Only a small number of transports had left by the time the compound was liquidated. Between April and late July 1944, the SS had moved no more than around 3,200 inmates to central Germany, mostly men selected for slave labor. Among them were a number of former Wehrmacht soldiers (and their immediate families), several of whom had been decorated for bravery on the Eastern Front prior to their deportation to Birkenau. Some of these war veterans had been incredulous at their treatment. “You coward!” one of them shouted on arrival at an SS man. “You fight here against women and children, when you should be fighting at the front! I was wounded in Stalingrad … How dare you insult me!!” Some of the survivors of the Gypsy camp were taken to Ravensbrück. Many more ended up in Dora, the largest of the SS relocation camps. From here, many were sent farther on to a satellite camp in Ellrich. This was no coincidence. The Camp SS often took Jews and Gypsies to lethal satellite camps, and Ellrich was one of the worst.86


In early April 1944, Oswald Pohl sent a large map of Europe to Heinrich Himmler, pinpointing all main concentration camps and their attached satellites. There were marks all over the map: the whole Nazi territory was covered in KL, from Klooga at the Gulf of Finland to the Loiblpass camp in occupied Yugoslavia, from Lublin in eastern Poland to the occupied British Channel Island of Alderney. In the accompanying letter to Himmler, Pohl could not resist a dig at his late rival, Theodor Eicke. In a handwritten comment in the margin, he compared his own empire to that of his predecessor: “In Eicke’s time, there were a total of 6 camps!” Himmler was duly impressed. Thanking Pohl, he noted with satisfaction “how our things have grown.”87 With the SS desire for ever more prisoners acting as a centrifugal force, many hundreds of satellites spread around the main camps and beyond. The climax came in the second half of 1944, when the gigantic relocation projects really took off; over a six-month period, as many satellite camps were erected as in all the preceding thirty months.88 By the end of 1944, no fewer than seventy-seven satellites were attached to the Dachau main camp alone, several of them located more than 125 miles away.89 The KL system was changing so fast, with satellite camps set up almost as quickly as they were abandoned, that even the WVHA could not keep count; in January 1945, the officials assumed that there were 500 satellite camps, when the real figure was nearer 560.90

A Shifting Landscape

There was no typical satellite camp, just as there was no typical main camp.91 Satellite camps came in all sizes, from small labor details with no more than a handful of prisoners to vast compounds holding thousands.92 Set up for specific projects and linked closely to other authorities—such as the OT, military, state, and private companies—most SS satellites focused either on construction (with prisoners digging tunnels and trenches, clearing rubble, building bunkers and factories) or production (with prisoners making batteries and munitions, assembling tanks and rockets). But not every satellite camp was geared for slave labor; a few functioned primarily as sites for dying prisoners or as holding pens for recent arrivals from evacuated KL.93

There was no common design. Many satellites took after main camps, with wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire. Others looked very different, though. In their haste to establish new KL, the authorities used whatever sites they could find, forcing prisoners inside sheds, tents, factories, cellars, ballrooms, and former churches.94 The same spirit of improvisation governed the search for SS accommodation; in Ellrich, some guards slept in a popular local restaurant, which remained open for business.95 Some new satellites were even mobile. Between summer 1944 and early 1945, the SS set up eight traveling KL (so-called railway building brigades) for the repair of destroyed tracks; each camp consisted of a long train, with around five hundred prisoners crammed into modified boxcars.96 By 1944, then, the architectural model of the KL, as it had been developed in the late 1930s, gave way to a random assortment of sites. There were strong echoes here of the emergence of the camps back in 1933. At both ends of the Third Reich, its terror camps were characterized by improvisation. In 1933, the KL system had not yet formed; in 1944, it was starting to fray.97

The final decision to set up a new satellite camp was normally made inside the WVHA. Once it was up and running, however, such a new KL rarely reported to Berlin. Instead, relocation camps often coordinated prisoner deployment through regional SS Special Inspectorates (Sonderinspektionen), which reported further up the chain to Kammler’s office in Berlin. Even closer links existed between satellites and their respective main camp. Many prisoners arrived via the main camp. In addition, SS officials in each main camp took on administrative tasks for its satellites, including the distribution of prisoner clothing and medicine. The result was the emergence of a layer of regional supervision that removed direct control from the WVHA.98

Main camps came to resemble huge transit hubs. New prisoners rarely stayed for very long, but were quickly shunted on to one of the satellites. In the Ravensbrück main camp, 12,216 new inmates were registered in September 1944; in the same month, 11,884 moved on to satellite camps.99Satellites drew the great bulk of new prisoners in 1944, swelling like a malignant growth. The result was a decisive shift in balance between main camps and their satellites. Take the Buchenwald complex. When war broke out in 1939, only a small number of prisoners—less than ten percent—had been held permanently outside the main camp. During the early war years, this figure had increased, but only slowly, and by summer 1943, it was still no higher than fifteen percent. Within a year, however, the picture changed completely, as the proportion of Buchenwald prisoners in satellite camps shot up to thirty-four percent (October 1, 1943), forty-six percent (December 1, 1943), and fifty-eight percent (August 15, 1944).100 A similar shift occurred in other camp complexes, with striking results: by late 1944, most KL prisoners were held in satellite camps.101


Traffic between main camps and their satellites in 1944 was not all one-way. A large number of prisoner transports also went in the opposite direction, as we have seen, bringing seriously ill, injured, and exhausted inmates back to main camps; most of them had worked in construction and were seen as easily replaceable.102 In addition to the dying, many satellite camps also returned the dead, for incineration in the main camp. Until Dora completed its own crematorium in April 1944, for example, thousands of corpses were driven to Buchenwald, some fifty miles away; later on, the dead were burned in Dora itself, which also began to receive transports of bodies from other satellites nearby.103 In sum, the general movement of KL inmates often looked something like this: new prisoners departed from main camps to satellites for slave labor, and returned when they were dead or dying.

The gradual disintegration of established KL structures was reflected in the satellites’ administrative makeup, which was no perfect copy of the traditional main camp model. There were fewer SS staff and posts, and the internal organization was much simplified, too. Normally, there was no political or administrative department, and in smaller satellites there was not even an SS doctor, an infirmary, or a prisoner kitchen. The most powerful local figure was the so-called camp leader. In charge of the day-to-day running of a satellite camp, he was the de facto commandant, assisted by a report leader. These local SS men enjoyed plenty of autonomy. True, they were appointed and supervised by officers from the respective main camp, or by experienced Camp SS officers in charge of a regional cluster of satellites. But despite frequent inspections and correspondence, these senior officers could not keep a tight rein on all the new sites. As each camp complex expanded, adding more and more satellites, it became ever more difficult to exercise central control, giving greater independence to the local officials.104

Soldiers into Guards

The face of the Camp SS changed almost beyond recognition in 1944, with tens of thousands of new guards joining the KL. SS demand was huge. All the new satellite camps had to be staffed, and what was more, they required proportionally more guards than main camps, because of inferior security installations.105 The need for new staff put great pressure on WVHA managers, who had wrestled with personnel shortages since the war began. The competition for manpower was more intense than ever in 1944, and the KL system was still losing some of its younger sentries to frontline service.106 Nonetheless, the WVHA managed to bolster its force. By April 1944, the KL staff already numbered more than twenty-two thousand, probably growing to over fifty thousand by the end of the year.107

The bulk of the new personnel came from the military. Since KL slave labor was meant to benefit the armed forces, the WVHA insisted that the military should provide soldiers as guards. Supported by Hitler and Speer, it was in constant negotiations with the military authorities, resulting in a massive influx of soldiers from spring 1944 onward. By summer, more than twenty thousand soldiers had joined the concentration camps, and more arrived over the following months. Most of these new recruits were dispatched to satellites, after some brief training in a main camp. By early 1945, more than half the male KL staff was made up of former soldiers; in satellite camps, they far outnumbered seasoned SS officials.108 Most of them served as sentries, who now came into closer contact with prisoners than before. Not only did they march prisoners to building sites and guard them there, they were more visible inside the compounds, too, as the difference between these Guard Troops and the Commandant Staff became more blurred.109

Most of the soldiers had been reservists, only recently called up for active duty. On average, they were in their forties or fifties—some prisoners called them “grandpas”—and they often struggled with the physical demands of KL service. The initial training was “very rigorous and hard to bear for a man my age,” the fifty-six-year-old Hugo Behncke wrote after joining the Neuengamme Camp SS. Men like him had not arrived from the battlefields but from regular jobs on the home front. Behncke had worked as a clerk for a large Hamburg undertaker when he was called up in June 1944. Another new recruit, the fifty-five-year-old Wilhelm Vierke, had been employed as a gardener when he was ordered to report to Sachsenhausen in November 1944. These recruits were less ideologically invested than SS volunteers—Vierke was not even an NSDAP member—and often made more reluctant guards; the end of the war was near and they feared that they would be punished by the Allies for crimes in the camps.110

