Impossible Choices

One day toward the end of World War II, a few Dachau prisoners made a pact. Determined to show that there was an alternative to the usual strife between inmates, they would act like gentlemen; for a whole day, rough and selfish behavior would give way to civility and compassion, as if they still lived regular lives outside. When the agreed day came, the men tried their hardest to stay true to the ideal of common decency, starting with the scramble to dress, wash, and eat in the morning. By evening, all of them had failed, defeated by the harsh realities of the camp. “The beast inside humans gains the upper hand,” the Belgian resistance fighter and Dachau prisoner Arthur Haulot noted in his diary on January 19, 1945, after he heard about the experiment. “One does not with impunity live so long outside the norm.”1

Although survivors drew many conflicting conclusions about the concentration camps after the war, they agreed that the inmates’ behavior could not be judged by ordinary standards. This had already been the accepted view inside the camps.2 The KL, many prisoners believed, had inverted conventional morality. There were times when charity could become suicidal, and deviance—including murder—could be just. Failure to understand this essential truth and adapt to the law of the camp would prove deadly.3 But what, exactly, was the law of the camp?

Some inmates gave a stark answer: it was the law of the jungle. The conditions caused a relentless battle for goods and positions, they believed, and created an enormous chasm between a small elite, most of them Kapos, and the destitute mass that fought to the death for an extra piece of bread, bedding, or clothing. In this brutish vision, the other prisoners were rivals in the struggle for survival, locked into a war of all against all. Slowly dying in an infernal Neuengamme satellite camp in the last year of the war, an elderly Belgian prisoner wrote a despairing message to his son, himself gravely ill in the infirmary: “The camp is changing, there are only wolves among wolves!”4 This vision may be too bleak, when applied to the KL as a whole. But we cannot completely wish it away, either. However comforting it would be to cling to idealized images of a prisoner community united in suffering, the conflicts between inmates were all too real, and they turned all the more vicious the more lethal the KL system became.

And yet, prisoner relations were not ruled by aggression and anarchy alone. There were some unwritten rules, for a start. Under the prisoners’ informal code, the theft of bread belonging to another was a sin. Saving bread required great self-discipline, as starving prisoners had to fight the temptation to devour their full ration. Every piece of stale bread was a symbol of a prisoner’s will to survive; and every theft was seen as an unforgivable betrayal, tantamount to treason. As a Neuengamme room elder told a group of new arrivals: “Stealing bread from a comrade is the worst kind of wickedness; he is stealing his life.”5 This ruling did not put an end to thefts, nor did it result in perfect justice, as some innocent inmates became victims of uncontrolled fury. Nonetheless, such thefts were generally seen as wrong and deserving of punishment.

So there was a moral structure in the KL.6 Prisoners may have been unable to live by the same ethical code they followed outside, as in the case of the Dachau “gentlemen,” but they retained a sense of right and wrong within the warped world of the camps. Not everyone agreed on the same rules, of course, but there were lines most prisoners did not want to cross. Living by these basic rules was not just about survival, it was about self-respect as well. “I am straight with everyone,” Janusz Pogonowski secretly wrote to his family from Auschwitz in September 1942, “I have done nothing I need to be ashamed of.”7 Preserving dignity was almost impossible on one’s own, and Pogonowski credited two friends for helping him through a severe illness, supporting him materially and morally. It was thanks to them, he wrote, that his soul was “healthy, proud and strong.”8Such mutual support among KL prisoners was not exceptional, as some observers suggest, but common.9 It took many different forms, from sharing food to political discussions, and undermined SS attempts at total domination.

Some prisoners saw all such acts as resistance: survival itself was a “form of resistance,” Ágnes Rózsa wrote in her diary in early February 1945.10 Several scholars have taken a similar line, stretching the definition of resistance to cover all nonconformist acts in the KL. As the Italian psychologist Andrea Devoto memorably put it: “anything could be resistance, since everything was forbidden.”11 However, such an all-embracing definition blurs the lines between very different acts. Should we use the same term to describe a prisoner who sabotaged German munitions and a prisoner who fought for his own life, if necessary at the cost of others? Even a narrower definition of resistance can be problematic, when applied to the camps, since prisoners had no hope of working to overthrow the Nazi regime.

In the end, other terms may help us to see the prisoners’ choices more clearly, though there are inevitable overlaps between the different categories. There was perseverance, which involved individual acts of self-preservation and self-assertion; there was solidarity, which was directed at the spiritual survival and protection of groups of inmates; and there was defiance, which included protests, and other planned and principled opposition to the Camp SS. Given the immense power of the SS, such direct challenges were rare, and they were not always unambiguous, either. Escaping from the camp, for example, might allow a prisoner to join the partisans or tell the world about Nazi crimes, but it might also condemn other inmates to death, under the SS policy of collective punishment.12


Inmates had to be resourceful to stand any chance of survival during the war, developing what one prisoner called “camp technique.”13 They had to make the most of their existing skills, and acquire new ones, to gain life-saving advantages; a multilingual prisoner might get a privileged position as a translator, while a talented painter might sell his drawings for food.14 The perseverance of individual prisoners included rituals to preserve their pre-camp identities. For Primo Levi, his daily wash was less about getting clean—impossible in the filthy surroundings—than about staying human.15 Other prisoners found solace in religion. God had saved her from losing her mind, a Polish woman testified soon after the war, when she recalled her arrival in Ravensbrück in autumn 1944.16Some prisoners also sought strength in art and the life of the mind, recalling old books, poems, and stories. In Ravensbrück, Charlotte Delbo swapped her bread ration for a copy of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, and then memorized the lines, a few each day. Silently reciting the play to herself “lasted almost throughout roll call,” she later wrote.17

Important as individual perseverance was, however, no prisoner could get through the KL alone. The camps were social spaces and inmates always interacted with others. Their fate was shaped, to a large degree, by their place within what the Auschwitz survivor H. G. Adler has called the “coerced community.”18 Without solidarity, an Auschwitz Kapo told a group of new arrivals in late March 1942, they would all be dead within two months.19

Some prisoner groups were created by the SS, others by common inmate interests and backgrounds. Some dated back to the prisoners’ pre-KL lives; others emerged inside. Some were loose and transitory; others were permanent and closed to outsiders. To complicate matters, prisoners always belonged to more than one group. Primo Levi, for example, was an educated, atheist Jew from Italy, and each of these aspects of his selfhood shaped his social relations in Auschwitz.20

Companionship—whether based on sympathy or pragmatism, chance or shared beliefs—was vital for all prisoners. But it was a double-edged sword, since it created discord, as well. Relations between inmates thrown together by fate, like those who found themselves in the same barrack or work detail, often proved volatile. More generally, solidarity among some prisoners could cause conflicts with others. In the end, every prisoner faced the same paradox: how to lead a social life in the unsocial environment of the KL?21

Families and Friends

We depended on each other,” Elie Wiesel wrote about the relationship with his father in Auschwitz; “he needed me as I needed him.” Sometimes they shared a few spoonfuls of soup or bread, and they gave each other moral sustenance, too. “He was my support and my oxygen, as I was his.”22Wiesel was not alone. In the inferno of the camps, many prisoners formed close bonds with relatives, since trust was an essential element in their social relations. This was true, in particular, for Jews and Gypsies, who were frequently deported in large families.23 They had arrived together, and together they hoped to stay alive.24

Other small survival networks, sometimes consisting of no more than a pair of prisoners, were made up of close friends.25 Many had already known one another before the camp. Hailing from the same towns or cities, their common past and culture provided common ground in the camps. Many more were joined together by shared experiences of Nazi terror, on deportation trains and building sites, in barracks and infirmaries.26 Her friendships with other prisoners had helped her to survive, Margarete Buber-Neumann later wrote, and she never had a closer friend in the camps than Milena Jesenská. She met the Czech journalist, who had been arrested after helping others escape from Nazi-occupied Czech territory, in Ravensbrück in 1940, and the two women quickly bonded. They were kindred spirits and often talked about the past (both had broken with the Communist movement), the present, and the future; Jesenská suggested that they should write a book about camps under Stalin and Hitler, to be called “The Age of the Concentration Camps.” In Ravensbrück, the two women cared for each other as best they could. When Buber-Neumann was thrown into the bunker, her friend smuggled sugar and bread inside. When Jesenská became gravely ill, her friend secretly visited her every day for several months.27

Such friendships were widespread in the microcosm of the camps. Many women became so close they even referred to each other as sisters. They formed surrogate families, with up to a dozen or so members, sharing food, clothing, and emotional support, and trying to protect each other from selections. Being a “camp sister” was a “very happy and invigorating feeling,” Ágnes Rózsa wrote in January 1945. “Whatever happens, we know we can count on each other.”28 It has often been suggested that female KL prisoners were more likely than men to form such intense friendships.29But close companionship was not gendered. Primo Levi, for one, forged a deep connection with another Italian prisoner called Alberto, also in his early twenties. For months, they slept on the same bunk and they were soon “bound by a tight bond of alliance,” Levi wrote, dividing all additional food they could scrape together (they were only separated when Alberto left on the Auschwitz death march in January 1945, from which he did not return).30 Many male prisoners enjoyed similar friendships, and while some later felt embarrassed to talk about them, other men had no such hesitation, referring to “sleeping brothers” and “comradeship marriages.”31

In the unforgiving climate of the KL, however, even the closest bonds could be broken, especially among ordinary prisoners, who were always exposed to the full force of the camps.32 There is no shortage of chilling images from the concentration camps, but few are as disquieting as those of friends and family robbing one another, and of sons denying their fathers when they pleaded for bread.33 More generally, mutual aid within small collectives, bound by a strong sense of solidarity, often brought harm to others, intentionally or unintentionally. Each set of prisoners primarily fought for itself, in what Primo Levi termed “we-ism” (as a collective extension of egotism) and what we might call “groupness.” The success of each individual group in gaining food, cigarettes, or clothing almost inevitably meant that there was less for others to “organize”; sometimes prisoner collectives even stole from one another.34

Then there were all those prisoners who could not form any alliances. This was true, above all, for the Muselmänner, the lepers of the camps. These doomed men and women haunted the compounds like ghosts, though there was nothing unworldly about their presence, with their festering wounds and stinking rags. “Everyone was disgusted by them, nobody showed any compassion,” the Auschwitz prisoner Maria Oyrzyńska recalled. The others stayed away as far as possible, not just out of disgust but for their own self-preservation; because the Muselmann was always in the line of fire—stealing food, evading work, ignoring orders—others were afraid of being punished by association. And so the Muselmann died the loneliest death.35

Most other prisoners knew that uniting with a small group of relatives or friends offered the best hope. Vital as these alliances were, they were always liable to be ripped apart by deportation, illness, selection, and death. After the slow death of his father, Shlomo, in early 1945 in Buchenwald, Elie Wiesel became indifferent to the hell around him: “nothing touched me anymore.”36 Margarete Buber-Neumann was equally devastated after Milena Jesenská’s death in May 1944: “I felt very near despair. Life seemed to have no further point.” In the end, she clung on to life, honoring the memory of her dead friend by writing the book about the camps they had talked about back in Ravensbrück.37


The social ties between friends and relatives were rivaled by those emerging from shared beliefs that predated the camps and endured inside.38 Individual left-wing inmates were particularly close, perhaps even more so than before the war, and frequently arranged secret meetings; they discussed ideological questions, shared the latest news of the war (gleaned from newspapers and hidden radios), and observed working-class traditions by commemorating significant events and singing protest songs.39 Some other political prisoners proved equally committed to their cause. In Kaufering, the dreaded Dachau satellite, a few Zionists even put together an undercover Hebrew newspaper that called for unity among Jewish inmates and for the creation of a Jewish state.40 All such communal activities are best understood as self-assertion; together, political prisoners fought against the eradication of their pre-camp identities and drew strength from their collective convictions.41

Some groups went beyond boosting morale and became survival networks. Political prisoners would share essential supplies and use their contacts to save others from punishing labor details or transfers to deadly camps. And just as before the war, well-placed captives watched out for comrades among new arrivals, to explain the basic rules and to protect them.42 This was another case of partial solidarity, with any benefits restricted to selected prisoners. Inmates from other backgrounds were often excluded as untrustworthy and undeserving; the basic principle, a former prisoner later explained, had been to “put the politicals first!”43 Sometimes this meant saving one inmate at the expense of others. Helmut Thiemann, a German Communist and Buchenwald Kapo, testified after the war that he and his colleagues had established a special ward in the infirmary just “for our comrades of all nations.” The Communist Kapos did all they could to help these prisoners, providing them with the best available medication. At the same time, Thiemann added, “we had to be ruthless” against others.44

