What was life like in the camps? - Memory makes us free

What was life like in the camps?

Life in the concentration camps was a real hell.

The conditions to which the deportees were subjected were prohibitive, for example the train journey that often lasted days and days and subjected them to unspeakable suffering and deprivation was awful.

Once they arrived at their destination, the prisoners were divided into two categories: the weakest were sent directly to the gas chambers to die, while those able to work were taken to a room where, stripped and shaved, were ordered to take showers, where only cold or boiling water gushed out.

The camp officials gave them striped, fetid, and crumpled uniforms, with mismatched uncomfortable shoes.

Divisa orginale del prigioniero Włodzimierz Cebula
Original uniform of the prisoner Włodzimierz Cebula – Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum -www.auschwitz.org


Then the recording began: the prisoner’s personal details and the left forearm of each one was recorded.

They were indelibly marked with a number, which was also printed on a piece of cloth and on the prisoner’s shirt; next to it was a coloured triangle, a different colour depending on the reason for the arrest and the ethnicity of the prisoner.

le "categorie" da sterminare
The “categories” to be exterminated

Later, the prisoners were isolated for 6/8 weeks, to prevent the spreading of illnesses, and to terrorize, psychologically destroy and make the segregated understand what ferocious laws were in force in the camp.

The prisoners were continually subjected to strenuous exercises. The alarm clock was at four in the morning and the deportees were forced, with curses and beatings, to leave their beds as quick as possible to begin the long roll call, which took place in the main square, outdoors, and could last several hours, it didn’t matter if it was hot or cold.

The prisoners worked in various sectors, mainly in the production of items for the Nazi war industries and in the expansion of the camps themselves. Those who were not skilled and fast enough were punished with violence, tormented by constant insults and often sent to the gas chambers.

Prigioniere al lavoro - Auschwitz 1
Prisoner at work – Auschwitz 1 – Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum  – www.auschwitz.org

The detainees received three meals a day (morning, afternoon, and evening), the nutritional value of which was less than what was necessary to sustain the very hard life that was forced on everyone. Most of the time the meals were the leftovers from the banquets of officers and superior Jews (for example, the kapo). 

In attesa del cibo - Auschwitz 2
Waiting for food – Auschwitz 2 – Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum – www.auschwitz.org

After a few weeks, with these starvation rations, the majority of prisoners began to lose weight dramatically, to have symptoms of debilitation, until they were reduced to skeletons, completely unable to work, and so inexorably destined to the gas chambers. 

In the evening, the prisoners returned to the barracks; they slept on one side to make room for everyone, on uncomfortable and dirty three-tiered bunk beds covered with straw mattresses and shavings that in the morning, after the alarm clock, were collected and placed in a corner of the dormitory.

In these conditions, going out during the night to fulfill one’s physiological needs corresponded to losing one’s place to sleep.

The worst conditions were further deteriorated by the humidity of the Auschwitz climate,  the water dripping from the roofs, the faeces that impregnated the straw mattresses, and by the inability to open the windows at night.

Worms, rats, and lice raged,  there was hardly any water to wash and the toilets were almost always blocked.

The camp hospital was constantly full. There were hospitalized injured or dying prisoners, people afflicted with typhus and scabies.

Many even ended up there due to the deep abrasions caused by the clogs that were either too big or too small, which during the long marches caused lacerations that were difficult to heal.

Those who gave no hope of healing were destined for the gas chambers or suffered lethal heart injections of phenol. The use of violence was a daily practice, the Nazis’ goal was to cancel the personality of their prisoners, humiliate, offend and torment them to the point of making them feel inhuman, wrong, useless, thus making the individual fall in total anguish.

It is easy to understand why the few who survived the life in the concentration camps have no longer been able to fully recover their lives, constantly tormented by deep existential crises, full of doubts, distrust, uncertainties, questions that do not have any answers.

Inside the camps it was impossible to remain a human being without turning into a beast. Everyone’s selfishness was driven to manifest themselves with greater strength, often the bonds of brotherhood disappeared so much that some prisoners, would show off by tyrannizing and tormenting their companions  in front of  the bosses just to obtain some privileges.

This situation was mentally and physically impossible to support and that is why many inmates preferred to commit suicide by throwing themselves against the barbed wire, remaining electrocuted instantly just to save themselves from the countless tortures and their despicable everyday life.


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