The changes among the KL staff were compounded, in the eyes of Camp SS veterans, by the further influx of female staff. By January 1, 1945, there were almost 3,500 female KL guards, reflecting the recent rise in female prisoners. Like most of the new male guards, these women differed from previous recruits. In the early war years, many female guards had volunteered for service in the camps. But from 1943, the authorities increasingly relied on pressure and coercion, drafting women from labor exchanges or directly from the factories where female prisoners would be deployed.111 Though the SS rejected some of these women as unsuitable (just as it sent back a number of soldiers), it could not afford to be too demanding. Evidence of ideological commitment, for example, was no essential requirement, and only a fraction of female KL guards were members of the Nazi Party.112

The mass influx of new staff in 1944 damaged the Camp SS self-image beyond repair. The propaganda picture of an elite troop of political soldiers was finally destroyed by the realities of total war. Theodor Eicke’s principles for recruitment and ideologicaltraining had been gradually abandoned ever since 1939, and they were entirely obsolete by late 1944. Instead of bright-eyed SS volunteers, many guards were elderly soldiers who had been drafted into the camps; instead of proven fanatics, the KL employed thousands of women not even eligible for SS membership; and instead of the pride of Germany, there were masses of foreign guards. Eicke’s veterans were now in a tiny minority, especially inside satellite camps.113

There was plenty of grumbling among the new KL recruits, although tellingly, their discontent largely centered on the rigors of their job, not the fate of the prisoners. They complained about their tedious and regimented lives, their cramped and primitive quarters, and their long hours. The SS was a “club of sadists,” the former airman Stefan Pauler wrote in a letter from Ellrich in January 1945, furious about being denied leave. In a glaring breach of protocol, a few female guards even lodged official complaints about their working conditions with SS superiors. More commonly, dissatisfied recruits kept their heads down and sought diversions. “Sunday we received a bottle of wine for 3.80 Mark,” Stefan Pauler noted in November 1944. “I drank it up immediately.”114

On paper, most new recruits became SS members, with some important exceptions (notably female guards and navy personnel). But in practice, sharp divisions remained between the newcomers and the more experienced staff. By no means were all former soldiers eager to swap their military uniforms for the black clothing of the SS. When old SS uniforms were eventually handed out in Ellrich, Stefan Pauler complained that they made ex-soldiers like himself look “like clowns.” And Pauler and other military men still stood apart, since they had to wear special insignia on their uniforms to distinguish them from the Camp SS proper. Even an eager supporter of the Nazi regime like Hugo Behncke saw himself primarily as a soldier and kept his distance, admitting privately that the SS colleagues were “at times very unpleasant.”115

The distrust between former soldiers and hardened Camp SS men was mutual. SS veterans mocked the newcomers as clueless and frail, and worried that their disciplinary failings might cause prisoner escapes or uprisings. Not only did the soldiers engage in conversations with prisoners, blasted Richard Glücks, they even showed them “pity,” failing to realize that “every prisoner is an enemy of the state and has to be treated as such.”116 To counter such dangerous tendencies, Glücks looked to the local SS men from department VI. An add-on to KL Commandant Staff since 1941–42, these offices for staff instruction came into their own in 1944. Instead of indoctrination, however, the emphasis was put on basic KL duties, and even such practical lessons were often dropped in favor of entertainment, designed to distract the staff from their daily drudgery and gloomy future.117

There was a kernel of truth in the vociferous SS complaints about the new recruits. Compared to experienced Camp SS men, some former soldiers really did treat prisoners a little better.118 The abbé Jacques Boca, imprisoned in the Wolfsburg-Laagberg satellite camp of Neuengamme, noted in a secret diary how his life had improved after the new camp leader, a former army captain, set up a special barrack for recuperating prisoners: “I spend wonderful days there,” he wrote. “I don’t freeze, I don’t work.”119 Even the treatment of Jewish prisoners, the pariahs of the KL, could be affected. Years after the war, Efim K. still remembered his astonishment when a former German colonel in the Vaivara satellite camp Aseri led him and other prisoners to a table laden with food, and said: “Now dig in, my children, I think you need it.”120

While individual inmates benefited, the overall impact of the deployment of former soldiers on prisoner lives in satellite camps was surprisingly small. Like main camps, these sites were largely characterized by destitution and abuse, raising the crucial question of how the spirit of the Camp SS was exported to the satellite camps. Apparently, the key role was played by a small group of experienced officials, mostly Camp SS veterans. Even though these men were vastly outnumbered by new recruits, they filled most of the top positions inside the new satellites (just as they did in the Commandant Staff of main camps). Supported by trusted Kapos from main camps, these veterans ruled life inside. They had internalized the values of the Camp SS and knew that satellite camps offered unique career prospects, with more power and pay. Even NCOs could become camp leaders ruling over thousands of prisoners—as long as they ruled with terror.

Camp SS veterans initiated some new recruits by ordering them to perform violent acts. More often, the process of hardening was gradual, and like other guards before them, many newcomers became accustomed to the inverted morality of the KL. After several months as a guard, Hugo Behncke, who rarely mentioned the inmates in his letters home to his wife, made a telling throwaway remark about a recent invalid transport from his satellite to the Neuengamme main camp, describing the prisoners as dirty, sick, and stupid skeletons: “all they were good for was incineration in the Neuengamme crematorium.” It required moral fiber to resist the corrosive effects of daily immersion in extreme KL terror. “Worst of all,” the unusually self-aware Private Stefan Pauler wrote to his mother in mid-January 1945, “one becomes completely apathetic here with all these figures of human misery.”

All that was required for the system to function was for the new KL staff to perform their basic tasks. They may have sometimes done their jobs less brutally than seasoned SS men, but they still did them. In his last long letter to his wife, in early April 1945, Hugo Behncke explained that the best thing was to hope for a German victory, “put one’s head in the sand,” and “continue to fulfill my duty here as a guard.”121 The overall conclusion is chilling: the KL system did not require a vast army of political soldiers, as Theodor Eicke had assumed. In the satellite camps, a small band of Camp SS veterans, deeply committed to violence, was enough to sweep along a much larger group of more ordinary men and women. This highlights one of the most striking aspects about the KL toward the end: the terror continued even as the SS presence diminished.

Production and Construction

Since the beginnings of the KL system, the fate of individual prisoners had been shaped by the work details they found themselves in. Conditions could vary enormously and prisoners were forever scheming to escape the worst jobs or to hold on to more desirable ones. The contrast between labor details became even greater during the war. Moving to another detail was often the difference between life and death, and crucially, so was moving to another camp.

Measured against satellite camps geared toward production, those concentrating on construction generally proved more lethal. The great mass of unskilled slaves in relocation camps was regarded as expendable; during building work, the authorities pushed for maximum output at minimal expenditure, expecting many prisoners to die. The smaller number of prisoners in production, by contrast, were often skilled, and replacing them cost more time and effort. As a result, they could hope for less abuse, more food, and better medical care. A former prisoner of Lütjenburg—a small Neuengamme satellite camp, set up in autumn 1944, where two hundred highly trained prisoners worked on compasses for V2 rockets—later said that conditions had been “like in a sanatorium” compared to other KL.122

Production camps were far from benign, of course. Lodgings were poor and slave labor was strenuous, especially in low-skilled posts such as transportation. Neither was there sufficient food. “The soup in Buchenwald was wonderful, compared to the one here,” the French resistance fighter Robert Antelme wrote about his transfer to the Gandersheim satellite camp in autumn 1944, where some five hundred prisoners made fuselages for Heinkel fighter planes. “Hunger spread slowly and stealthily,” he noted, “and now we are possessed by it.” In some production camps, death rates rivaled those of construction camps, especially from late 1944 onward.123

Nonetheless, there were often stark differences, leading to a functional division of satellite camps. This division was particularly obvious inside the Dora complex. Here, the SS normally separated new arrivals in the main camp; a small proportion of skilled and strong prisoners were picked for production jobs, while most others were sent to construction details. Prisoners were continually reexamined, and as they weakened they were shunted to camps with worse conditions. In this way, a prisoner might start out in a more desirable production detail in the main camp; as he became exhausted, and less productive, he was sent as a construction worker to a satellite camp; here, the SS tried to press the last remaining labor power out of him, before sending him to yet another camp (or compound) for the dying. As a result, most prisoners at the Dora complex went through more than one camp, and with each move, they came closer to death.124

For thousands of Dora prisoners, the final station was the construction camp in Ellrich. The camp—also known as Ellrich-Juliushütte or “Erich,” its SS camouflage name—had been hastily established in early May 1944, less than ten miles north of Dora.125Always overcrowded, Ellrich quickly held eight thousand men and more, almost twice as many as the surrounding town. Set up on the grounds of two derelict gypsum factories, the site was practically uninhabitable. Everything was covered in mud as soon as it rained, and prisoners had to sleep in wrecked buildings and huts, initially without a roof. There were no sanitary facilities to speak of and the latrines became “a veritable cesspool,” a French survivor later wrote. The infirmary was added late and little effort was made to keep prisoners alive; the occasional operations were carried out with dirty instruments and medicine apparently ran out altogether in early 1945.126

