Death and Life in the Camps
Jamie McCarthy answers:I am one of the volunteers who answers questions for the Holocaust History Project.
You've asked a lot of questions that have very complex answers, I'm afraid. Here are some things that may help you.
Regarding the ways that people died in the Holocaust: this differs depending on whether you're speaking of Jewish victims or the other victims. Jews were shot in mass extermination actions outside of cities; they were herded into ghettos and left to starve before being rounded up and taken by train to camps; they were taken off the train and gassed immediately at the camps Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek; and they were worked and starved to death over a period of weeks or months at Auschwitz.
Regarding the day-to-day plan, that cannot be classified except perhaps for the Jews who were used as workers at Auschwitz, those interned in ghettoes, or those partisans who were still free and fought in the forests and hills. Some good sources on this are:
The two different types of Nazi camps were the concentration camps, and extermination camps. In concentration camps, the aim was to intern the prisoners and to get some useful work out of them. This does not mean the concentration camps were humane; rather, that the death of their prisoners was not the goal but merely a side effect.
In extermination camps, the aim was to extract the maximum value out of each human life sent there, for the minimum upkeep. At Auschwitz, this meant slave labor for those fit to work, producing rubber and other products (though little if any was ever made and used -- the war ended too soon for the Nazis). The minimum upkeep meant a lack of adequate sanitation, and cruelly insufficient rations. As prisoners succumbed to weakness from poor health and overwork, they were killed, usually by mass gassings, and the last value extracted from them in the form of gold teeth, hair for mattresses and submarine insulation, and finally the ashes of their cremation used for fertilizer on surrounding farmers' fields. I should point out that of the six extermination camps Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek, only at Auschwitz was slave labor used on a grand scale. At the first four camps listed, the Nazis skipped the extrication of slave labor, gassed arrivals immediately, and went straight to the extraction of teeth and confiscation of jewelry and other valuables.
The details of Hitler's absolute rulership over his nation are too numerous to go into here. We don't have much about this on our website yet, but you may want to read our short essay on the man, which describes his rise to power. It may also be enlightening to read a bit about his masterpiece of antisemitic propaganda, the film Der ewige Jude ("The Eternal Jew"), produced for the purpose of swaying the masses of Germany and especially its military over to his point of view.
If your major goal is to enlighten your class on how life was in the camps, I strongly recommend both Wiesel's and Levi's books, above. They are short and will not take more than a day or two to read; they will be in nearly any library; and they effectively communicate the sheer horror of life in one of the most horrific artificial hells that humanity has ever constructed.
Good luck on your work.
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Last modified: September 4, 1999