The most extreme cases of “groupness” among political prisoners involved so-called victim swaps. This practice took place in several KL and has been documented most fully for Buchenwald. Here, Communist Kapos in the infirmary protected some comrades from human experiments by altering SS lists, substituting their names for those of other prisoners. This was how “we saved each other,” Thiemann’s colleague Ernst Busse testified after the war, so that “members of our underground organization in the camp could live relatively peacefully.” In the same spirit, Communist Kapos in the Buchenwald labor action office altered the composition of prisoner transports to satellite camps. They would spare comrades from transfer to a lethal camp like Dora, and dispatch prisoners considered as undesirable and inferior in their place, including criminals, homosexuals, and other social outsiders. “All these negative elements were selected by the national [Communist] groups,” the former prisoner clerk Jiří Žák testified in 1945, “which also identified the positive elements who under no condition were to go on transports.” Žák was not the only Communist who vigorously defended this practice after the war. “When I have the opportunity to save ten anti-fascist fighters,” Walter Bartel, one of the most senior Buchenwald Communists, insisted in an internal party investigation in East Germany in 1953, “then I will do it.”45

Not all political prisoners enjoyed the same protection, of course, since the inmates with the red triangle never formed a homogeneous group. Even among the most committed opponents of the Nazi regime there was plenty of tension. The long-standing antagonism between German Social Democrats and Communists was never fully overcome, while other ideological divisions were still more pronounced; French nationalists, for example, shared virtually no common ground with Soviet Communists. There was even strife within the same political factions. German Communists clashed among one another about divisive ideological issues, like the Hitler-Stalin pact, and about the correct tactics in the KL. Dissenters were swiftly accused of deviation and excluded from the collective. When German Communists in Ravensbrück learned that Margarete Buber-Neumann had been a prisoner under Stalin, they branded her a “Trotskyite” and cut her off. Buber-Neumann, for her part, thought that her adversaries were stuck in the past, in the “Communist cloud cuckoo land of 1933.”46


Early each morning, before the Auschwitz prisoners had to rise, Elie Wiesel and his father left their bunk and walked to a nearby barrack. Here, a small group of orthodox Jews met to say ritual blessings, sharing a pair of tefillin they had acquired on the black market. Jews faced the greatest obstacles to worship, as they were exposed to the most lethal SS terror. And yet, they found ways to affirm their faith. “Yes, we practiced religion even in a death camp,” Wiesel wrote later. “I had seen too much suffering to break with the past and reject the heritage of those who had suffered.”47

Observant KL inmates knew that it was all but impossible to fulfill their religious duties. They had to work during sacred times and break some dietary rules, and also missed prayer books and spiritual guidance from their leaders.48 Still they practiced their beliefs, as best they could, forming close-knit groups based on shared beliefs. The observance of Christian rituals was particularly widespread among Polish political prisoners, whose faith was often bound up with their national identity. They held secret Sunday services and even smuggled consecrated Hosts into the camps; at least one prisoner received the Holy Communion in the Auschwitz bunker, after others had lowered a Host, tied to a piece of string, to his cell window.49

Many inmates drew strength from religious devotion. Some groups formed close communities of faith, dividing almost everything; in some camps, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses evenly split all the money and provisions sent by relatives. What is more, religious practices provided a lasting link to their pre-camp lives. And it helped them to find meaning in their suffering, seeing the camp as the culmination of centuries of persecution, or as a divine test of faith, or as penance for the sins of mankind.50 Some atheist inmates felt that the religious believers had an advantage over them, because their faith gave them a fixed point in the universe to unhinge the world of the SS, at least in their minds.51

But religious devotion also spelled danger. Prisoners were always at risk during prayer, even on the rare occasion when it was sanctioned. SS and Kapos repeatedly turned religious ceremonies into occasions for torture. In Dachau, they forced Catholic clerics to drink large amounts of sacramental wine (donated by the Vatican) and dished out special abuse during holy days; in all, close to half of the 1,870 Polish priests dragged to Dachau perished.52 Even if believers escaped such torment, the act of worship itself could put them at risk. Rising early for prayers deprived them of vital sleep, and fasting weakened them further, as did the adherence to other dietary rules; several orthodox Jews who tried only to eat kosher are said to have quickly died of exhaustion.53

The daily rituals of orthodox Jews in particular created frequent flash points. Some prisoners saw the prayers as a disturbance, especially at nighttime, and accused religious Jews of passivity in the face of SS terror. “You can pray as much as you like,” Dionys Lenard told an imprisoned cantor, shortly before his escape from Majdanek. “I am going to act instead.”54 Other secular prisoners regarded all worship as perverse: how could one suffer in hell and still pray to God? Primo Levi was incensed when, after a selection in Auschwitz, he heard and saw the prayers of an elderly man in another bunk, who thanked God for sparing his life: “Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”55 The feeling of incomprehension was mutual. A number of orthodox Jews were indignant about the others’ lack of religious fervor, and castigated them for questioning, complaining, or abandoning God.56

These clashes highlight, once more, the diversity of Jewish prisoners. Although they all wore the yellow star, they formed no unified community, even less so than before the war. The divisions—along religious, political, and cultural lines—became more pronounced, now that all Jewish prisoners had to fight for survival. In addition, there were new national and linguistic barriers; eastern European Jews often spoke Yiddish, which many assimilated Jews from the west did not understand. After many years inside the KL system, Benedikt Kautsky concluded: “One did not see much all-Jewish comradeship.”57 How could it have been different? After all, meaningful support was harder for Jews than for any other group. “We could not help anyone in material terms,” Dionys Lenard wrote in 1942, “because none of us had anything.”58 And yet, despite this existential pressure, many Jewish prisoners—including Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Ágnes Rózsa—joined forces with others and formed small support networks.

Notwithstanding the divisions among Jewish prisoners, some other inmates saw them as a cohesive group and an easy target. Jews lived in fear of dangerous encounters, especially with greedy and brutal Kapos. The widespread anti-Semitism among prisoners was palpable, with Kapos screaming abuse like “Dirty Jews have to be exterminated!” as they dealt out blows.59 Even decades after the war, the former German camp elder of a Neuengamme satellite camp, notorious for his excesses, was open about his motives: “On the whole, I did not like the Jews. In the camp, at least, they were bootlickers and smarmy.”60 But other factors were at play, too, not least the propensity of prisoners to look down on others who were even weaker.61

At the same time, Jewish inmates were not universally shunned. Many prisoners treated them in a measured way, ignoring occasional SS threats of punishment for anyone who was too friendly to Jews. In fact, some showed great consideration and courage, extending their compassion beyond their own immediate circle of confidants.62 In summer 1942, when the Ravensbrück SS punished Jews with a month-long cut in rations, another group of prisoners, led by Czech women, regularly smuggled some of their own bread into the Jewish women’s barrack.63 This was no isolated incident. In Auschwitz-Monowitz, Polish prisoners also occasionally gave some of their provisions to Jews. “They did not have much for themselves,” the Hungarian Jew George Kaldore recalled, “but they still shared.”64

Divided Nations

If one could listen in on conversations in the barracks, late at night near the end of the war, one would hear the prisoners whisper in any number of languages. Take the Buchenwald main camp: by the end of 1944, it held inmates from more than two dozen countries, including small groups from Spain (295 prisoners), England (25), Switzerland (24), and Albania (23). “One is surrounded by a perpetual Babel,” wrote Primo Levi.65 As the prisoner population became more international, nationality became ever more important in shaping this coerced community, bringing some prisoners together and driving others apart.66

National solidarity, based on a shared language and culture, could be life-saving for vulnerable prisoners. In addition, inmates occasionally celebrated their shared national traditions, singing folk songs and telling old tales. Most gatherings inside the barracks were spontaneous expressions of national belonging, after a long day in the camp, though there were organized concerts, too, as well as dances and plays.67 In addition to stirring the prisoners’ patriotic feelings, such performances offered a diversion from their bleak lives. In her Nuremberg satellite camp, Ágnes Rózsa set up a theater group with other Hungarian prisoners, who performed famous songs, as well as parodies of fellow inmates and guards.68 Reflections on the KL also found their way into prisoner music. Among the songs of Polish inmates in Auschwitz was “Gas Chamber,” set to the melody of a popular tango:

There is one gas chamber,

Where we will all get to know each other,

Where we will all meet each other,

Maybe tomorrow—who knows?69

Many acts of national self-assertion took place in an ambiguous area, tacitly tolerated by the SS. This was true, above all, for official cultural events, which carried multiple meanings for the different audiences. When Dachau prisoners put on a “Polish Day” in 1943, complete with choir, orchestra, and dancers, they smuggled patriotic messages into the performance. While the Polish prisoners took great pride in their subversive act, oblivious SS officers sat in the first row and clapped loudly, demanding an encore.70

Despite such moral victories, most national prisoner groups did not form close unions. They might have shared the same letter on their uniforms (indicating their country of origin), but issues which had divided fellow countrymen on the outside did not suddenly disappear inside.71 National discord was most intense, perhaps, among those who wore the letter “R”—prisoners classified as Russian. This term typically covered all prisoners from within the huge territory of the Soviet Union, and hid a great many ethnic and political differences. Above all, there was the antagonism between Russians and Ukrainians, reflecting their often hostile relations back home. Many captive Russian soldiers remained committed to the Moscow regime and branded Ukrainian inmates as traitors and collaborators. For their part, many imprisoned Ukrainian forced laborers saw the Russian POWs as henchmen of Stalin’s regime, which had repressed their indigenous nationalism and killed several million Ukrainians through its lethal policy of forced collectivization.72

To make matters worse, many Soviet prisoners faced blanket hostility by prisoners from other countries, who denounced them as loafers, thieves, and murderers. Such sweeping judgments were rooted in age-old prejudices, pointing once more to the importance of habits and convictions formed prior to the KL.73 Other prisoners often felt a sense of superiority over supposedly primitive inmates from the east, and were anxious about Soviets bringing disease into the camps. The pressures of daily survival only exacerbated such fears; on the whole, it is hard to imagine a place less conducive to conquering national stereotypes than the KL.74

With Soviet prisoners condemned toward the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy, confrontations with better-off inmates were inevitable. One explosive issue was the uneven distribution of food packages, a constant source of envy and conflict within the prisoner community. In Sachsenhausen, starving Soviets surrounded the blocks of Norwegian prisoners, who enjoyed an abundance of Red Cross parcels. The emaciated men begged for scraps and scoured the floor for crumbs. The Norwegians tried to beat them away. “They’re like flies, you can’t wave them off, they come back, encamp, and lie in wait for anything that may fall from our luxurious repast,” one of the Norwegian prisoners wrote in his diary in autumn 1943. The average Norwegian, he added, treated these prisoners “worse than he would a dog at home.”75

If Soviets were depicted as brutal and base, the reputation of Germans, who stood near the top of the ladder, was no better. The “dead and the living,” three Polish survivors of Auschwitz wrote in 1946, had “boundless contempt and hatred for the Germans.”76This hostility was rooted in the long-standing antagonism between Germany and its European neighbors, which had greatly escalated after the rise of Hitler; many Polish prisoners saw conflicts with German inmates as a continuation of their struggle against German occupiers outside.77 The privileges of some German inmates sparked resentment among foreigners, too, as did their casual arrogance. Most noxious was the power wielded by German Kapos. Many foreigners saw abuses by these Kapos as proof of the evil of the entire German nation, erasing the difference between German prisoners and perpetrators. “It does actually seem as if they were all alike, prisoners, SS, or Wehrmacht,” one foreign inmate noted in Sachsenhausen in October 1944.78

Germans and Soviets were not the only ones who faced hostility. Pretty much every national group was mocked, feared, or despised by another, and accused of greed, brutality, and craven submission to the SS. Many French prisoners felt contempt for Poles, for instance, who often returned the sentiment in kind.79 Relations between Polish and Soviet prisoners were even worse, reflecting the poisonous relations between both countries. When Wiesław Kielar was appointed as a clerk in a block of Soviet POWs in Auschwitz-Birkenau, he did not hide his hostility; his Soviet charges, in turn, answered each of his orders with a curt “Fuck off!”80