In summer 1944, a regular day in Ellrich started at 3:20 a.m., when prisoners were woken for the first roll call. Two hours later, they were taken in boxcars to building sites, mostly nearby tunnels for SS relocation projects. Here they toiled for thirteen hours, from 6:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. (with a one-hour break), longer than in any other Dora camp. Many men worked deep inside the tunnels, sometimes barefoot. Afterward, they often waited for hours for trains back to Ellrich. This delay, following a grueling day of labor,“was for me personally perhaps the most terribly sad thing I have ever lived through, the most extreme point, not of suffering, but of human distress,” the French survivor Jean-Henry Tauzin wrote in 1945. When the prisoners finally returned to Ellrich, often late at night, they had to endure another roll call; at best, they could hope for five hours’ sleep on crammed bunks and filthy sacks of straw. Few lasted longer than eight weeks working underground.127

Having already written off the Ellrich prisoners, the SS withheld vital supplies. There were chronic shortages of prisoner clothing. Vilmos Jakubovics, a seventeen-year-old Hungarian Jew who arrived in August 1944, never once received fresh clothing during almost eight months in the camp: “We were stiff with dirt and terribly lice-ridden.” By autumn 1944, many prisoners were naked and covered themselves with thin blankets. The SS bureaucrats in Ellrich duly added a new category to their internal prisoner statistics—“Without Clothing.” In the unheated barracks, inmates often awoke with icy limbs; some froze to death. Others starved to death. Prisoners sometimes went for days without their small ration of bread, with food consisting of no more than coffee substitute and watery soup; on average, they received just eight hundred calories a day and went almost insane with hunger.128

The hell of Ellrich was completed by violent excesses. Almost all guards were former airmen, but the camp was dominated by a handful of hard-line SS men who surpassed one another in brutality, forever hitting, kicking, and beating prisoners. One of the camp leaders was Karl Fritzsch, the self-declared inventor of the Auschwitz gas chambers; by the time he arrived in Ellrich in summer 1944, he was one of the most experienced Camp SS men. Following Fritzsch’s departure in autumn 1944, the dominant figure was camp compound leader Otto Brinkmann, another veteran who proved no less cruel. On one occasion, he forced a prisoner to cut off the testicles from a corpse and eat them, garnished with pepper and salt. “I just wanted to find out,” Brinkmann said after the war, “if something like that was possible.”129

Ellrich was all about labor and death. During several months, it had the highest mortality rate within the Dora camp complex and the mass death of its inmates was clearly part of SS calculations. After all, the SS selected prisoners for Ellrich who were already exhausted; the only thing they were still good for, in the eyes of the SS, was a short spell of ruinous labor. “Irreversibly, one [prisoner] after the other has the mark of death branded on the forehead,” an inmate noted in his secret diary on December 26, 1944. By then, some three thousand Ellrich prisoners—almost half of the inmate population—were so ill that they could no longer work at all. In January 1945, more than five hundred Ellrich prisoners died, at a monthly mortality rate of around seven percent. When he had first arrived in Ellrich, Vilmos Jakubovics worked with a group of other Jews from Hungary; “out of these 30 from my hometown,” he testified in summer 1945, “only I stayed alive.”130

Not all construction camps were as infernal as Ellrich.131 Prisoners who moved through several such camps saw major differences. In May 1944, when the sixteen-year-old Hungarian Jew Jenö Jakobovics came to the small satellite camp Erlenbusch, part of the Riese complex, he was probably relieved. Labor was very hard—for twelve hours a day, he worked on a new railway station building—but at least there was food, clothing, and warm water. Conditions were far worse at the nearby Wolfsberg camp, where Jakobovics was transferred in autumn 1944. This was the largest and most important Riese camp, holding 3,012 prisoners on November 22, 1944 (510 of whom were aged between fourteen and eighteen, like Jakobovics). Most had to sleep in flimsy wooden huts and toiled in tunneling and other building work. More than anything, it was the guards’ brutality that shocked Jakobovics: “Here, one aimed directly at the extermination of prisoners.”132 This raises a critical issue, for Wolfsberg was a camp reserved for Jews. As we have seen, most registered Jewish KL prisoners had faced murder through labor in 1942–43. Did this SS approach remain in place during 1944, as the case of Wolfsberg suggests, at a moment when vast numbers of Jews were pressed into the war economy inside Germany?

Nazi Racial Hierarchies

The Third Reich was a racial state and many historians believe that for Nazi leaders, the primacy of racism remained unalloyed to the end.133 Applying this conclusion to the concentration camps, it has been argued that the rigid prisoner hierarchies, based on Nazi ideology, continued to determine the survival of inmates, even as the regime made a last final frantic bid to win the war.134 Recent research paints a more complex picture, however, suggesting that economic pressures started to dilute the full impact of Nazi racial policy, at least temporarily, as the mobilization of the KL system for total war gathered pace.135

The partial “erosion of the ideological,” as the historian Jens-Christian Wagner calls it, was evident in many satellites. In Ellrich, and the Dora complex as a whole, survival rates among French and Belgian prisoners were far lower than those of Gypsies, Poles, and Soviets, despite the fact that the latter occupied an inferior place in the Nazi racial hierarchy.136 Dora was no isolated case. In the Neuengamme satellite camps, too, prisoners from western European countries were often more likely to die than those from eastern Europe.137

What caused this apparent breach of Nazi racial orthodoxy? Two aspects were decisive, it seems. First, there was the time of arrival in satellite camps. In Farge, for example, French prisoners arrived after others had already occupied the key Kapo positions, shutting out the newcomers from life-saving posts.138 Second, a prisoner’s professional background could now count for more than his nationality. French prisoners, in particular, often came from the intelligentsia. Having learned no trade, they were frequently forced into manual labor. A number of Soviet prisoners, by contrast, were skilled and thus more likely to work in production. They were also better equipped to withstand hard work because of their youth, their familiarity with physical labor, and their experience with hunger and shortages back home. The French prisoner Jean-Pierre Renouard recalled a revealing incident at the Neuengamme satellite camp Hanover-Misburg. Ordered to operate a heavy pneumatic drill, he stumbled twice and was beaten unconscious by a furious supervisor; when he came to, a strong and skilled Russian prisoner was doing the job with apparent ease, attracting no blows.139

But there were limits to the ideological flexibility of the SS: economic pressures did not turn prisoner hierarchies upside down. German inmates stayed near the top of the pecking order, while Jewish prisoners largely remained at the bottom, and for them, forced labor still often meant death. The lethal exploitation of Jews in satellite camps was already well established in occupied eastern Europe, and from spring 1944, in the wake of the mass deportations to the German heartland, such SS abuse spread westward. In many mixed KL, the authorities singled out Jews for the worst treatment. “When the Jew swallows too much food,” the SS camp leader of a Neuengamme satellite camp for men is said to have announced, “he becomes fat, lazy, and, in the end, brazen.”140

The SS reserved many new satellites almost entirely for Jews. Mostly, these were deadly construction camps like Kaufering in Upper Bavaria, set up from June 1944. Attached to the Dachau main camp, Kaufering was probably the largest satellite complex for Jewish prisoners within Germany’s prewar borders, with eleven separate camps. Over less than one year, some thirty thousand KL prisoners were taken here, overwhelmingly Jewish men, to work for the Fighter Staff. Prisoners labored in shifts around the clock, largely on the construction of three huge bunkers (two were later abandoned) for aircraft factories; long lines of inmates carrying bags of cement crossed the sprawling building sites, while others worked the cement mixers. Their suffering continued inside the hurriedly thrown-together compounds. Instead of standard-issue barracks, they slept in wooden huts, set up above holes in the ground, with leaking roofs covered by earth; one prisoner likened the conditions to the darkest Middle Ages. A WVHA directive from late 1944, which permitted urgent operations on Jewish prisoners in nearby civilian hospitals (to bolster the slave labor force), went unheeded. Instead, the local authorities cut the rations of the sick. Salamon Fülöp, a young Hungarian Jew, later noted sarcastically that the SS had relied on “starvation cures” to treat the ill; the inmates ate anything they could find, including grass and dry wood. There were also repeated selections; in autumn 1944, for example, more than 1,300 prisoners were deported to the Auschwitz gas chambers. No one knows exactly how many Kaufering inmates died in all, but estimates of almost fifteen thousand dead—around half of those taken to the site—are probably not far off.141

Camp complexes like Kaufering were built on prisoner lives, and for the SS no lives held less value than those of Jews. In many satellite camps, guards continued to indulge in anti-Semitic excesses, seemingly oblivious to the wider economic pressures. As a result, construction camps with Jewish prisoners often had higher death rates than those holding other prisoner groups. This is not the whole story, however. As in the past, some skilled and trained Jewish prisoners were temporarily protected from the worst abuses. Also, senior SS officials did not always send Jews to satellites with the worst conditions. The allocation of slave laborers was often more haphazard, driven not by racial thinking but by the need to fill short-term vacancies. In Neuengamme, for instance, most Jews ended up in production camps, escaping the worst construction sites.142 Evidently, anti-Semitism was not the only factor determining the fate of Jews in satellite camps. And of all the other factors, none proved more decisive than gender.

Gender and Survival

Women in the camp,” Edgar Kupfer noted in his diary in September 1944, after he heard rumors that French women were being detained inside the main Dachau compound: “Unthinkable!”143 German main camps like Dachau, which had previously held no women at all (with the exception of a few forced sex workers in brothels), were suddenly teeming with female prisoners, even if most of them did not stay for long; once they were registered, the SS normally dispatched them to satellite camps for slave labor.144 The mass influx of women into the KL system was accompanied by several concessions. The SS discarded its ban on male and female prisoners working together in arms production, and it relaxed its rules for the supply of slave labor, deferring to industry demands for smaller prisoner details; instead of providing only groups of one thousand or more, the SS reduced the minimum “order” to five hundred in the case of women, paving the way for more requests.145

Female prisoners were held in satellite camps all across Germany. Until summer 1944, the great majority of such camps were attached to Ravensbrück. But as the satellite camps mushroomed, the WVHA simplified their administration. In autumn and winter 1944, the supervision of around half the Ravensbrück satellites, holding some fourteen thousand women, was handed to other main camps (though some links remained, as camps like Buchenwald and Flossenbürg regularly deported “invalid” women back to Ravensbrück). Because these main camps established yet more satellites, the network of female camps continued to expand. By the end of 1944, there must have been well over one hundred satellite camps holding female prisoners; some were reserved for women only, others held male prisoners, too.146 Even in these joint camps, however, male and female prisoners largely lived and worked apart.

The most striking difference between the sexes lay in the survival rates. Male prisoners in satellite camps were far more likely to die than women, bringing to mind the gendered delay in SS terror in the years before 1942.147 It is hard to believe that, as some historians have argued, it was the experience of women as homemakers that put them at a significant advantage over men.148 It is equally unlikely that closer bonds among female prisoners made a decisive difference.149 Far more important was the type of labor inmates had to perform: unlike most men, most women worked in production; in the Ravensbrück satellites, the split between production and construction was around 4:1 among women, and the reverse among men. Companies often preferred women for precision work in arms manufacturing, drafting female prisoners to make munitions, gas masks, warships, and fighter planes.150

These female prisoners also experienced less extreme abuse from fellow inmates and officials. For the most part, the SS authorities felt that they had less to fear from women. Although some officers warned about their cunning nature, the Camp SS was not overly concerned about violent attacks and escapes. This was reflected in staffing levels; proportionally, the SS often deployed more than twice as many guards at satellite camps for men as it did at camps for women.151 Moreover, camp compounds for female prisoners were mostly guarded by women.152 Unlike some male guards, none of them had been brutalized by frontline warfare. And although they often acted harshly and unpredictably, they committed relatively few excesses against female inmates; murderous violence remained the exception.153 The same was true, apparently, for many of the older male reservists drafted as sentries. Female survivors of satellite camps often described these men as rather humane, allowing them extra breaks and additional food. Even some Jewish women recalled former soldiers as acting “very decently,” raising the key issue of anti-Semitic terror in satellite camps for women.154

When it came to survival in satellite camps, gender largely trumped race: Jewish women were often more likely to survive than non-Jewish men.155 True, Jewish women in construction—clearing rubble, swinging pickaxes, digging trenches—often faced terrible odds; more than four thousand women (largely Hungarian Jews) were deported to Kaufering alone, where many joined the men on the deadly building sites.156 The majority of female Jewish KL prisoners in Germany, however, worked in production, just like most other women in 1944, and their chances of survival were much higher.157 Jewish women in the Gross-Rosen satellite camps, for example, who mostly worked in textile and arms production, suffered a death rate of around one percent; by contrast, more than twenty-seven percent of Jewish men perished in the Riese construction camp complex.158 In this way, the manufacture of munitions, weapons, and other goods for the Nazi war effort saved thousands of Jewish women from almost certain death, at least for the time being.

Many Jewish women were held in satellite camps together with groups of other female prisoners, and although they often faced additional abuse, they were not singled out for mass murder. In Leipzig-Schönefeld, a satellite camp of Buchenwald, where more than 4,200 women of different nationalities and backgrounds worked in arms production in autumn 1944, the skilled Jewish prisoners were treated more or less the same as other inmates. One Jewish survivor of Leipzig-Schönefeld recalled that the camp leader, a veteran Camp SS man no less, had assured them on arrival that they would be judged on their performance, not the yellow star on their uniforms.159

Other Jewish women found themselves in production camps reserved solely for Jews. One such camp, for the Siemens-Schuckert works, was set up in mid-October 1944 in Nuremberg, opposite the city’s large southern cemetery. Among the 550 women was Ágnes Rózsa, whom we encountered at the beginning of this chapter. Like Rózsa, the other female prisoners had been deported from Hungary to Auschwitz, and onwards for slave labor to Nuremberg. Held in two barracks surrounded by barbed wire, Ágnes Rózsa and many of the others used precision tools to make electrical goods. In the world of the Nazi camps, this was a privileged detail and the women knew it. “We are no longer threatened by the daily selection or the fear of the gassings,” Ágnes Rózsa wrote on December 6, 1944. “I was dead in Auschwitz,” she added a few weeks later. “Only here in Nuremberg, as I started to work, was I reborn.” Forced labor was strenuous—Rózsa worked up to fifteen hours a day—but not geared toward destruction. Living conditions were pitiful—prisoners sometimes shook with hunger and cold—but not lethal. Violence was common—with slaps during work and occasional beatings—but not deadly. This made all the difference for the prisoners. Before the camp was closed down, following an Allied air raid on February 21, 1945, the SS recorded no more than three deaths.160

For most female Jewish prisoners, then, transfer to a satellite camp far inside Germany was an improvement.161 But these women only made up a small proportion of all imprisoned Jews. Far more were murdered in Auschwitz as “unfit for labor.” Talking to Hitler on April 26, 1944, about the deportations of Hungarian Jews, Joseph Goebbels concluded: “If anything, the Führer’s hatred of Jews has grown, not diminished … Wherever we can get our hands on them, they won’t escape retaliation.”162 As for those Jewish women and men selected for slave labor, one should not forget that Nazi leaders had been swayed by short-term economic or strategic considerations before.163 Such exceptions did not alter the fundamentals of Nazi anti-Jewish policy, and the survival of some Jews as forced laborers in satellite camps in 1944 was meant to be a temporary stay of execution only.164 The prisoners themselves were well aware of their perilous existence. “When all is said and done,” Ágnes Rózsa wrote in her diary on December 22, 1944, “I am only alive because at the moment no one wants to kill me.”165


Fritz Güntsche was ashamed and angry. Looking back in 1951 at the last years of the Third Reich, the Nordhausen teacher attacked the willful amnesia of his fellow citizens, who often feigned ignorance about the violent history of the nearby Dora concentration camp. “Whoever says that kind of thing is lying!” Güntsche bristled. What about the prisoners who had marched right through the town? What about the corpses driven toward Buchenwald? What about the prisoners who had worked with locals in factories and on building sites? All this was proof enough, Güntsche wrote, “that we knew something about the Dora camp and its browbeaten inhabitants! We did not interfere with things there, we did not dare to kick against the pricks. We are responsible for what happened there.” A lone voice drowned out in the stubborn silence about Nazi crimes that enveloped much of Germany in the early 1950s—his unpublished manuscript was kept under lock and key in an East German archive—Güntsche pointed to the many ways in which the camps had become public toward the end of the Third Reich.166 As more and more satellite camps spread across the country, a vast number of Germans had witnessed the crimes committed in their name. And it was not only the German population that learned more about the camps; the Allies, too, saw SS terror more clearly than ever before.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

The KL were never cut off from the outside world, least of all from the communities surrounding them. Having tried to isolate the camps in the late 1930s, the SS could not stop them from becoming more transparent again after the war started. It could not hide completely the murder of Soviet POWs and other Nazi victims, as columns of starved prisoners marched toward the camps, followed by telltale smoke from inside. “The chimney of the crematorium,” a Dachau woman recalled after the war, “stank and stank, day and night.”167 Another local point of contact was slave labor. In theory, the SS still tried to stop onlookers; any spectators who failed to disperse, Dachau sentries were instructed around 1942, should be dragged before the camp authorities.168 But such rules were already impossible to fully enforce in the early 1940s, as the outside deployment of prisoners increased (well before the proliferation of satellite camps).169 Often, the initiative for such employment had come from local officials and traders. Farmers, in particular, petitioned concentration camps for help with the harvest, a well-established custom in state prisons. One of these farmers was Gretel Meier from Flossenbürg, who asked the commandant in June 1942 for “approval of a prisoner mowing detail of four prisoners” because “my husband is at the front” (the request was granted by the WVHA). Shortages among agricultural workers led the SS to rent out sizable numbers of prisoners; in autumn 1942, around thirteen percent of female prisoners from Ravensbrück worked locally in farming.170