The SS was no passive observer in all of this. Not only did it create the general conditions that pitted inmate groups against one another, it deliberately exacerbated national hostilities. It bolstered the position of German prisoners, offering them benefits like powerful Kapo posts; such favoritism went so far that some Germans were spared the transfer to a lethal KL like Auschwitz altogether.81 The SS also fanned the flames between other national groups. Having put prisoners in charge of administering corporal punishment (in place of SS men), Heinrich Himmler ordered in summer 1943 that Poles should hit Russians, and Russians should hit Poles and Ukrainians. Rudolf Höss summed up the thinking of SS leaders with customary cynicism: “The more numerous the rivalries and the fiercer the struggles for power, the easier the camp can be led. Divide et impera!”82


The gulf between prisoners grew wider and wider as the war continued. Social differences were at their greatest, Margarete Buber-Neumann recalled, in the final year before liberation:

Crowds of children hung around the blocks of the better-off prisoners begging for food, whilst ragged, half-starving figures rummaged in the waste-bins for scraps of food. Other prisoners were well dressed and well fed, according to their influence in the camp. There was one woman who might have been strolling along the streets of the West End as she took the greyhound of the SS Camp Leader out for exercise.83

Each concentration camp had an elite of privileged prisoners, no more than around ten percent of the population, and admission to this exclusive club depended on an inmate’s position in the internal hierarchy, which was determined by myriad factors such as ethnicity, nationality, profession, political beliefs, language, age, and time of arrival in the camp.84 The specific hierarchies differed from camp to camp, and they shifted over time, as new prisoners arrived or SS priorities changed. And yet, there were some certainties. Skilled workers generally stood above unskilled ones; Jews largely found themselves at the base and Germans at the top; and experienced inmates held an advantage, since seniority translated into know-how and connections, both of which were crucial for cheating death.

Veteran prisoners had some respect for one another, because they knew what it meant to survive, and the “old hands,” as they were known, also shared a certain distrust of newcomers. In Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba recalled, there was a kind of “mafia of the establishment,” and in other KL, too, veterans had the edge.85 The difference from newcomers was visible to all, with experienced prisoners wearing lower numbers and cleaner uniforms.86 One could even tell them apart in the dark of the barracks at night, as they used peculiar words and phrases—the language of the camps.87

Mastering this idiom was essential for survival. Nothing was more important for new arrivals than to learn some basic German, the language of the SS and hence the language of power. Orders were generally given in German, from “Antreten!” (“Line up!”) and“Mützen ab!” (“Caps off!”) at roll call to all the exhortations to pick up the pace: “Schneller!” “Los!” “Tempo!” “Aber Dalli!” Prisoners also had to answer in German whenever they reported: “Häftling 12969 meldet sich zur Stelle.” Even when prisoners talked in their native tongue, they used German terms for certain objects, tasks, and spaces.88 Primo Levi knew that the rudimentary German he had picked up as a student was invaluable: “Knowing German meant life.” To improve his chances of survival, he took German lessons from a fellow prisoner, paying him with bread: “I believe that never was bread better spent.”89 Those who understood the language of the camp could hope to become old hands themselves, while incomprehension cast prisoners adrift and exposed them to punishment; it was not for nothing that inmates in Mauthausen referred to the truncheons wielded by Kapos asDolmetscher (translators).90

In addition to their peculiar vocabulary, the veterans used a different tone—sharp, coarse, and cruel.91 Occasionally, they adopted euphemistic SS terms when it came to death and murder, such as “departure,” “finish off,” and “going through the chimney.” But most words left nothing to the imagination. “Shit faster, slut,” a Kapo shouted at a woman in the Auschwitz latrine, “or I’ll kill you and throw you in the shit.” There was no place for decorum. Among the many common terms of abuse among the prisoners, the Czech inmate Drahomír Bárta noted in his Ebensee diary in summer 1944, were “swine” and “shithead.”92

This vulgar tone reflected the prisoners’ debasement, but it also offered an outlet for fears and frustrations. Dark jokes had a similar function, with sarcasm and gallows humor becoming typical traits of KL veterans. “The discovery of this humor,” David Rousset wrote later, “enabled many of us to survive.”93 Humor was a defense mechanism that distanced prisoners—however briefly—from the horror of the KL. Nothing was off-limits, neither the food (in Sachsenhausen, a disgusting herring paste was known as “cat shit”), the SS humiliations (in Dachau, a strip shaved across the prisoners’ closely cropped hair was known as a “lice motorway”), nor death itself (in Buchenwald, prisoners joked about the shape of the clouds coming from the crematorium). There were plenty of jokes about fellow prisoners, as well, not least the new arrivals. Those who expected that they would soon be released were goaded by more experienced prisoners: “The first fifteen years are the hardest. Then a man gets used to it.” In this way, the old hands bolstered their status as hard-bitten veterans, standing above the newcomers, who still had everything to learn about the camps.94

After surviving for several years in Auschwitz, following his arrival on the first mass transport in June 1940, Wiesław Kielar (prisoner number 290) was one of these longtimers. Through his contacts to other Polish veterans, he had access to vital goods and extra food, including occasional treats like sausage and ham. When he contracted typhus, he received medicine from friends, and when the SS selected him because he was sick, his experience and connections saved him from the gas chambers. Like other veterans, Kielar escaped the worst labor details; stationed in the infirmary, he was barely working at all by 1943, having perfected the life-saving skill of dodging labor. His fear of daily violence diminished, too, as other Kapos were careful not to tangle with long-time prisoners like him who might have powerful friends; even a few SS men showed respect. Nonetheless, Kielar could never feel secure. He knew that everything he had gained—through chance, cunning, and sacrifice—could be lost from one day to the next. And this day came in November 1944, when Kielar was deported to the Neuengamme satellite camp Porta Westfalica. Privileged prisoners like him dreaded such transfers, because they often fell back down the pecking order; now they were the newcomers who found themselves at the mercy of privileged prisoners.95

The prisoner elite sometimes seemed to live in a world apart. Ordinary prisoners had no respite from the daily struggle for survival. Privileged prisoners, by contrast, enjoyed the luxury of leisure. Though limited and regulated, their activities still promised to carry them to a different place, transcending the camp.96 Among the diversions permitted by the SS was sports, with male prisoners, in particular, participating in a range of activities.97 Soccer was especially popular, as it was in Nazi ghettos like Theresienstadt, with regular matches between national teams being played in several KL, often on Sundays. Or the privileged few might watch a boxing contest between prisoners, who were rewarded for their efforts with food. Though these spectacles were intended as entertainment for the prisoner elite and SS men, who liked to place bets, some inmates saw something subversive in them, not least when a foreigner sent a German to the canvas.98

The SS also sanctioned some cultural activities of privileged prisoners. On Sundays, they could attend concerts by camp orchestras, listening to a varied repertoire from opera to popular music.99 More solitary pleasures included the reading of books from KL libraries, which grew during the war. “The camp library is superb! Especially in the field of classical literature,” the Dutch writer and left-wing journalist Nico Rost noted in his Dachau diary in summer 1944.100 In several camps, the SS even put on feature films. Some prisoners briefly lost themselves in the drama and romance up on the screen, but terror and death were never far away. In Buchenwald, the hall used as a cinema doubled as a torture chamber, while films in Birkenau were shown near the crematoria complex; returning to his barrack one night, after watching an operetta, Wiesław Kielar passed a large group of Jewish men, women, and children on their way to the gas chamber.101

Most incongruous of all were the handful of marriages of well-connected inmates, like that celebrated in Auschwitz on March 18, 1944, when the Austrian Communist Rudolf Friemel wed his bride, who visited from Vienna with their small son. Following the civil ceremony in town and the reception in an SS barrack, the couple walked through the main camp toward the brothel, where they spent their wedding night. The other prisoners talked about little else, well aware that Auschwitz registry officials were normally concerned not with marriage certificates but with death notices—including that of Rudolf Friemel, who was hanged in late December 1944 after a failed escape attempt.102

At first glance, the sight of KL prisoners at leisure seems extraordinary. But it was in keeping with the SS vision of the concentration camps. After all, the Camp SS had always maintained traces of normality, and just like fragrant flower beds, a prisoner library projected an orderly image to visitors and staff alike. More pressingly, the SS wanted to win the compliance of selected prisoners through incentives, offering benefits in return for obedience. In turn, the leisure activities added to the already stupendous inequalities between victims of Nazi terror. Few sights capture this gulf more starkly than that of athletic soccer players in bright outfits and studded boots fighting for the ball, while emaciated prisoners in tattered rags nearby fought for their lives.103 The worlds of the privileged and the doomed often collided, as they did on Sunday, July 9, 1944, in Ebensee. That afternoon, Drahomír Bárta performed his usual Kapo duties as an interpreter, and translated between an escaped Polish prisoner, who begged for mercy, and his captors. After Bárta witnessed the prisoner being beaten by the SS and maimed by a dog, he passed the rest of this day, as he sometimes did on Sundays, by playing volleyball with friends.104


Just as the figure of the Muselmann is taken to symbolize the destruction of prisoners’ bodies, the figure of the Kapo often stands for the corrosion of their souls. Their image as henchmen emerged from many testimonies of fellow inmates who survived the KL. Describing the role of Kapos in Auschwitz, the Hungarian Jew Irena Rosenwasser simply said: “they knew they were on top, because they could beat and kill and send to the gas.”105 The influence of prisoner functionaries did indeed increase dramatically during World War II. As staff shortages became more acute—with the ratio between SS and prisoners falling from below 1:2 in the late 1930s to around 1:15 by mid-1943—the authorities appointed more prisoners as supervisors and clerks.106 This was true above all in the new satellite camps, where veteran inmates were indispensable to the largely inexperienced SS staff; the first Auschwitz camp elder, Bruno Brodniewicz, widely regarded by other inmates as a vengeful tyrant, later served as camp elder in the satellites Neu-Dachs,Eintrachthütte, and Bismarckhütte.107 Prisoners knew that the status and privileges attached to Kapo positions could prolong their lives—in Ebensee, prisoner functionaries were almost ten times more likely to survive than ordinary inmates—and few turned down such posts when they came their way.108 The greatest beneficiaries were Germans like Brodniewicz, who occupied many of the coveted posts. To the mass of regular prisoners, they seemed like a breed apart: they were “the demigods of the camp.”109 This description captures the sense of awe felt by other inmates, but it also makes clear that Kapos were not untouchable. The SS men were still the supreme beings and could push anyone from the pantheon without notice.