Occasionally, KL prisoners also worked for small companies, local towns, and cities.171 Their presence grew from autumn 1942 onward, following Himmler’s decision to deploy the new SS Building Brigades to clear rubble and ruins. In their striped uniforms—long associated in the public mind with criminality—the prisoners were highly visible, as were SS abuses. The former inmate Fritz Bringmann recalled an unusual incident on the streets of Osnabrück in late 1942. As an SS man battered an unconscious prisoner, a woman stepped from the crowd that had gathered, placed herself before the prisoner, and berated the SS man; later that evening, the prisoners talked excitedly about this intervention as proof that there were still Germans “who had not forgotten the difference between humanity and inhumanity.”172

In the minds of the vast majority of Germans, however, the camps and their prisoners remained abstractions during the early years of the war. Direct contacts with prisoners were rare, as were references in the press; even the foundation of a large new camp like Auschwitz was suppressed in local and regional papers.173 Of course, the KL system was not altogether forgotten. It made occasional appearances in public speeches and popular culture. In the 1941 Great German Art Exhibition in Munich, for example, a large oil painting depicted dozens of KL prisoners—recognizable by their caps, uniforms, and colored triangles—who slaved in the Flossenbürg quarry (the painting was acquired for four thousand Reichsmark in Hitler’s name).174 Local Nazi bigwigs also still threatened “troublemakers” with the camps, so much so that Himmler issued a formal warning in summer 1942. The German people were too decent, he insisted, to put up with constant threats of such harsh punishment.175 And yet, most Germans still pushed the concentration camps to the backs of their minds, just as they had done in the late 1930s. When they thought about the inmates at all, they probably imagined dangerous criminals and other enemies of the state—an image so firmly entrenched by now that it often endured long into the postwar years.176

The role of the camps in the Nazi Final Solution did not fully penetrate public consciousness, either. To be sure, the secrecy surrounding the genocide in Auschwitz was never as complete as the perpetrators wanted.177 Knowledge must have been particularly widespread within SS circles. After Dr. Johann Paul Kremer participated in his first selection in September 1942, he noted in his diary: “It is not for nothing that Auschwitz is called the camp of annihilation!”178 Beyond the SS, some regular German soldiers witnessed the crimes in Auschwitz, and by 1944, several senior army officers were well aware that mass gassings were carried out here.179 Railway workers and other state employees gained insights, too. In January 1943, Germany’s top legal officials—who had kept some distance from the KL in the prewar years—toured the Auschwitz camp, led by Reich minister of justice Thierack.180 Many local civilians, too, had some knowledge of the mass murder in the nearby camp. Indeed, rumors spread across the whole region, though the main victims were sometimes thought to be Poles, not Jews.181 Through friends and relatives, and Allied radio broadcasts, word about Auschwitz carried inside the Reich. As for German Jews who had not yet been deported, the reports about the death of friends and acquaintances left little doubt in the minds of some that Auschwitz was “a fast-working slaughterhouse,” as Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary on October 17, 1942.182 Despite all this, Auschwitz was no household name across Nazi Germany. While many ordinary Germans had some general knowledge of the mass murder of European Jews in the east, they mainly heard about massacres and shootings, not about camps. Most Germans only learned about Auschwitz after the war.183

Such ignorance owed much to the Nazi authorities’ strenuous efforts to hush up KL crimes. Camp SS officials were banned from sending blood-soaked prisoner clothes by regular mail, lest a packet spill open, and from sending death notices to relatives of deceased Soviet forced laborers, after rumors about the high mortality in the camps had spread in the occupied east.184 In addition, the SS began to use a secret code for disguising the number of deaths recorded by camp registry offices, so as not to arouse suspicion.185 As for public gossip, the Nazi authorities probably regretted a Gestapo order of October 1939 that had encouraged the spread of “rumor propaganda” about hardships inside the KL to increase their “deterrent effect.”186 In fact, public talk about violence and murder was still punished. Loose-tongued Camp SS officials were let off most lightly, though even they sometimes faced imprisonment. Others were less fortunate. After a Hanover dentist, a Nazi Party member since 1931, told a patient in summer 1943 that he deplored the “medieval torture methods” in concentration camps and the murder of a million Jews, he was sentenced to death by a German court.187

To control popular knowledge about the KL, the Nazi authorities continued to enforce stringent rules about prisoner access to the outside world. Letters, which could be posted at best every two weeks (many prisoner groups wrote less often or were barred altogether), were still rigorously controlled. They had to be written in legible German—shutting out most foreign prisoners—and any references to illness, slave labor, and camp life were strictly prohibited. Often, the inmates were even forbidden to mention the fact that they were in a concentration camp.188

Despite their enforced blandness, the letters still mattered to prisoners, as did the eagerly awaited replies they sometimes received; knowledge that their loved ones were alive proved a source of great strength. “I read [your letter] again and again,” Chaim Herman of the Birkenau Special Squad wrote in November 1944 in a final note meant for his wife and daughter in France, “and won’t part from it until my last breath.”189 Meanwhile, prisoners continued to subvert the SS rules. Some allusions—such as questions about how “Uncle Winston” was getting on—were so obvious that only dim-witted censors could overlook them. Other references were more subtle, requiring knowledge of foreign cultures. “Mrs. Halál [“death” in Hungarian] is very busy here,” Alice Bala wrote from Birkenau in July 1943.190 Some prisoners even managed to smuggle secret messages outside, in which they expressed themselves more openly. In his last letter from Auschwitz, written in April 1943, just three months before his death, twenty-year-old Janusz Pogonowski told his family that his best friend had recently been shot dead, and pleaded for more packages from home because “my current food situation is in a very bad way.”191 Messages such as this fed rumors on the outside about the concentration camps. Other details came from former prisoners, following their return from the camps.

Release and “Probation”

Hopes of KL inmates of being freed had faded as soon as war broke out. In autumn 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered that prisoners should normally not be released from protective custody during wartime. Exceptions may be allowed, he added, but police officialshad to make sure that no committed political activists, dangerous criminals, or “particularly asocial elements” were freed.192 And just a few months later, as we saw, Heinrich Himmler put a stop to releases of Jews, an order implemented almost to the letter. According to top-secret SS statistics drawn up for Himmler, only a single Jewish inmate was released from Auschwitz between June 1940 and December 1942.193

And yet, there was no complete ban on prisoner releases. In 1940, for example, 387 women were discharged from Ravensbrück and 2,141 men from Sachsenhausen. This was only a small proportion of the prisoner population in these camps, but it was enough to keep alive the dreams of others trapped inside.194 Among the lucky few were individual German prisoners wearing green, black, and red triangles, as well as some foreign prisoners, including Czechs and Poles; one of the largest releases came on February 8, 1940, when one hundred professors from Krakow University were freed with Himmler’s agreement, following significant foreign pressure.195 Some released German men were drafted straight into the army. Since summer 1939, prisoners eligible for army service had been examined by military commissions inside the KL, and could be called up upon their release, to the disbelief of the new recruits themselves.196

Releases became even rarer from 1942 onward, as police fears about crime and insurrection redoubled. According to SS figures, an average of around eight hundred prisoners a month were released from the KL system during the second half of 1942.197 At times, releases came to an almost complete standstill. In the first week of November 1943, for instance, just three of over thirty-three thousand Buchenwald prisoners were set free.198 Mass releases, meanwhile, rather common in the prewar KL, stopped almost altogether. One of the few exceptions was the quick release of former democratic functionaries rounded up in summer 1944 during Operation Thunderstorm. The police authorities let most of the prisoners go after a few weeks, following some popular disquiet and criticism, coming even from senior Nazi officials, about the seemingly arbitrary arrests of elderly Germans who had not been involved in any oppositional activities.199

Not all released KL prisoners actually won their freedom: several thousand men were sent to the Special Formation Dirlewanger, a notorious SS unit that turned some former prisoners into killers. The Dirlewanger Formation had been set up in 1940, after Hitler ordered the creation of a special unit of poachers held in state prisons for illegally hunting wild animals. In May and June 1940, dozens were transported for training to Sachsenhausen (more followed in 1942). The small force was led by its eponymous commander Oskar Dirlewanger, one of the most odious characters in the pantheon of SS villains, who had already attracted attention for his avid criminal appetite, which ranged from extreme political violence to embezzlement and sex crimes. As commander of his own SS unit, he now branched out into pillage, rape, and massacres, specializing in the killing of defenseless civilians in the occupied east.200

During 1943–44, around two thousand German KL prisoners joined the ranks of the Dirlewanger Formation, which grew into a larger SS force. They included so-called asocial and criminal prisoners (among them several homosexuals who had recently been castrated because of their “degenerate sex drive”). Not all of them were keen to exchange the familiar surroundings of the KL for the unknown dangers of the front. “By then, we had it reasonably well in the camp,” one veteran “criminal” prisoner later wrote, “and we could have just waited for the war to end.” Some were soon sent back to the KL; others went into hiding or joined the partisans. But the majority entered one of the Third Reich’s darkest areas, which erased the difference between victim and perpetrator. Having suffered for years as social outcasts in the camps, these men now fought for the Nazi cause and committed dreadful crimes, and yet remained subject to SS violence themselves. Dirlewanger deployed extreme terror against his men (Himmler spoke approvingly of “medieval” methods against “our camp ne’er-do-wells”), and deployed the former prisoners as cannon fodder. The “blood sacrifices” of “incriminated people,” Himmler believed, would spare the lives of a good few “German boy[s].”201

One of the casualties was thirty-five-year-old Wilhelm K. from Munich. A destitute father of five who had started poaching to support his family, he had been imprisoned in Dachau since 1942, following a prison sentence. Despite his Communist sympathies and his hatred of the SS, he saw no choice but to join the Dirlewanger Formation in summer 1944. “You and the children,” he wrote to his wife in a secret letter in late August, “need decent support and for the time being I have no other option but to join up, so don’t be angry, sweetheart.” Just a few weeks later Wilhelm K. was killed during the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, in which the Dirlewanger Formation played a savage part.202

In autumn 1944, the first political prisoners entered the ranks of the Dirlewanger Formation. Desperate to shore up German defenses, Himmler was now willing to deploy open enemies of the regime like German Communists, straight from the KL. The prisoners were rounded up through a mixture of false promises and coercion. Many were dismayed about their fate, as were fellow inmates who stayed behind. “I could have cried when I saw them like this,” Edgar Kupfer wrote in his Dachau diary after meeting former comrades dressed in SS uniforms, complete with the Death’s Head insignia. In mid-November 1944, almost eight hundred former KL prisoners arrived in Slovakia to join the Dirlewanger Formation. Most aimed to escape as soon as possible, and they succeeded faster than they could have hoped. Within a month, almost two-thirds had crossed over to the Red Army—probably the largest desertion by German troops up to this point in the war. But the euphoria about their flight from the SS was short-lived: most of the escaped German anti-Fascists ended up in Soviet forced labor camps, where many of them would die.203

Close Encounters

When Himmler told German generals on May 24, 1944, about the deportations of Hungarian Jews to the Third Reich, he insisted that ordinary Germans would remain oblivious. The SS would lock these prisoners away as invisible slaves in underground factories. “Not one of them,” Himmler pledged, “will somehow end up in the field of vision of the German people.”204 But the old SS policy of concealing KL sites—never entirely successful—was unworkable by 1944, thanks to the huge rise in inmate numbers and satellites. Whether Himmler wanted it or not, his camp system became enmeshed in the fabric of German society. In the Linz region, for example, the sprawl of the Mauthausen complex meant that there would eventually be one prisoner for every five inhabitants.205

The closest contacts came during forced labor, as most KL prisoners worked near, and under, German civilians. In Dora, the production of V2 rockets in summer 1944 involved five thousand concentration camp prisoners and three thousand German workers, many of them locals.206 One of the Dora prisoners, the French student Guy Raoul-Duval, later tried to summarize the attitude of these German workers:

Some of them were swine, some were good men, but most often they were stupid bastards, not really malicious but fierce, worn out by an interminable war,… terrorized by the police and the engineers, profoundly weary, and convinced of the inevitability of the Reich’s defeat, yet not resigned to believing the disaster was imminent, and thus continuing, out of habit, the pace they had acquired.207

Among the minority of German civilian workers described as “swine” by Raoul-Duval would have been those supervisors who basked in their powers. They did not even have to lay hands on prisoners; more often than not, they used Kapos as their enforcers. Still, some supervisors joined in themselves, especially in construction camps, where prisoner lives came particularly cheap. Occasionally, the violence became so pervasive that managers issued written prohibitions to their staff: if prisoners stepped out of line, employees should report them instead of beating them.208Denunciations to the SS were indeed frequent and could result in swift punishment—as in the Hanover-Misburg satellite camp, where a Belgian and a French prisoner were summarily executed in early 1945 after a German worker complained to the Camp SS supervisor that his sandwich had been stolen.209

There were also German civilian workers who came to the aid of prisoners, providing food and other supplies (though this did not stop them from acting more obediently on other occasions).210 Some of these Germans acted out of self-interest, making profitable deals with desperate prisoners on the black market.211 Others were moved by kindness. The stench of the camps did not rub off on everyone who touched them; just as some workers hardened over time, others softened as they came to know individual prisoners.212A few even defended prisoners against SS suspicions. When the Auschwitz SS accused a Jewish inmate of sabotage because he had ruined precious metal parts by drilling to the wrong depth, his German foreman explained the incident away as an innocent mistake by an otherwise “reliable worker.”213 Most famously, and most exceptionally, the German businessman Oskar Schindler helped to save hundreds of lives, by securing better working conditions for Jewish prisoners in his metal wares and munitions plant, and by protecting them from extermination, first at the Plaszow satellite camp Zablocie (established on the grounds of his factory), and then, following the relocation of the business and many of its prisoners in autumn 1944, at a new satellite camp in Brünnlitz in Moravia (attached to Gross-Rosen).214

Beyond terror and support, there was distance and detachment. These were no doubt the most common reactions among the civilian workers. “In fact, we are the untouchables to the civilians,” Primo Levi wrote about his encounters with German workers around Monowitz.215 Uncomfortable about the prisoners’ proximity, many civilians tried to ignore the wretched figures in striped uniforms; they literally learned to overlook the inmates. At Gandersheim, Robert Antelme once cleaned the floor in an office full of local men and women. “I did not exist for them,” he later wrote. One of the men shifted automatically as Antelme picked up a piece of paper next to him. “The German pulled back his foot, in the way you shoo away a fly from your forehead when asleep, without waking up.” Only one woman could not look away; she stared at Antelme and became increasingly agitated. “I weighed on her, I made her lose her composure. Had I brushed against the sleeve of her blouse, she would have been sick.”216

Such anxieties were fed by prejudice toward members of enemy nations in general and KL prisoners in particular; in the eyes of many German workers, the sight of the shaven-headed and disease-ridden prisoners simply confirmed the stereotypes of Nazi propaganda. The Camp SS added fuel to the flames, warning civilians that the male prisoners really were dangerous criminals and the women prostitutes ravaged by sexual disease.217 Cultural differences, with the bulk of foreign prisoners unable to speak German, only heightened suspicions. Linguistic barriers were not insurmountable, however. At the Continental rubber works in Hanover, where German civilians worked next to political prisoners in the production of gas masks, the hatred of dictators provided common ground. “Hitler Scheiβe,” some German workers said. “Stalin Scheiβe,” came the prisoners’ reply.218

Any such collusion was strictly outlawed, of course. Managers warned employees that private conversations with prisoners were forbidden, on Himmler’s personal orders; all those who broke the rule would themselves end up in protective custody.219 These threats were mostly about deterrence, no doubt, but the authorities did back them up with occasional sanctions: a number of German workers really were arrested for talking to prisoners.220 Even harsher punishment—including detention in Gestapo camps—hit German civilians caught smuggling letters for prisoners or giving them food and drink. As early as February 1942, the Sachsenhausen commandant Hans Loritz informed his officials that he had recently handed over to the Gestapo several civilian workers guilty of such offenses. The remaining workers, Loritz insisted, had to “regard each prisoner as an enemy of the state.”221 In turn, many civilians learned to keep their heads down.