Power and Privilege

The rise of Kapos during the war seemed unstoppable. Block elders held ever more sway, as SS inspections became less frequent (owing to lack of staff and fear of disease), and the influence of labor supervisors grew, too; as early as 1941, the inmate appointed as chief overseer on the Auschwitz IG Farben building site had more than a dozen Kapos under him, who in turn directed between fifty and one hundred prisoners each.110 Kapos also performed a range of new functions, gaining access to almost all areas of the KL. As the internal SS organization grew more complex, and paperwork mounted up, additional inmates were drafted into administrative positions. In the orderly room, the statistical nerve center of the main camps, Kapos collated data about inmate numbers and composition, and supervised the assignment of prisoners to barracks. In the political office, too, prisoners were entrusted with clerical duties, from registering new inmates to typing SS correspondence. And in the labor action office, Kapos compiled reports about output and, most crucially, helped to allocate prisoners to labor details and satellite camps.111

Many of the new Kapo duties were about coercion and terror, particularly in the second half of the war. When it came to corporal punishment, the SS now relied on block elders and other functionaries to whip fellow prisoners, for a small reward of money or cigarettes.112 In addition, the SS established Kapo squads, particularly in the larger KL, to extend the surveillance of prisoners by prisoners. Widely known as the camp police, their main function was the maintenance of “order and discipline,” in the words of a former Buchenwald squad member. In practice, this meant patrolling the compounds, initiating new inmates, and guarding food depots against prisoner thefts, often with force.113

Some Kapos, both male and female, were directly involved in mass murder, selecting weak and sick inmates, escorting condemned prisoners to execution sites, or killing them. Emil Mahl, the senior Kapo in the Dachau crematorium, helped to hang up to one thousand prisoners in 1944–45. “My participation consisted of putting the noose around the necks of the prisoners,” he later admitted.114 It was also not uncommon for Kapos to receive open or thinly veiled instructions to murder certain prisoners on the sly. And Kapos murdered on their own initiative, too, acting far more brutally than before the war. Even pleas from desperate inmates—for food, clothing, or admission to the infirmary—could trigger lethal responses, as in the case of a Polish Jew who asked for bread during a deportation to a Flossenbürg satellite camp in early 1945, only to be beaten to death by a German Kapo.115

Such were the powers accumulated by some Kapos that even their SS masters became a little uneasy. In general, any concerns were far outweighed by the expected benefits: here was an easy and effective mechanism for ruling more camps with fewer SS staff. But there was a risk that dominant prisoners would scheme against SS officials and gain too many insights into their criminal and corrupt practices. The KL authorities responded by replacing suspect Kapos with other inmates (or even SS officials), and punishingthem with the bunker or worse.116

With greater powers came greater privileges. It was easy to spot the Kapos, and not just because of the insignia or colored armbands that signaled their position. The more senior they were, the more they stood out—especially in camps for men, where social differences were particularly pronounced. These Kapos often sported longer hair, instead of shaven heads, and wore clean clothes, complete with leather shoes or boots. Not for them the rags worn by others. Some senior Kapos had their prisoner uniforms altered, wore civilian outfits stolen from SS depots, or ordered made-to-measure suits in the tailors’ workshops. “They are better dressed,” wrote David Rousset, “and consequently a little more like human beings.”117

Kapos looked more vigorous, too, the “only healthy people in the camp,” as another survivor put it in 1945.118 They were largely exempt from exhausting manual labor and less exposed to disease. Senior Kapos often slept separately, sharing an enclosure near the barrack entrance or their own special barrack. For the time being, they had escaped the disease-infected quarters where prisoners were crammed on bunks and straw sacks. They slept in clean beds surrounded by precious reminders of civilization—vases, flowers, curtains—and ate from neatly laid tables laden with food.119

Kapos often enriched themselves through corruption and theft. They took from the rations and parcels of others, and from the SS storehouses. “Well, so much stuff came with the Jews, and we filched from it, of course we did,” the Auschwitz Kapo Jupp Windeck said after the war, adding that “as Kapos, we always got ourselves the best.”120 Blackmail and profiteering were rampant, as Kapos turned the misery of others to their own advantage. When the starving Haim Kalvo approached his work supervisor in an Auschwitz satellite camp for extra food in November 1943, more than six months after his arrival on a deportation train with almost 4,500 Greek Jews, the Kapo promised him a few loaves of bread in return for a gold tooth. The innkeeper from Salonika was so desperate that he offered a golden crown still in his jaw, whereupon the Kapo “took some pliers and, after we had walked aside, pulled out the golden tooth,” as Kalvo explained a few days later to the SS, who had got wind of the deal (Kalvo apparently survived the KL).121

Sex was also largely the preserve of Kapos, and not only in the camp brothels. In the compounds, too, some of them used their power to get what they wanted. Men forced themselves on female prisoners, though the spatial separation between sexes made same-sex relations far more frequent. Most common were relationships between Kapos and young inmates, known as Pipel, who often submitted for pragmatic reasons, hoping for food, influence, and protection in return.122 At the same time, sexual violence left deep scars and worse, as a few predatory Kapos tried to murder their victims to avoid detection. After the teenager Roman Frister was raped in his bunk by a Kapo one night in an Auschwitz satellite camp, he realized that his attacker had stolen his cap, without which Frister would face punishment during the next roll call; to save himself, Frister stole the cap of another prisoner, who was executed by the SS the following morning.123

Kapos were not shy about parading their power and privilege. Such demonstrative displays—one Mauthausen Kapo insisted on wearing white gloves as he strolled through the camp—reinforced their standing and put other prisoners into place. The disdain some of them felt for fellow inmates is summed up by the gesture of a German Kapo who, without thinking, cleaned his dirty hand on Primo Levi’s shoulder.124 At times, the Kapos’ pride in their positions was palpable. For a man like Jupp Windeck, the appointment as Monowitz camp elder in autumn 1942 marked the climax of a staggering social rise. After a miserable life on the margins of German society, with long spells of unemployment and imprisonment for minor property offenses, this unskilled laborer now stood above thousands of inmates. He had been the lord of the manor, Windeck recalled fondly more than twenty years later, when he was tried for his crimes.125

The responses by the mass of ordinary prisoners varied. Some inmates ridiculed the powerful and their grand airs, though they normally tried to get out of the way of the most notorious Kapos like Windeck, literally clearing the path for them. There were also hangers-on, who hoped that toadying might elevate them, or at least help them to a few crumbs of food; this is why regular prisoners fought for the privilege of carrying the soup kettle for block orderlies.126 The most common reaction, though, was envy and loathing, which provoked some Kapos to reaffirm their powers. “I have the authority,” one Sachsenhausen Kapo warned his fellow prisoners every morning, “to smash each and every one of you.”127

Judging a Kapo

It is easy to think of Karl Kapp as a typical Kapo. He had first become a supervisor in 1933, aged thirty-five, during a brief spell in Dachau after his arrest as a union activist and SPD city councilor, but his Kapo career really took off when he returned in 1936 as a recidivist political prisoner. Over the coming years, the trained butcher from Nuremberg, who spoke in the strong local dialect, rose steadily from block elder to labor supervisor (overseeing 1,500 prisoners) and finally to camp elder.128 During his long spell as a Dachau Kapo, Kapp gained a reputation for severity. Slight but forceful, he was forever screaming at prisoners. He slapped and hit suspected shirkers or reported them to the SS, with potentially lethal consequences. What is more, he killed on command, participating in SS executions inside and outside the camp. The authorities rewarded him with privileges, and like a few other Kapos who had exceeded SS expectations, he finally walked away with the ultimate prize—freedom. Released and reunited with his family in 1944, Kapp spent the final year of World War II as a building contractor for the Ravensbrück SS.129

But Karl Kapp was not a typical Kapo, for there was no such thing. Some prisoners, it is true, conformed to the fearsome image of Kapos. They seemed to copy the SS, Margarete Buber-Neumann wrote about the most brutal and greedy supervisors in Ravensbrück, until they resembled them in all but uniform. But there were also their opposites, she added, kind women who made things better for their fellow inmates.130 And although male Kapos resorted more frequently to violence than their female counterparts, there were decent ones among them, too, including some who refused on principle to lay hands on other prisoners; many more only turned strict when SS guards came near.131

Often Kapos struggled with their conscience as they were drawn deeper into SS schemes, suffering what the young Herzogenbusch prisoner David Koker described in his diary in November 1943 as a “moral hangover.”132 SS attempts to turn them into torturers and killers proved a watershed for many. In Dachau, not all Kapos submitted to the order, enforced by Kapp, to dish out corporal punishment. During a heated meeting among block elders, there were cheers for one Kapo who lambasted Kapp’s stance and exclaimed that he would rather be beaten himself than hit a fellow prisoner. Like-minded Kapos, in Dachau and elsewhere, subverted SS orders by pretending to whip their victims much harder than they really did.133 Others openly challenged the authorities. In July 1943, the camp elder in the Dachau satellite camp Allach, the Communist Karl Wagner, refused outright to hit another inmate; he was whipped twenty-five times and thrown into the bunker for several weeks.134

Karl Kapp’s role in SS executions was particularly controversial among Dachau prisoners and earned him the lasting contempt of several senior Kapos, though when they confronted him, he just shrugged and walked off.135 Unlike Kapp, some Kapos stood up to the SS: they would not kill. When the Dora SS told the two camp elders, Georg Thomas and Ludwig Szymczak, to hang a Russian inmate on the roll call square, they defied the orders. Furious SS men ripped the Kapo armbands off their uniforms and dragged them away; neither man survived the war.136 As for Kapos who did succumb to extreme SS pressure—threatened that they would be executed, too, if they did not act as henchmen—not all shrugged off their deeds in the manner of Kapp. In Buchenwald, a Communist Kapo hanged himself after he had been forced to kill another prisoner, unable to bear the guilt.137

Even a man like Kapp was a more complex figure than he appears at first sight. There were rational reasons for Kapos like him to do as they were told. In the first place, it was a simple case of self-preservation, as the Camp SS did not think twice about demoting and punishing those who appeared too lenient.138 The loss of their Kapo positions meant not only the loss of vital privileges, it could also expose them to the wrath of their fellow inmates. Their victims often fantasized about turning the tables and, if they got the chance, exacted revenge. The SS saw such vigilante justice as a bonus, as it forced Kapos into greater compliance. As Heinrich Himmler explained to Nazi generals in 1944: “As soon as we are not satisfied with [a Kapo], he is no longer a Kapo, he sleeps again with his men. He knows that they will beat him to death in the first night.”139 In this way, some Kapos became trapped in a vicious circle. Once other inmates saw them as willing tools of the SS, they felt that they had little choice but to redouble their abuses, lest they lose the life-saving protection of the SS.140

But Karl Kapp had his eyes on more than his own survival, and used his powers to aid some fellow prisoners. As camp elder, he allowed prisoners to smuggle food into the penal company and helped some inmates gain better positions.141 There were limits to what he could do, of course, and his efforts probably involved an element of self-interest, as they created a circle of grateful allies.142 Nonetheless, Kapp’s favoritism was wide-ranging, extending as it did to prisoners from other backgrounds. At great risk, he saved several prisoners he did not personally know and whose political views he did not share.143

And like many senior Kapos, Kapp firmly believed that any of his abuses prevented worse. Interrogated after the war, he insisted that he had only ever reported prisoners to the SS as a last resort, if their actions threatened the collective; in all other cases, he had made sure to hand out penalties himself. And what some inmates saw as mindless brutality, Kapp added, had actually been calculated efforts to keep the SS at bay. If he had not enforced strict order during regular barrack inspections, murderous SS block leaders would have descended on the prisoners instead. If he had not hit individuals who were late for roll call, the SS would have made all inmates suffer. If he had not kicked lazy prisoners, the SS would have tortured them and punished the rest of the labor detail, too.144

Karl Kapp arrived at a jarring conclusion: to prevent SS abuses he had to play the part of the SS himself.145 This view was shared by many ordinary prisoners. They agreed that Kapo attacks were the lesser evil, drawing away the attentions of the SS, and they applauded Kapos who punished suspected thieves and traitors.146 “With his screaming, Kapp kept away the thugs,” a pastor who survived Dachau later said. Even some of Kapp’s victims defended him. Paul Hussarek, whom Kapp had hit on the neck for talking during the march to roll call, was certain that he had been saved from a far worse fate at the hands of the SS. “I am still grateful to Kapp for this punch,” he said years later.147 Many other survivors spoke up for Kapp, too, and even some of his detractors, who saw him as a bully, conceded that he had averted SS excesses.148

The actions of Karl Kapp were dissected in a Munich courtroom in 1960, where he stood accused of prisoner abuse and murder. In the end, the court found Kapp innocent of all charges. Far from being a willing tool of the SS, the judges declared, he had been loyal to fellow prisoners, protecting them heroically.149 This was an unduly clear-cut verdict, given the complexities of his case. The judges imposed moral certitude on actions fraught with ambiguity and gave an emphatic reply to a question—“Was Kapp a good man or not?”—that defies an easy answer. After all, had Kapp not reported fellow inmates to the SS? Had he not helped to whip and hang innocent prisoners?

Even those who would have condemned Karl Kapp, however, should remember that he had not made a free choice. He was a victim of Nazi terror, too, trapped for almost nine years inside the KL.150 The same was true of other prisoners in positions of power. Some of the cruelest Kapos had gone through hell at the hands of the SS. When a prisoner confronted a female Kapo in Auschwitz for beating an inmate who was old enough to be her mother, the woman replied: “My mother was gassed, too. It is all the same to me.”151 The daily exposure to the camps left indelible marks, and so did the corruption by power, as Kapos rose through the ranks; any veteran who retained moral integrity seemed like a saint to other prisoners.152 This is not to excuse every act, however violent; after all, Kapos had some degree of agency. Nonetheless, even the worst Kapo was still a prisoner, hoping to survive a day at a time. In this respect, at least, all inmates were alike: none of them knew whether they would still be alive the next day.153


The Kapo class was no less stratified than the prisoner population as a whole. There was a vast difference between a mighty figure like Karl Kapp and a lowly inmate in the block service who had to wait on his seniors, shining their boots, cooking their food, and making their beds. Even among Kapos, then, there were masters and servants, leading to a brutal struggle, as David Rousset wrote, to “rise step by step in the hierarchy.”154 Those who made it to the top were known as the notables. It was they who held the senior positions in the orderly room, the labor action office, and the political office, as well as the infirmaries, kitchens, and clothes depots; some prominent block elders and labor supervisors were also among them.155 These notables were powerful and small in number; few prisoners held Kapo positions, and even fewer gained prominence. In February 1945, for example, at a time when the Mauthausen main camp held some twelve thousand men (excluding the compound for the sick), there were just 184 Kapos senior enough to wear a wristwatch, one of the perks enjoyed by notables; tellingly, 134 of them were German.156

As we have seen, the Camp SS pursued a strategy of elevating Germans over foreigners, mirroring social relations across Nazi-occupied Europe. Although the proportion of Germans fell to well below twenty percent of the KL prisoner population in 1944, the top Kapo positions were largely put into the hands of Germans.157 SS practice was influenced by Nazi racial thinking.158 Himmler often talked of a sense of loyalty toward “members of our own blood,” and even though German prisoners were seen as scum, Camp SS leaders believed that their own countrymen should rise above the flotsam of other nations.159

Such preferential treatment was guided not just by dogma, however, but by pragmatism, as well. The fact that German prisoners shared the captors’ native tongue was crucial; theirs was the official language of the KL—of documents, signs, and orders—and the SS demanded to be understood. Experience was equally important. The SS was looking for prisoners who knew the KL, and almost all the most seasoned inmates were German.160 As the demand for Kapos rose during the war, the Camp SS sometimes put such practical considerations above ideological principles and promoted Germans from the most despised prisoner groups to positions of influence. Men detained as homosexuals, for example, had often faced lethal SS violence during the first half of the war, peaking around the summer of 1942.161 But while there were further murders later on, a growing number of prisoners with the pink triangle now served as clerks, block elders, and labor supervisors; in Bergen-Belsen, a German homosexual was even appointed as camp elder in late 1944, overseeing the compound for regular protective custody prisoners.162

Middle and lower-ranking positions often went to prisoners from other nations, and foreign Kapos grew in number and standing as the war continued. In the occupied east, there were never enough German inmates to fill all available positions, so many of these posts went to Poles instead.163Elsewhere, too, the SS relied on foreigners, especially during the second half of the war. Prisoners from almost all European countries were promoted, though their prospects varied from camp to camp, depending on the size of national prisoner groups and the time of their arrival. In Ravensbrück, large transports from Poland had come as early as 1940, and Polish women gradually became entrenched in lower and middling Kapo positions, even pushing aside some German “asocials.” French women, by contrast, did not arrive in large numbers until 1943–44, and consequently found themselves excluded from posts as block elders or camp police.164

As the Kapo class expanded, so did the number of Jews among them, though they were normally restricted to overseeing other Jewish prisoners only.165 Initially, this development centered on Auschwitz and Majdanek, following the mass deportations to both camps; according to survivors, around half of the Auschwitz-Birkenau block elders in early 1944 were Jews.166 The number of Kapos with the yellow star increased elsewhere, too, as Jews were forced into new KL in eastern Europe, like in the Baltic region, and into satellite camps inside Germany. In satellites largely reserved for Jewish prisoners, individual Jews were deployed as labor supervisors, doctors, clerks, and block elders, and exceptionally even as camp elders. Some of them were already well versed in negotiating the gray zone between fellow inmates and German rulers, having previously held influential positions in ghettos, where Jewish Councils had been given significant responsibilities for the administration of everyday life.167

There was no job security for Kapos, of course, not at the top and even less so lower down, where there were frequent promotions, transfers, and dismissals. Among the greatest powers senior Kapos had was that of anointing others. Officially, appointments were made by the Camp SS. In practice, SS staff were often swayed by experienced Kapos, especially when it came to middling and lower positions. In this way, the notables shaped the composition of the wider Kapo class, creating networks of prisoners bound by patronage and loyalty.168 This was yet another case of “groupness.” Political prisoners, for example, often did their best to reserve Kapo positions for fellow sympathizers. Likewise, foreign Kapos pushed their own countrymen forward; in Ravensbrück, many Polish Kapos owed their posts to Helena Korewina, the influential translator of the SS camp supervisor.169 The competition over Kapo positions once more pitted different prisoner groups against one another. The battles were fought at all levels, but they were most visible at the top of the prisoner order, and often appeared to pit two groups of German inmates against each other: political prisoners, with the red triangle, and so-called criminals, wearing the green triangle.

Red and Green

When Benedikt Kautsky looked back in 1945 at his seven years as a Jewish Socialist in Dachau, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz, he found harsh words for many of his fellow inmates. But he reserved his greatest condemnation for the “green” Kapos, with their “hideous brutality and insatiable greed.” Kautsky pictured them as more animal than human. As serious and incorrigible offenders, he claimed, they had made perfect partners in crime for the SS, who turned them into their most devoted executioners. Wherever the “greens” gained the leading Kapo positions, he reported, the results had been catastrophic, engulfing camps in treason, torture, blackmail, sexual abuse, and murder. The “greens” were the “pestilence of the camps.” Only political prisoners, who pursued the good of all decent inmates, could stand up to them. The ensuing struggle for supremacy between the upright “reds” and the wicked “greens,” Kautsky concluded, had been a matter of life and death for the other inmates.170

Kautsky spoke for many survivors, especially former political prisoners like himself.171 In their testimonies, they often described the “greens” as deadly threats, who had been unhinged criminals long before entering the KL. According to one German Communist, also writing in 1945, the Nazis had rounded up “thousands of crooks, killers, and so on” after their capture of power, and then filled almost all senior Kapo positions with these degenerates for whom murder was just a hobby.172 The same devastating picture of “green” Kapos has been painted over and over again, and has become a fixture in popular works on the KL. But it is no more than a caricature. To be sure, like most caricatures, it draws on some truths. German ex-convicts did gain some leading Kapo positions, especially in camps for men, and a number of them committed hideous crimes inside; Kapo nicknames like “Bloody Alois” and “Ivan the Terrible” speak for themselves.173 But the sins of some have led to the slander of all.

Contrary to the convictions of so many political prisoners, only a few “greens” had been sent to the KL as violent criminals. Even an observer as astute as Primo Levi was wrong to believe that the Nazis had specially selected hardened criminals in prisons to deploy them as Kapos.174 In fact, most of those detained in the prewar KL had committed minor property crimes, as we have seen, not brutal excesses. And this did not change during the war. Convicted rapists and murderers did not normally end up in concentration camps, but in state prisons, either locked in dark cells, or led to the gallows or guillotine.175 The mass of “green” KL inmates were still small-time offenders, if they were guilty of any crimes at all. The reputation of these men and women as savage convicts owed less to their criminal record than the dark fantasies of their fellow inmates, in whose imagination petty criminals mutated into serial murderers.176 Wild rumors became fact, as the violence of some Kapos was explained by their imagined homicidal past.

The truth was often different, even in the case of some of the most infamous “greens.” Take the case of Bruno Frohnecke, a vicious Kapo. Detained since 1941 as a professional criminal, Frohnecke became the scourge of a large Auschwitz construction detail. He abused fellow prisoners at every turn, hitting them with his fist, clubs, and sticks, and kicking them in the abdomen and genitals. “All I can say is that I have never met anyone like him,” a survivor told the German police in 1946. “He was not a thug; he was a murderer, in the true sense of the word.” But before he had fallen into SS hands, Frohnecke had shown no particular propensity for brutality. He had been an inept conman, not a killer, and had been caught again and again for small scams. Frohnecke, in short, was no natural-born killer: he only became a violent criminal inside the KL.177 What is more, while Frohnecke’s background was typical for “green” Kapos, the same cannot be said for his actions in the camps, as some other “greens” acted in a comradely fashion and took great risks to save fellow inmates, including Jews, from certain death.178

The case of the first thirty Kapos in Auschwitz is instructive here. In the literature, these men have sometimes been held up as typical “green” criminals.179 A closer look reveals a more complex story. Though they were all “green” veterans from Sachsenhausen, and enjoyed many privileges in Auschwitz, not all of them abused their powers. Some did become brutal murderers, like the former safecracker Bernhard Bonitz (prisoner number 6). During his first year or so as a block elder, he is said to have strangled some fifty Auschwitz prisoners, by throwing his victims to the ground, pressing a stick across their neck, and standing on both ends. He later continued his crimes as the first chief Kapo of the construction commando on the IG Farben site, lording it over some 1,200 prisoners.180 Several of his “green” Auschwitz colleagues, however, conducted themselves very differently. They shunned Bonitz and other notorious Kapos “because of their behavior toward the prisoners,” in the words of Jonny Lechenich (prisoner number 19). Once they even confronted Bonitz directly; he was a prisoner, too, they told him, and should treat his men more humanely. Lechenich himself became active in the camps’ underground organization and later fled with two Polish prisoners, joining the Home Army.181He was not the only one to make common cause with his charges. Otto Küsel (prisoner number 2), the Kapo in the Auschwitz labor action office, was widely known as decent, and eventually escaped in late 1942 with three Poles, rather than betray their plans to the SS. After nine months on the run, Küsel was rearrested; brought back to Auschwitz, he was tortured for several months in the bunker.182

More generally, brutal “greens” like Bernhard Bonitz had no monopoly on violence. Jewish prisoners, for example, were often outraged when they suffered at the hands of others wearing the yellow triangle: “Aren’t you a Jew, like us?” Avram Kajzer challenged a Gross-Rosen supervisor, who punched him in reply.183 The focus on the “greens” has rather obscured the uncomfortable truth that Kapos from all backgrounds colluded with the SS and committed cruel excesses.

Neither did the Camp SS habitually favor “greens” over “reds.” Political prisoners had filled positions of authority since the birth of the KL, and this continued during the war. Important clerical posts largely went to politicals, for example, who were more likely to possess the requisite administrative skills, and “reds” also gained other influential positions, above all in Buchenwald, where German Communists held all key posts by 1943.184

The pragmatic approach of the Camp SS inflamed tensions between Germans wearing the red and the green triangles.185 In Dachau, the “reds,” who held the upper hand, helped to condemn “greens” to hard labor and human experiments, and restricted their medical treatment. One former prisoner recalled that when he sought treatment for edema in the infirmary, “red” Kapos beat him away, screaming: “Piss off, green swine!” Dachau political prisoners defended their actions as payback for the abuses some of them had suffered at the hands of “greens” in Flossenbürg, early in the war. These Flossenbürg “greens,” in turn, had justified their attacks as revenge for even earlier abuses by politicals back in Dachau.186 The spiral of violence seemed unstoppable, escalating the enmity between the two prisoner groups.