But indifference was a major factor, as well. Many civilian workers lost no sleep over the prisoners’ plight. They were used to foreigners being exploited for the German economy, with KL prisoners merely the latest contingent in a much larger army of forced workers. More generally, death and destruction were all around as the war raged on, a war in which many Germans saw themselves as victims, suffering rationing, bombing raids, and fatalities at the front. Preoccupied with their own struggles, many civilian workers had no time for the fate of prisoners.222 This was true for other ordinary Germans, too. “If I remember correctly, I did not think much at all, however pathetic that may sound,” a German man later described his feelings as a young soldier, when he had seen some SS men and prisoners at Auschwitz in late 1944. “You wondered about what will happen to you, and had no feeling for others.”223

Camps in the Community

Redl-Zipf was a sleepy town in a valley of the Upper Austrian countryside, made up of farms and cottages with pretty gardens and orchards, surrounded by open fields and wooded hills. The rural idyll was abruptly shattered in autumn 1943, when the test range for V2 rockets was set up in the mountains nearby. Heavy machinery and high-tech matériel arrived, new concrete buildings were erected, cables and rails were laid, and engine tests caused deafening blasts and tremors. Then there were all the prisoners from the new satellite camp, established just a few hundred yards outside town. Their torment was not hidden from residents, who often watched them marching to and from the camp, and there was plenty of talk about torture and death among engineers, construction workers, secretaries, and SS men, many of whom were quartered with local families. Even the camp itself was not out of bounds: some local children climbed on trees and peered inside. In short, one resident later said, “all the Zipfer knew what was going on.”224

Similar scenes unfolded in many German towns and villages where satellite camps sprang up late in the war. These camps became part of the local landscape, sharing in the social, administrative, and economic life. Businessmen offered their services, waiters attended to SS men, and local registry officials recorded prisoner deaths. Whether dead or alive, the prisoners could not be overlooked. Some locals could see into the camps, as could some relatives of SS guards; during her visits to the Neuengamme satellite camp Salzgitter-Watenstedt in September and November 1944, the wife of Hugo Behncke caught repeated glimpses of the inmates. Even more encounters took place on the streets outside, as prisoner columns moved past houses and shops. Some details worked in the middle of local communities, clearing snow or rubble from homes and businesses, railway stations, and churches. Open abuse was common, as SS men saw few reasons anymore to hide their brutality. The mass death of prisoners was an open secret, too, as the dead were often taken away in plain sight. In fact, some residents had to assist the SS. In Bisingen, local coachmen were ordered to cart corpses from the satellite camp (part of the Natzweiler complex) to mass graves. “One day, I had to drive 52 dead from the camp to be buried,” an elderly man testified after the war; he even knew which of the prisoners had been executed, as blood would leak from their wooden coffins.225

In larger German cities, too, KL prisoners became a visible presence. Once again, neighbors living next to the hastily erected compounds gained direct insights. The Buchenwald satellite camp Magda, for example, was established on the edge of a residential area in Magdeburg-Rothensee; from their windows and balconies, residents looked straight into the camp, while their children played next to the electric fence.226 Satellite camps were scattered all across most major German cities. In Munich, there were at least nineteen such camps by autumn 1944, ranging from tiny sites to huge ones like Allach with more than 4,700 inmates; in addition, at least ten prisoner bomb-clearing squads roamed the city.227 It was the same in other large cities. “If one traveled past slowly in the S-Bahn,” recalled a Düsseldorf citizen, who had frequently spotted, from his suburban train, a column of prisoners marching to their camp, “one saw, whether one wanted to or not, the faces of the wretches, their skulls shaved clean, yellowish and emaciated to the bone.”228

Public reactions to such encounters with the KL were mixed, resembling responses by German civilian workers. Some onlookers, including children, were openly hostile, taunting and swearing at prisoners who marched through the streets. Occasionally, a mob would form and throw sticks and stones. When a group of boys strolled past a building site in Hanover-Misburg in summer 1944 and spotted Jean-Pierre Renouard taking a quick rest from the backbreaking labor, one boy stepped forward and lashed out, egged on by the rest of his gang.229 Other civilians, by contrast, helped the prisoners. In exceptional cases, they supported underground activities in the KL.230 More often, locals left some food for prisoners, sometimes using their children as go-betweens. Ella Kozlowski, a Hungarian Jew forced to clear debris in Bremen, told an interviewer decades later how a German passerby and her young daughter had hidden a bottle with hot porridge for her, every day for several weeks: “I cannot even begin to tell you what this meant to us.”231The motives behind such charitable acts were manifold and could spring from political, religious, and humanitarian beliefs, or from gratitude to prisoners who had rescued locals trapped under rubble.232

By far the most common reaction of ordinary Germans, however, was indifference. “I am happy when I hear nothing and see nothing of it,” a resident of Melk said, describing her attitude.233 Prisoners were only too aware of this reticence. During encounters with ordinary Germans, they would closely scrutinize their faces and gestures for small signs of sympathy, and were distraught when cautious glances met with evasion. Alfred Groeneveld, a Dutch resistance fighter who was taken to a Buchenwald satellite camp in Kassel in autumn 1943, was struck by the detachment of locals who passed his prisoner detail on the streets: “It seemed as if the people simply did not want to know anything! They looked as little as possible, as if trying to repress the memory in advance!”234

But what was the meaning of this silence? It has been argued that the willed blindness of ordinary Germans marks their complicity in Nazi mass murder, turning them from bystanders into perpetrators.235 But this mistakes the result of public passivity for its cause. Popular acquiescence made SS terror easier, to be sure, but it tells us nothing about the motives behind it, and it certainly does not follow that KL crimes built on popular consent. While popular opinion during the war is difficult to read, it is evident that many Germans felt more than apathy. Plenty of them still supported the camps as institutions. To them, looking away from prisoner abuses was a way of ignoring the unpleasant reality of a policy they agreed with in principle. It also betrayed their fears of the prisoners. Nazi propaganda had been successful in branding prisoners as dangerous criminals, and popular anxieties only increased with the influx of foreigners and the spread of rumors about thefts and murders by escaped inmates, played up by local Nazi newspapers; occasionally, recaptured prisoners were even hanged in public, before the eyes of the population.236

The KL were never universally popular inside Germany, however, and this did not change near the end of Nazi rule. Many Germans were genuinely shocked when they came face-to-face with prisoners for the first time.237 As German defeat became more likely, such moral concerns were fueled by fears of Allied retribution. “God help us, that we won’t suffer vengeance in the same way,” a group of women cried in autumn 1943 when they saw a ghostly procession of Ukrainians from the Dachau railway station to the main camp.238 SS leaders were well aware of the continued unease about the KL. Speaking confidentially to army generals on June 21, 1944, Heinrich Himmler conceded that ordinary Germans thought “very often” about the camps, “greatly pitied” the prisoners inside, and said things like “Oh, the poor people in the concentration camps!”239

Himmler and other Nazi leaders regarded such critical views as seditious. After the failed bomb plot on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, Nazi propaganda made much of the supposed plans of the conspirators to free prisoners from the KL (for good measure, the authorities dragged many family members of the plotters inside, including relatives of Count Stauffenberg, the would-be assassin).240 Many German resisters did indeed oppose and abhor the camps, as is evident from their leaflets and private papers.241 But disquiet about the KL went beyond Germans who fundamentally opposed the Third Reich, and occasionally even reached veteran Nazi supporters.242

So why did such reservations about the camps not translate into greater support for prisoners? Fear was clearly a factor, as SS guards openly threatened Germans who tried to help. And just as in the case of civilian workers, the authorities occasionally followed through; in Mühldorf, for instance, a local woman was arrested in August 1944 after she handed fruit to a group of Jewish prisoners.243 But such cases were rare. After years of Nazi rule, many Germans were fatalistic. Their sense of impotence was summed up by a woman who witnessed exhausted prisoners from Stutthof march to work in summer 1944, driven on by SS guards with whips: “Feeling pity, that was the most one could do.”244 Looking away, then, could be a sign of resignation, too.

The mind-set of many people in Nazi-occupied Europe was different. Although there was plenty of indifference, fear, and collusion, there was far more defiance. The determination to oppose the occupiers was widespread and often led to a clear-cut view of KL prisoners: as victims of the common enemy, they deserved help. Foreign civilian workers, deployed at German factories and building sites, were more likely to come to the prisoners’ aid than their German counterparts.245 POWs, who knew themselves what it meant to fall into Nazi hands, gave some support, as well. Around Monowitz, British soldiers in the local POW camp (set up in autumn 1943) often left some of their Red Cross supplies to KL inmates. Working as a mechanic with a group of British soldiers, the German Jew Fritz Pagel, who spoke a little English, regularly received food from a British gunner; the soldier even wrote to Pagel’s brother in London, at grave danger to himself.246

Local residents near concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe also acted with more courage than their counterparts inside the Third Reich. This was obvious to prisoners from the SS Building Brigades who were transported to satellite camps in occupied France and Belgium in spring and summer 1944 (for setting up launchpads for German rockets). Despite SS threats, many locals gave food, sometimes walking up directly to prisoners in defiance of SS threats. Some residents even supported escaped inmates, offering clothes and shelter; Gerhard Maurer from the WVHA complained that the French population gave “every help possible” to those on the run. Veteran inmates, like the twenty-four-year-old German Jehovah’s Witness Helmut Knöller, were astonished by the generosity of local people in western Europe: “We prisoners had a great life there in Flanders, the most beautiful time in the KL! The Belgian population brought us prisoners everything, tobacco in abundance … bread and fruit, sweets, sugar, milk and so on.” Returning to Germany a few weeks later, in autumn 1944, Knöller was struck by the very different attitude of the local population, which cheered the accompanying troops, not the prisoners.247