However, the significance of these battles for dominance has been exaggerated. Generally, the outcome only mattered to the small number of prisoners who stood to benefit. “Red” Kapos primarily fought for their own groups.187 Likewise, most benefits gained by “green” Kapos went to their confidants, excluding many others with a green triangle, even though they often shared the same barrack.188 All considered, it is likely that a larger number of prisoners benefited when the “reds” were on top.189 But this was, at best, a matter of degree, as the “groupness” practiced by senior Kapos with “red” and “green” triangles often made it difficult for the mass of ordinary inmates to tell them apart. German political prisoners, a Polish survivor of Auschwitz wrote in 1946, differed “in nothing” from the “greens” and were just as hated by the rest of the inmates.190

Wherever possible, the Camp SS encouraged conflicts over Kapo posts, which were fought with equal ferocity by prisoner groups lower down the order.191 The aim, according to Heinrich Himmler, was to “play off one nation against the other,” by putting a French Kapo in charge of Polish prisoners, or a Polish Kapo in charge of Russians. In the same way, the SS sometimes pitted German “reds” and “greens” against each other, to prevent any single group from gaining supremacy and to increase their dependence on the SS.192

Some prisoners had different ideas. In autumn 1942, the WVHA sent eighteen Sachsenhausen Communists—almost all of them senior “red” Kapos, including the camp elder Harry Naujoks—to Flossenbürg, because of “seditious activities.” Officially, these notables were supposed to be deployed for hard labor there, but the SS must have expected the dominant “green” Kapos in Flossenbürg to drive them to their deaths. Instead, the so-called criminals aided their survival, much to the surprise of the Communist prisoners themselves.193 Elsewhere, too, prisoners occasionally joined forces. In Buchenwald, for example, a key made by a “green” picklock gave “red” Kapos access to secret documents in an SS safe.194 More often, though, prisoners did turn against each other. As Karl Adolf Gross concluded in despair in his Dachau diary on June 9, 1944: “How easy it is for our mutual enemies to play the different colors off against each other!”195

Inside Infirmaries

The moral ambiguities of being a Kapo were felt most acutely, perhaps, by inmates serving in infirmaries. As the war continued, the Camp SS drafted in more and more prisoners as clerks, nurses, and doctors. Few posts offered greater scope for helping or harming other captives. Exhausted inmates besieged the KL infirmaries on most mornings, but Kapos normally only admitted those whom they expected to quickly recover. “For those I had to reject,” one Dora prisoner doctor wrote after the war, “this was usually a death sentence.”196 These doctors also participated in lethal selections, and since they were better qualified than most SS physicians and knew the patients better, their word carried weight.197 After assisting in his first selection in Auschwitz, Dr. Elie Cohen, a Dutch Jew, broke down; he later took part in further selections, though his sense of shame never left him.198 Some medical Kapos even gave deadly injections and participated in human experiments, as we saw in the case of Dr. Mengele’s assistant Miklós Nyiszli.199 In fact, almost all experiments required the help of prisoners. In Dachau, well over a dozen Kapos worked on Dr. Rascher’s gruesome trials, checking the equipment, making records, conducting autopsies, and selecting some of the victims.200

The primary reason for becoming “part of the system,” as one prisoner doctor put it, was the same as for other Kapos—survival. Despite the risk of infection, infirmaries were among the safest places of work for KL prisoners, above all for Jews. It was no coincidence that the death rates among trained doctors remained unusually low. “We were so terribly protected,” wrote Dr. Cohen, “we really lived a life apart.”201 As so often in the KL, survival came at a heavy price: propping up SS terror. A few months after his arrival with other Slovak Jews in April 1942, Ján Weis became a male nurse in the Auschwitz main camp infirmary. One day in autumn 1942, he had to assist an SS orderly in the routine murder of sick prisoners. As one of the doomed inmates entered, Weis was horror-stricken to see his own father. Afraid for his own life, he said nothing; he watched as the SS orderly gave “father the injection and [then] I carried him, my father, away.”202

Each day, Kapos had to make dreadful decisions in the infirmaries. Because resources were scarce, saving some inmates meant sacrificing others. “Should I rather help a mother with many children,” the Auschwitz prisoner doctor Ella Lingens-Reiner asked herself, “or a young girl, who still had her life in front of her?”203 Some Kapos made their choice on purely medical grounds. During SS selections, they tried to protect stronger prisoners by condemning weaker ones who might not survive much longer anyway.204Other factors came to the fore, too, including the Kapos’ national background and political affinity. Take Helmut Thiemann, whom we encountered earlier, a committed Communist imprisoned in Buchenwald between 1938 and 1945. Justifying himself in an internal KPD document written immediately after the war, he argued that he had participated in the SS murder of other prisoners, in order to keep his position in the infirmary and protect Communists. “Because our comrades were worth more than all the others, we had to go along with the SS to a degree, in regard to the extermination of the incurably sick and invalids.”205

Many other medical Kapos made equally fateful judgments about the worth of individual prisoners. As the senior Kapo in Dr. Rascher’s Dachau station, Walter Neff effected “victim swaps” to save some men he regarded as deserving. In place of priests, for example, he put forward alleged pedophiles and other “lowlifes” (as he called them) for the trials. Such practices were contentious among the wider prisoner population, however, not least because some death sentences pronounced by Kapos were based on nothing more than rumor or personal antipathy.206 In view of their immense powers, it is hardly surprising that some medical Kapos lost their moral bearings.207

By contrast, other Kapos in KL infirmaries still saw themselves as healers. Dramatic improvements were beyond them, of course. But fighting against the odds and their own exhaustion—in the Birkenau women’s camp, one prisoner doctor cared for seven hundred patients in the winter of 1943–44—they did save lives, drawing on their medical skills, bravery, and ingenuity.208 They helped to bring down epidemic infections through strict regimens of disinfection, and protected some prisoners from selections by hiding them inside the infirmaries.209

One extraordinary rescue was that of young Luigi Ferri, who arrived in Auschwitz with his grandmother on June 3, 1944, on a small transport of Jews from Italy. The SS initially overlooked Luigi and the eleven-year-old boy found himself alone in the Birkenau quarantine camp. SS men would have killed him within hours, no doubt, had he not come to the attention of the prisoner doctor Otto Wolken, a resourceful Jewish physician from Vienna. In tears, Luigi told his story, pleading for help. Dr. Wolken risked his life to protect the boy, whom he soon called his “camp son.” Despite repeated SS orders to hand the boy over, Wolken hid him in different barracks for over two months, helped by some confidants. Then, in mid-August 1944, Wolken bribed a Kapo in the political office to have Luigi officially registered. Although the boy could now move more freely around the camp, Wolken still had to protect him, hiding him during selections and letting him sleep in the safety of the infirmary. When Soviet troops reached Auschwitz in late January 1945, both Wolken and Luigi were among the small number of survivors.210


Defiance is rare in totalitarian regimes, and the KL probably provided the most barren grounds for its growth. During the war, the obstacles were almost insurmountable. Most prisoners were too exhausted to contemplate fundamental opposition to the SS. Meanwhile, those more privileged prisoners who could afford to think beyond their immediate survival had the least incentive for insubordination, because they stood to lose the most. Conflicts between inmate groups further undermined the scope for concerted action, and there was little hope for sustained moral or material support from the outside, either. Given the might of the SS, which tried to crush any seeds of protest, violent confrontations seemed senseless and suicidal. “Resistance is out of the question,” Janusz Pogonowski wrote in Auschwitz in summer 1942. “Even the smallest infraction of the camp rules has dreadful consequences.”211 Their inability to take the fight to the SS only increased the inmates’ sense of paralysis. They were soldiers “condemned to an unarmed martyrdom,” a Polish prisoner exclaimed during a secret memorial service for a dead comrade in Mauthausen.212 And yet, individual prisoners in every KL challenged the SS, at extraordinary risk. Although most of their acts have been lost to history, some have endured in the perpetrator files and the memories of survivors.

The Prisoner Underground

According to some survivor accounts, political prisoners formed powerful clandestine organizations based on international solidarity, which fought the Camp SS at every turn, saving inmates and sabotaging the war effort. Such depictions feed our craving for heroics by strong and unbowed prisoners, but they appear rather rose-tinted, in light of the huge barriers to opposition in the KL.213 To be sure, a few prisoners from different nations tried to work together, especially later in the war. However, their efforts inevitably remained limited; in Dachau, for example, a truly international inmate committee only emerged right at the end of the war. Organized opposition was restricted in size and scope, and even at its most daring, it only benefited a small number of prisoners. Many others did not even know that there was an underground movement in their camp.214

Among the most audacious acts of organized opposition was the rescue of individual inmates from certain death, by hiding them or giving them false identities. Such operations were dangerous and complicated, as we saw in the case of young Luigi Ferri.215 And under the laws of the camp, the rescue of one prisoner sometimes condemned another. In Buchenwald, German Communists helped to protect hundreds of children until the end of the war. Among them was the toddler Stefan Jerzy Zweig, barely three feet tall, whom they adopted as a symbol of innocent life (at the age of four, he would become the youngest survivor of the camp). When the boy’s name appeared on a transport list to Auschwitz, Communist Kapos managed to get it struck off. But the transport could not leave one prisoner short, so a Gypsy called Willy Blum was chosen to take Stefan’s place. The sixteen-year-old boy left Buchenwald on September 25, 1944, and later died in Auschwitz.216

The achievements and limits of collective defiance come into sharper focus still when looking at arguably the most spectacular KL rescue mission, also in Buchenwald. In summer 1944, the Paris Gestapo had dispatched a special transport to the camp. On board were thirty-seven Allied agents, among them hardened resistance fighters from France, as well as spies from Belgium, Britain, the United States, and Canada. When it became clear that these men faced execution, a few veteran Buchenwald inmates hatched an ingenious plan. Claiming that typhus had broken out in the agents’ barrack, the rescuers spirited away three prominent men—Stéphane Hessel (a French officer working for General de Gaulle), Edward Yeo-Thomas (one of the most intrepid British secret agents, code-named “White Rabbit”), and Henri Peulevé (another longtime British spy)—to the first floor of block 46, the isolation ward for prisoners with typhus, which was closed off from the rest of the camp by barbed wire. Here, they waited for some sick patients to succumb to the disease, so that the identities of the dead and the hidden spies could be switched. After several tense weeks, the three agents finally received their new names. “Thanks to your care, everything has come out all right,” Hessel wrote on October 21, 1944, in a secret note to Eugen Kogon, the German medical clerk who had masterminded their rescue. “My feelings are those of a man who has been saved in the nick of time. What relief!” To prevent the three foreigners from being recognized in Buchenwald, other Kapos quickly dispatched them to satellite camps.

This high-wire act could have failed at any moment. It required enormous courage and quick thinking by several powerful Buchenwald Kapos, working together despite personal antipathies and political differences. They tricked SS officers, forged records, stole documents, hid the agents, and even injected one of them with milk to simulate high fever. The risks paid off: all three agents survived. However, an operation such as this pushed organized resistance to the edge and had to remain the exception. The other thirty-four Allied agents who had arrived in Buchenwald together with Hessel, Yeo-Thomas, and Peulevé were all shot or hanged in September and October 1944. As Eugen Kogon wrote, “there simply was no possibility of rescue under the prevailing circumstances.”217

While the obstacles in the way of rescue often proved insurmountable, it was easier for underground movements to collect evidence about Camp SS crimes. The clandestine groups in Auschwitz, led by Polish soldiers and nationalists, were particularly successful in this respect, after they established links to the Polish resistance outside; extraordinarily, one of the inmates involved, Lieutenant Witold Pilecki, had let himself be arrested by the German authorities, under a false name, to join the prisoner underground in the camps. Using their outside contacts, the Polish prisoners smuggled important material out of Auschwitz, including maps and statistics, as well as reports on SS perpetrators, executions, medical experiments, living conditions, and mass killings. The conspirators even got their hands on SS documents, such as transport lists. “You should make full use of the two original lists of people who were gassed,” Stanisław Kłodziński wrote on November 21, 1943, from the camp to a contact in the Polish resistance: “You might send them to London as originals.”218

To gather material about the Nazi Final Solution, the prisoner underground in Auschwitz needed the help of Special Squad members, who witnessed the daily mass murder close-up. Getting evidence out of the strictly guarded zone of death around the crematoria meant “risking the life of the entire group,” one of them, Salmen Lewental, wrote in 1944; but he felt compelled to tell the world about the Nazi crimes “because without us nobody will know what happened, and when.”219 The most daring operation came in late August 1944, when one Special Squad prisoner, helped by others, documented the murder of Lodz Jews with a hidden camera. Concealed inside the gas chamber of Birkenau crematorium V, he photographed the burning of corpses in pits outside; later, he stepped in the open air to capture other victims as they undressed among the trees; four of the images have survived, smuggled out of Auschwitz within days, and they remain some of the most poignant testaments of the Holocaust.220

Like other acts of prisoner defiance, the efforts to document KL crimes were extremely courageous. After all, prisoners knew that the SS was hunting everyone engaged in subversive activites. In fact, SS officers even conjured up plots where none existed. “He saw a seditious act of sabotage in every triviality,” an SS man from the Auschwitz political office later said about his former boss, Maximilian Grabner.221 Often, the SS alarm was raised by denunciations from fellow prisoners, as local commandants built up a network of informants (acting on WVHA instructions); the Sachsenhausen SS alone is said to have used almost three hundred “stoolies.”222 Suspects were dragged to the bunkers and tormented by SS men from the political office. And although the evidence they gathered was often negligible, they demanded extreme punishment; when the Dora SS got wind in autumn 1944 of an alleged plot to blow up the tunnel, it tortured hundreds of innocent prisoners and eventually executed over 150 Soviets, as well as some German Kapos, among them four former Communist camp elders.223

The authorities were equally uncompromising when it came to suspected sabotage, another SS obsession. Sanctions were swift and severe, even for harmless acts. A joke could cost a prisoner’s life, as could purely symbolic acts; in Dora, the SS once strung up a Russian prisoner for allegedly urinating into the body of a V2 rocket.224 The SS even twisted acts of desperation into sabotage, executing prisoners for using parts of their bedsheet as gloves or socks.225 In this way, most prisoners were forced into submission. Although they generally hated working for the enemy, there was no widespread obstruction in the KL. “I would have never committed sabotage,” a former inmate summed up the feelings of many, “because I wanted to survive.”226

Insubordination and Escapes

Direct challenges to the SS were madness, most veteran prisoners agreed. It was dangerous enough to charm, bribe, or trick SS officials, but to defy them directly could only lead to disaster. After a Flossenbürg prisoner was beaten senseless for insulting the SS during an evening roll call, Alfred Hübsch wondered what had possessed this “lunatic” to swim against the tide. “Everyone here must have learned a long time ago that any resistance will be broken!”227 Inevitably, acts of open defiance remained very rare during World War II. When they did occur, they burned themselves deep into the memories of survivors.

Some newcomers stood up to the SS because they did not yet understand the KL.228 When thirty-nine-year-old Josef Gaschler from Munich was taken to Sachsenhausen, in the early months of the war, and saw SS men punch other new arrivals in the face, he shouted: “What on earth is going on here? Have we fallen among thieves or do you still claim to be cultivated people?” The SS men answered him with feet and fists, dragged him to the penal company, and killed him (the official death certificate stated that he died of “insanity and raving madness”).229 Such assaults were enough to persuade most new prisoners to fall into line. Still, even veterans defied the SS on occasion. Some simply snapped; overwhelmed by despair, grief, or anger, they temporarily lost all self-control.230Others were guided by moral or religious convictions. A hard core among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, remained firm in their refusal to carry out any work related to the German war effort. The SS fury about their obstinacy, which reached all the way to Himmler, hit these prisoners hard and several lost their lives.231 These brutal SS responses ensured that prisoner strikes remained exceedingly rare.232

One of the most deadly demonstrations of SS resolve came in spring 1944 in the Flossenbürg satellite camp Mülsen St. Micheln, set up a few months earlier in a disused textile plant near Zwickau. Its inmates worked on fighter plane engines on the main floor of the building, and slept in a crowded cellar below. The men never left the factory. Conditions were particularly poor for the hundreds of starving Soviets, who made up the majority of the prisoner population. On the night of May 1, 1944, some of them, delirious with hunger, set alight straw mattresses in the basement, perhaps hoping that this would allow them to flee. SS men made sure that there would be no way out of the inferno. They locked the prisoners inside, shot at those trying to escape, and prevented the local fire brigade from entering. “The smoke was rife with the stench of burning bodies. I could see nothing at all and I struggled for air,” one prisoner recalled, who survived by clinging for hours to the bars of a cellar window, with flames scorching his body. When the fire finally died down, around two hundred men lay dead and many more were badly burned. But the SS was not finished yet. Over the following months, it executed dozens of Soviets who had survived the blaze. The message was clear: open defiance would be met with absolute terror.233

Given the futility of physical resistance, a couple of bold inmates submitted written protests to the SS instead. In March 1943, several Polish women, who had been mutilated during human experiments, petitioned the Ravensbrück commandant. In their letter, they challenged him to justify the carnage caused by the operations: “We are asking you to grant us a meeting in person or to send us an answer.” Predictably, Commandant Suhren never replied. But the women did not give in. When the SS tried to continue the experiments, a few months later, the intended victims hid in their barrack, sheltered by fellow prisoners. “We decided among ourselves that it would be better if they would shoot us,” one of them later testified, “rather than have them cut us up all the time.” Once again, though, the SS imposed its will. The so-called rabbits were dragged to the bunker, and several were operated on; the other rebels were locked into their barrack for days without food or fresh air.234

With open challenges all but impossible, some prisoners came to see escape as their only chance to cheat death. During his imprisonment in Auschwitz, Stanisław Frączysty had a recurring dream, during which he turned into a small animal and slid with ease through the fence around the camp, leaving it and all its horror behind.235 Escape was on the minds of many inmates, and not just when they were asleep. In the end, though, only a few—mostly men—took the risk of fleeing, though figures were growing during the final years of the Second World War.236 The number of runaways from the Mauthausen camp complex, for example, rose from 11 (1942) to more than 226 (1944). In the Buchenwald complex, meanwhile, the SS reported the flight of 110 prisoners during a particularly turbulent two-week period in September 1944—though with over eighty-two thousand prisoners held there at the time, this was still an infinitesimal proportion of the inmate population.237

The rise in escapes reflects the changes in the KL system during the war. While it remained very hard to abscond from the established main camps—not a single prisoner seems to have managed to flee from Neuengamme until April 1945—the chances of success stood higher in hastily erected and poorly secured satellite camps.238 The proliferation of prisoner transports also offered greater opportunities for escape, as did the lack of veteran SS guards. As a Polish prisoner explained, after successfully absconding in July 1944, the staff shortages had “caused me constantly to think of escape.”239

The circumstances of escapes varied greatly. Some prisoners used force, drugging, beating, or killing guards to clear their way.240 More commonly, they relied on deception, climbing into trucks that left the camp or hiding in safe places until the SS called off its search. Disguises worked, too, with several prisoners dressing up as SS officials. One such escape unfolded in June 1942 in Auschwitz. Sneaking past the guards, four Polish prisoners broke into the SS storerooms, grabbed uniforms and weapons, and then drove off in a limousine. When they were flagged down at a checkpoint, the ringleader, dressed as an Oberscharführer, leaned out of the window and gesticulated impatiently at sentries at the barrier, which was quickly lifted. “A few minutes later, we were driving through the city of Oświęcim,” one of the conspirators recalled. After camp compound leader Hans Aumeier found out how his men had been duped, he “went almost crazy, tearing out his hair,” according to the Auschwitz underground leader Witold Pilecki.241

The ultimate success of escapes depended on many variables, with luck the most important ingredient, followed by outside connections. Once prisoners had left the immediate vicinity of the KL, they needed support, and quickly. In occupied Europe, some fugitives received shelter from members of the resistance, and often joined the underground themselves; following his own escape from Auschwitz, Witold Pilecki fought during the doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Other escapees remained in hiding until the end of the war. After he fled from Monowitz in summer 1944, helped by his girlfriend and a German civilian contractor, Bully Schott changed into regular clothes and traveled on a packed night train to his hometown, Berlin. Here he survived, as one of a few thousandJews hiding in the German capital, with the help of old friends, who moved him to different safe houses and provided him with false papers.242

A few runaways even crossed enemy lines. Among them was Pavel Stenkin. One of the few survivors of an attempted mass escape of Soviet POWs from Auschwitz-Birkenau in November 1942, he rejoined the Red Army and triumphantly entered Berlin as a liberator in 1945.243 Another was a Polish lieutenant by the name of Marcinek. Carrying forged papers, a pistol, and an SS uniform, he traveled by train and car from Berlin to the front line in Normandy, where he crossed over to the Allies on July 19, 1944, under heavy artillery fire. A German called Schreck, who accompanied Marcinek, had meticulously prepared their escape. To the surprise of the British troops, Schreck was no prisoner but a Sachsenhausen SS man; entangled in a corruption affair, he preferred Allied captivity to punishment by the SS.244

Escapes always prompted manhunts by the Nazi authorities, and although it is impossible to establish how many prisoners managed to evade the clutches of SS and police, the odds were stacked against them, at least until the final months of the war. Take the following example of 471 men and women who fled from the Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945. In all, 144 stayed on the run and mostly survived the war. But 327 were arrested and delivered back to the camp, where they faced draconian punishment.245

SS Responses

Despite the low number of successful KL escapes, Heinrich Himmler was concerned. Anxious about the safety of the German public, he ordered his men in 1943 to use any means necessary to stem the flow, from planting land mines to training dogs that tore prisoners to pieces. To turn up the pressure, he also insisted that every KL had to inform him personally about escapes.246 Fearing Himmler’s wrath, Richard Glücks—who anxiously asked his managers in the T-Building each morning if any prisoners had run away—made the fight against escapes a priority.247 His WVHA office exhorted the local Camp SS “never to trust a prisoner” and tightened up procedures.248 Although official regulations for sentries required them to shout “stop” before discharging their weapons, an internal Camp SS manual instructed guards to shoot without warning.249 Superiors praised vigilant men who had foiled escapes, awarding furloughs and other bonuses, while they issued threats against negligent ones.250 The SS had a message for the prisoners, too: anyone who tried to escape would face a terrible fate.

Deterrence was the most important element in the Camp SS fight against escapes. Some recaptured prisoners were maimed by dogs, as Himmler had hoped; afterward, the SS displayed the mangled corpses on the roll call square.251 More often, the unfortunates were dragged back alive. First the SS tortured them, to find out who had helped them and how they had beaten the defenses.252 Then they were publicly humiliated, followed by the punishment proper. Some prisoners got away with fifty lashes or transfer to the penal company (apparently, the SS showed such “leniency” to inmates who had run away on impulse).253 Many more paid with their lives.

Some local SS men took matters into their own hands.254 At other times, the recaptured inmates were executed in line with official protocol, after commandants applied for, and received, permission to kill from their superiors.255 Starting in 1942, Camp SS officials carried out numerous such ritualized hangings of condemned prisoners, which resembled the first KL execution, of Emil Bargatzky in summer 1938. The killing of the Austrian prisoner Hans Bonarewitz is a case in point. Bonarewitz had escaped from Mauthausen around noon on June 22, 1942, hidden inside a crate on a lorry. Recaptured some days later, he faced a torturous death. For a week, he was paraded in front of the other prisoners, together with his wooden crate; on it, the SS had written mocking words like Goethe’s saying “Why stray far away, when everything good is right here.” Then, on July 30, 1942, the SS forced Bonarewitz on the cart used for taking corpses to the crematorium. Some prisoners slowly pulled it toward the gallows on the roll call square, while the others stood to attention. The procession, which lasted more than one hour, was led by a prisoner acting as master of ceremonies, and by ten inmates from the camp orchestra, who played songs such as the children’s classic “All the little birds are back.” Along the way, an SS man took photographs, documenting Bonarewitz’s final moments. At the gallows, the SS whipped and tortured him, and finally had him hanged; the rope broke twice before he died, accompanied by music from the orchestra.256

Prisoner reactions to public hangings—sometimes sarcastically called “German cultural evenings”—varied.257 Some quietly swore revenge or yelled in protest.258 Others were unmoved, blaming the executed inmates for the collective SS abuse that often followed escapes. The most common reaction, perhaps, was dread. One former Mauthausen inmate recalled that after the execution of two recaptured German prisoners, one of them so badly wounded he had to be carried to the gallows, he quickly lost any urge to flee himself: “The spectacle has worked: better to kick the bucket in the quarry than to go to the gallows!”259

Public executions were not the only SS means of deterrence. Occasionally, the authorities took family members of escaped inmates as hostages to the KL.260 The Camp SS also punished fellow prisoners in place of escaped ones. From early on, there were torturous roll calls, beatings, and other abuses. Later on, the SS resorted to murder, as well. Following the escape of a Polish inmate in spring 1941, the Auschwitz SS starved ten others to death in the bunker. A few months later, following a further escape, the SS punished another group of prisoners in the same way. To save one of these doomed men, the Franciscan priest Maksymilian Kolbe stepped forward to die in his stead. The SS accepted his sacrifice, but after he had survived for more than two weeks, its patience ran out; Kolbe was administered a lethal injection.261 Collective executions soon became a regular form of deterrence, in Auschwitz and some other KL. Among the many victims was Janusz Pogonowski, the young Polish prisoner who had remained in touch with his family by secret letters. He was one of twelve prisoners hanged in Auschwitz on the evening of July 19, 1943, in front of rows of other inmates, following the escape of three colleagues from his labor commando.262