Hostility to the KL was most vociferous among the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe—hardly surprising, given the camps’ prominent role in the war on the political underground. As symbols of Nazi terror, the camps were frequently denounced in leaflets and graffiti.248 In Vught, locals are even said to have thrown stones at SS guards.249 Most significant were the systematic efforts to help prisoners, reminiscent of the activities by left-wing activists in Germany during 1933–34, before their networks were destroyed. The Polish Home Army and other resistance organizations managed to smuggle money, food, medication, and clothes to prisoners in Auschwitz. “Thank you for everything. The medicine is priceless,” a Polish inmate wrote to the local underground on November 19, 1942. The SS was well aware of the groundswell of local opposition around Auschwitz. Following the first prisoner escape in summer 1940, Rudolf Höss complained to his superiors about the “fanatically Polish” attitude of the population, which was “ready for any action against the hated SS men.”250 Another mission of the organized resistance was the collection and dissemination of information about the KL. Around Auschwitz, the Polish resistance received a large number of secret messages from prisoners, as well as some documents stolen in the camp. The inmates took enormous risks to gather this material, in the hope that it would reach the wider world.251 Against the odds, some of it did.252

The Allies and the Camps

Sometime in late 1940, British secret service agents at Bletchley Park, some fifty miles north of London, made a breakthrough: they cracked one (or more) of the advanced Enigma keys used by the SS to code radio transmissions. Now the British could eavesdrop on Nazi terror as it unfolded, including the highly sensitive traffic between concentration camps and their Berlin headquarters.253 Over the coming years, British intelligence collected a vast number of decoded messages and, as a look at the material from 1942 reveals, gained astonishing insights into the KL system. The agents could track movements within and between camps, using the daily statistics of prisoner populations; it was clear, for example, that many “unfit” prisoners were sent to Dachau. The messages revealed much about the Camp SS, as well, including staffing levels and transfers, and the influx of ethnic German guards. Regarding the function of the KL, British intelligence was aware of the shift toward slave labor for industry, on Himmler’s personal orders, with major factories under construction around Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and elsewhere. In addition, there were many glimpses of terror inside, with reports on epidemics, corporal punishment, human experiments, executions, and prisoners “shot trying to escape.” As for the place of Auschwitz in the KL system, it was obvious that huge numbers of Jewish prisoners were arriving in what had become a very deadly camp.254 Revealing as all this material was, however, it was fragmentary. Not only did the British miss many SS messages, but the most secret exchanges were not sent by radio at all.255 This meant that the meaning of orders deciphered in Bletchley often remained hazy. It was not immediately obvious, for example, that sick prisoners were sent to Dachau as part of a program of murdering invalids. Neither was it clear that Auschwitz became a destination for the systematic mass extermination of Jews, who were mostly murdered on arrival and hence absent from the figures seen by the British.

To gain a clearer picture, the Allies needed information from other sources, in addition to the decryptions. There was no shortage, even in the early war years, and especially in London, where the British authorities collected more extensive and reliable intelligence than their counterparts in the United States.256 Some accounts of abuses and atrocities in the KL came from British staff abroad.257 But the most telling material arrived via outside agencies, such as Jewish groups and the Polish government-in-exile, which collected and circulated numerous reports from the Polish underground. Though sometimes confused and contradictory, and weighted toward the suffering of the Polish population, these reports added crucial details about the camps—including news about the mass extermination of Jews, with isolated references (especially from 1943) to selections, gas chambers, and crematoria in Auschwitz. The Polish authorities in London not only passed confidential material to the British and other governments, they released some reports directly to the media, resulting in newspaper articles in the United States, Switzerland, Britain, and elsewhere. As early as June 1941, the Times of London carried a brief piece on starvation, slave labor, and murders of Polish prisoners in the “dreaded Oswiecim [Auschwitz] concentration camp.”258

As the war drew to a close, the Allies received ever more detailed reports, especially relating to the Nazi Final Solution. Although Allied governments had been aware since the end of 1942 (at the latest) of the systematic mass extermination of European Jewry, the exact role of Auschwitz and Majdanek in Nazi genocide was not yet fully understood. The famous Allied declaration of December 17, 1942, which publicly denounced the wholesale slaughter of the Jews in eastern Europe, made no direct mention of the KL, referring merely to Jews being worked to death in “labor camps.” And even this declaration was quickly forgotten by senior government officials in Britain and the United States, who questioned the reliability of eyewitness testimony and worried that excessive exposure of Nazi atrocities might detract from the business of fighting the war.259 The magnitude of Nazi criminality took a long time to sink in.

But by 1944, the truth became hard to ignore. To be sure, Allied intelligence was still scattered, which accounts for the continuing confusion about aspects of the KL system.260 And yet, the contours of the KL, above all of Auschwitz itself, came into ever sharper relief. During interrogations, German POWs mentioned mass killings in the camp, and occasionally referred to gassings. German generals secretly recorded in Allied captivity made similar remarks.261 By far the most important information, and also the most recent, came from escaped prisoners. A first detailed report about the slaughter of Hungarian Jews reached Switzerland in mid-June 1944, just four weeks after it had begun. “Never since the foundation of Birkenau,” it concluded with great accuracy, “have so many Jews been gassed.”262

The most influential survivor account came from two Slovakian Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who had been deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and escaped on April 10, 1944. After they had crossed the Slovakian border, they found shelter in the Jewish community in Žilina and completed a sixty-page typed report on the camp. Translated into different languages, it offered a thorough analysis of the Auschwitz complex, outlining its development, layout, and administration, as well as conditions inside. Most critically, Vrba and Wetzler gave a thorough account of Auschwitz as a death camp, detailing the arrival of Jews from across Europe and the selections, gassings, and cremations. The sober tone and the mass of details made the report all the more devastating. Over the coming months, copies were distributed to influential figures in Slovakia and Hungary, and also reached the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, the Vatican, the U.S. War Refugee Board, and several Allied governments. Some conclusions featured prominently in the media in summer 1944, and in the United States, whole extracts of the report by Vrba and Wetzler were published a few months later.263

Given the growing awareness of genocide in Auschwitz, some survivors and historians have since asked why the Allies did not bomb the killing facilities or the tracks leading up to the camp. “Why were those trains allowed to roll unhindered into Poland?” asked Elie Wiesel, who was fifteen years old when he was deported in May 1944 from Hungary to Auschwitz with his parents, his sisters, and his grandmother.264 In fact, bombing raids on Auschwitz had been considered for the first time back in 1941 by the British air force, following a request by the Polish government-in-exile. But such proposals only gathered momentum during the mass murder of Hungarian Jews, following urgent appeals from Jewish leaders in May and June 1944 to bomb Birkenau and the connected railway lines.265 Looking at the Allied response, the lack of urgency is palpable. The USSR showed hardly any interest in the so-called Final Solution, and although the western Allies were more engaged, its military leaders were focused on war strategy—charting the fastest route to victory—not on humanitarian missions. In the end, the pleas were turned down.266

This does not mean that the Allies missed a major chance to halt the Holocaust in summer 1944. Railway tracks and yards were hard to hit and easy to repair, and trains could have been rerouted. And while a direct attack on Birkenau would have carried great symbolic weight, it might not have saved many lives. It would have been technically possible for heavy U.S. bombers to attack the site from around July 1944 (the IG Farben factory near Monowitz, which was seen as a military target, was hit for the first time on August 20), but by this time the vast majority of the deported Jews were dead. Moreover, the bombers’ inaccuracy makes it unlikely that the killing complex could have been hit without causing carnage in the adjacent prisoner compounds; this was a time before real “precision strikes.” But even if such an attack had succeeded, it is hard to see how it would have stopped the mass murder. The determination of Nazi leaders to exterminate the Jews would not have been deflected by bombs on Birkenau (in fact, SS men habitually blamed Jews for Allied air raids and sometimes attacked Jewish prisoners “in retaliation” after KL had been hit). No doubt the SS killers would have found other ways to continue their murderous mission.267 Indeed, they were already doing so. During the genocideof Hungarian Jews, as we have seen, the Auschwitz SS used not only gas chambers and crematoria, but also shootings and open pits; as the Nazi task forces had demonstrated in the Soviet Union in 1941–42, technically sophisticated facilities were not essential for genocide.

Still, the prisoners who escaped from the KL to warn the world did not risk their lives in vain. Growing awareness of Nazi crimes could save lives. The shock waves caused by the account of Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, for example, probably helped to persuade the Hungarian regent Horthy to put an end to the deportations in July 1944.268 More generally, eyewitness reports by prisoners—those who had fled and those still inside—shaped the picture of the KL in the Allied nations. Articles and radio programs based on inmate testimonies helped to dispel some of the indifference and skepticism that existed. By November 1944, at the time the Vrba-Wetzler report was published, most Americans understood that the KL were sites of mass extermination.269 Crucially, reports in the Allied media fed back to the Third Reich, as well. By reading foreign newspapers and listening to enemy broadcasts—with millions secretly tuning in to the BBC—more and more Germans learned about the atrocities in Auschwitz and Majdanek.270 Foreign news even filtered back to the KL. The realization that they had not been forgotten by the outside world gave prisoners new hope, as well as greater determination to resist the SS.271

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