The SS policy of collective punishment showed some effect, as prisoners thought twice about running away. And they had mixed feelings about the escapes of others. On the one hand, such escapes could boost prisoner morale, as every SS setback did, and offered hope that the world would learn about their fate.263 On the other hand, inmates dreaded the terror that often followed.264 The SS was well aware that many prisoners saw escapees as traitors against the community, and sometimes exploited their anger, as in the case of the waiter Alfred Wittig, a “green” prisoner in Sachsenhausen. One afternoon in summer 1940, Wittig went missing. While the SS searched the camp, all prisoners had to stand to attention, deep into the night. When the SS finally dismissed them from the roll call square, several had collapsed. The search for Wittig resumed the following morning and after he was discovered—hidden under a pile of sand—an SS officer delivered him to the other prisoners: “Do with him what you want.” Seething about their suffering the previous night, dozens of them trampled Wittig to death. For once, the cause of death was recorded accurately on the official paperwork, because the SS had not been directly involved: “Injury to lung and other internal organs (beaten to death by fellow prisoners).”265

Resistance by the Doomed

Mala Zimetbaum and Edek Galiński became lovers in Auschwitz, sometime in the second half of World War II. Theirs was one of the few relationships to blossom in the KL, and it has since become a symbol of hope and tragedy in the camps, commemorated in books, films, and a graphic novel.266 Both were veterans of Auschwitz. Zimetbaum, a Polish Jew, was deported from Belgium in September 1942, while Galiński had arrived more than two years earlier, on the first transport of Polish political prisoners. Over time, both gained privileged posts that allowed them to rendezvous in the X-ray room of the infirmary in the Birkenau women’s compound. They often talked about running away together, and after careful planning, they risked everything on the afternoon of Saturday, June 24, 1944. Dressed in stolen SS uniforms, they left the camp, each on their own, and strolled into town, as if they were SS staff on weekend leave. After they were reunited on the banks of the Vistula, they tried to make it to Slovakia. But after they had spent two weeks on the run, exhausted and lost in the Carpathian Mountains, border guards caught them. When they returned to Auschwitz, the SS threw them into the bunker—Galiński’s inscriptions on the walls are still legible today—and condemned them to die.

But the day of their execution, September 15, 1944, did not proceed as the SS had planned. Edek Galiński was marched along rows of prisoners in one of the Birkenau compounds for men and led up to the scaffold. Before the SS could read out his sentence, however, Galiński tried to hang himself. Held back by officials, he shouted a rallying cry as the executioner pulled the floor from under his feet. Over in the Birkenau women’s compound, Mala Zimetbaum also defied the SS. As she was escorted to the gallows on the roll call square, she produced a razor blade and cut her wrist. When an SS man tried to stop her, she hit him. Stunned officials dragged her away, and she was last seen, more dead than alive, on a cart near the crematorium. Zimetbaum lived on in the memory of the other prisoners. Not only had she escaped from Auschwitz, she had confronted her tormentors, shattering the carefully staged SS spectacle. “For the first time we saw a Jewish prisoner raise h[er] hand against a German,” a young survivor later said with admiration.267

Defiance by the doomed was unusual, but it was not unprecedented. To stop condemned prisoners like Edek and Mala from addressing the others, SS officials sometimes gagged them before public executions.268 But the perpetrators knew that executions could still unite the other inmates in their loathing of the SS. This was one reason, no doubt, why most Camp SS murders took place in secret. But even behind closed doors, some prisoners resisted, attacking their killers, or shouting political slogans before they died. SS men tried to laugh off such incidents, but they must have been unsettled, because they had failed to break their victims.269

There was defiance at the Birkenau gas chambers, too. Some prisoners—Jews, Gypsies, and others—fought back as the SS pushed them inside, though such desperate resistance was in vain. Others sang political songs or religious hymns on their way to thegas.270 One of the most celebrated acts occurred on October 23, 1943, when, outside the Birkenau gas chambers, a Jewish prisoner wrestled a gun from the SS and shot at the guards, amid a general commotion. Unterscharführer Josef Schillinger was fatally wounded and another official seriously injured before SS men regained control and slaughtered the inmates; one guard was later commended for helping to “stifle the rebellion” through “determined action.” The sensational news of Schillinger’s death quickly reached other parts of the camp, and there were many rumors about what, exactly, had happened. In the most popular telling, the killer was a striking young woman, a dancer. As for Schillinger, the word among prisoners was that, as he lay dying, he had whimpered: “O God, my God, what have I done to deserve such suffering.” These final words may have sprung from revenge fantasies, but the subsequent SS rage was all too real; at night, guards fired machine guns into the Birkenau camp compound, mowing down more than a dozen prisoners. Of course, these deaths barely registered among the Auschwitz SS, which had long become used to mass murder on a far bigger scale.271

An Uprising in Auschwitz

It was just after lunchtime on Saturday, October 7, 1944, a bright autumn day under a cloudless sky, when a small group of SS men entered the yard outside crematorium IV in Auschwitz-Birkenau and ordered nearly three hundred Special Squad prisoners to line up. The SS announced a selection, supposedly for transfer to another camp, and began to pick out some men. Not all of them came forward, however, and the situation grew tense. Suddenly, one of the oldest prisoners, the Polish Jew Chaim Neuhoff, lunged forward and attacked an SS man with a hammer. Others joined in. Wielding stones, axes, and iron bars, they forced the SS behind the compound’s barbed wire. The air in Birkenau filled with screams, shots, and the sound of sirens, and also with smoke—not from burning bodies, as usual, but from the crematorium building itself, which the prisoners had set ablaze. The uprising of the Birkenau Special Squad had begun.272

This moment had been coming for months. “For a long time, we, the ‘Special Squad,’ wanted to put a stop to our terrible work,” Salmen Gradowski wrote in Birkenau in autumn 1944. “We wanted to do something big.”273 There had been talk of an uprising backin spring 1944, probably in connection with the imminent liquidation of the Birkenau family camp (which occurred in March), but in the end nothing came of it. Still, the conspirators started to collect arms, including hand grenades, filled with explosives stolen by female prisoners at the nearby Union armaments works and smuggled into the Special Squad. The clamor for armed action became more persistent from midsummer 1944. Special Squad prisoners thought that most of them would be surplus to SS requirements, once the mass gassings of Hungarian Jews had ended. Given the advance of the Red Army, it also seemed likely that Auschwitz would be evacuated, and the prisoners feared that the SS would execute them before leaving; after all, they bore the darkest secrets of the Nazi Final Solution (similar fears had triggered the uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor the previous year). The men of the Birkenau Special Squad lived in heightened anticipation, but so volatile was their position that the plan for action had to be repeatedly postponed. Soon, the situation gained even greater urgency. On September 23, 1944, the SS selected two hundred Special Squad members, allegedly for transport to a different KL. The others learned the truth the following day, when they found the charred remains of their comrades in the crematorium. When the SS announced in early October that another selection would follow within days, the prisoners at crematorium IV suspected that this would be their death sentence. They would have to move now or never.274

But the Birkenau rebels were poorly prepared. They could not count on the prisoner underground elsewhere in the camp to join them, after these groups had concluded that a violent confrontation with the SS could only end in a massacre. There was an insoluble conflict of interest between Special Squad prisoners, who had nothing to lose, and most other inmates, who hoped to see out the final months. “Unlike us, they did not have to hurry,” Salmen Lewental noted bitterly in autumn 1944.275 In fact, the Special Squad itself was divided over the issue of armed action; some prisoners were too exhausted, others wanted to wait for a more opportune moment, when the whole camp would rise up with them. Among those who counseled caution were the main leaders of the Special Squad, who did not face immediate selection on October 7, 1944, and decided against participating in the uprising. Not only were the remaining rebels isolated, they were badly organized. There had been no time to make proper plans, and confusion mired the revolt from the start. Once crematorium IV was on fire, the prisoners could not reach their grenades hidden inside; the strongest weapons were left unused, buried under the collapsing roof of the building.276

The uprising was doomed from the outset. Within minutes, SS reinforcements arrived at crematorium IV to shoot at the exposed prisoners, easy to pick out in the bright daylight. One survivor peered into the yard of the compound and saw scores of his comrades “lying very still in their bloodstained prison uniforms,” with SS men firing at anyone who still stirred. By then, most of the remaining prisoners had run across the path to the adjacent crematorium V, hiding inside. SS guards soon dragged them out, threw them on the floor, together with other recaptured inmates, and shot them in the back of the neck. When the SS had finished, more than 250 corpses covered the grounds of the two crematoria.277

Meanwhile, around thirty minutes after Chaim Neuhoff had struck the first blow at crematorium IV, a second uprising broke out at crematorium II. The Special Squad prisoners there had heard the shots fired nearby and seen smoke rising. Following the instructions of their leaders, they initially remained calm. When some SS men came marching toward their compound, however, a group of Soviet POWs panicked and pushed a German Kapo into the burning furnace. The other Special Squad prisoners at crematorium II now had to join them, whether they wanted to or not, and armed themselves with knives and hand grenades. After they cut a hole in the fence surrounding their compound, up to one hundred prisoners escaped. But the SS hunted them all down; some got as far as the small town of Rajsko, a couple of miles away, hiding in a shed until the SS surrounded it and burned it to the ground.

The reprisals were not over yet. Over the coming weeks, the SS executed most survivors of the uprising, among them Lejb Langfus, who was murdered after the last Special Squad selection on November 26, 1944. Just before, he had written a final note: “We are sure that they will lead us to our deaths.” Among the other victims were four female prisoners who had smuggled explosives into Birkenau. One of them, Estusia Wajcblum, sent a last letter to her sister from the bunker, after weeks of SS torture: “Those outside of my window still have hope, but I have nothing … everything is lost and I so want to live.”278

In contrast to the revolts at Sobibor and Treblinka, where several hundred prisoners had evaded their pursuers, not a single Special Squad prisoner got away. This was due to the greater SS presence around Auschwitz and the elaborate security arrangements, which had been strengthened earlier that year to thwart an uprising. Within a few hours of the revolt, the SS had slaughtered more than two-thirds of the estimated 660 Birkenau Special Squad members (the SS itself lost three men, who were mourned as heroes). Only those Special Squad prisoners stationed at crematorium III, who did not rise up, were left unscathed and carried on with their duties as if nothing had happened.279

Neither did the uprising interrupt the mass extermination of Jews in Birkenau. The burned-down crematorium IV had been out of commission since May 1943, and the Camp SS continued to use its other facilities, gassing an estimated forty thousand men, women, and children after the uprising, in a lethal spurt lasting little more than two weeks. Among the dead were thousands of Jews from Theresienstadt. Although the SS preserved the ghetto to the very end, it deported most inhabitants to Auschwitz in autumn 1944, where the majority were murdered on arrival. The last Theresienstadt transport came on October 30; of the 2,038 men, women, and children on board, the SS sent 1,689 straight to their deaths, in what may have been the last mass gassing in the history of the camp.280

The Birkenau uprising throws a light on the terrible dilemma of violent opposition in the KL. Prisoners knew that a revolt would most likely result in their own deaths. Few were willing to take this risk. In general, only those who knew that they were about to be murdered were ready to fight; this was the courage of the doomed in the face of certain death. “We have given up hope that we’ll live until the moment of liberation,” Salmen Gradowski wrote, not long before his death during the uprising of October 7, 1944.281 By contrast, inmates who still had hopes of survival, however small, shied away from suicidal rebellions. This was why the main underground groups in Auschwitz decided against joining the armed revolt in autumn 1944, leaving the Special Squad feeling abandoned and alone.282

The uprising remains a powerful symbol of prisoner defiance, and much of our knowledge of the events comes directly from survivors of the Special Squad. When the SS abandoned the Auschwitz camp complex in mid-January 1945, some one hundred Special Squad prisoners were among the tens of thousands forced westward. Somehow, almost all of them—including Shlomo Dragon and his brother Abraham, and Filip Müller—survived until liberation.283 Such good fortune was the exception, however. The final months of the KL system were among the most lethal, bringing death to several hundred thousand registered prisoners. The closer these men, women, and children came to freedom, the more likely they were to die in the concentration camps.

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