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The Holocaust

The World of the Camps

Daily Life in the Camps

Westerbork, Netherlands- Roll call in the Westerbork Transit Camp Westerbork, Netherlands- Roll call in the Westerbork Transit Camp
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The hierarchic structure of the concentration camps followed the model established in Dachau. The German staff was headed by the Lagerkommandant (camp commander) and a team of subordinates, comprised mostly of junior officers. One of them commanded the prisoners’ camp, usually after being specially trained for this duty. Male and female guards and wardens of various kinds were subordinate to the command staff.

The prisoners had a hierarchy of their own.  Prisoner-supervisors (kapos) were considered an elite that could wield power. The prisoners had different opinions about them: most Jewish supervisors tried to treat their brethren well; some were harsh towards the other inmates.

The appel, the daily lineup that took place every morning after wakeup and each evening after returning from labor, was one of the horrific aspects of the prisoners’ lives in the camps. They were forced to stand completely still, often for hours at a time, exposed to the elements in the cold, rain, or snow and to the terror of sudden violence by SS men, guards or kapos. The camp routine was composed of a long list of orders and instructions, usually given to all but sometimes aimed at individual prisoners, the majority of which were familiar yet some came unexpected. All of one’s strength had to be enlisted to overcome the daily routine: an early wakeup, arranging the bed’s straw, the lineup, marching to labor, forced labor, the waiting period for the meager daily meal, usually consisting of a watery vegetable soup and half a piece of bread which was insufficient for people working at hard labor, the return to the camp, and another lineup, before retiring to the barracks.

Despite their terrible conditions, cultural and religious activity continued in the ghettos, labor camps, and even concentration camps. Literary and artistic works that survived the war reflect the Jews’ lives, agonies and efforts to maintain their human and Jewish identity. These works are direct and authentic testimonies and depict the Jewish victims’ daily life during the Holocaust. Writing a diary on scraps of paper, producing drawings and illustrations of camp life, making jewelry out of copper wire, writing a Passover Haggadah, and conducting prayer services on the eve of Rosh Hashanah are all manifestations of the tremendous psychological strength maintained by these frail, starving people. Even at the end of the grueling days they had to endure, they refused to abandon their creative endeavors. Prisoners in concentration and labor camps exhibited heroism and resourcefulness in their daily lives, struggling to sustain not only the ember of physical life but also, and primarily, their humanity and basic moral values, friendship and concern for others – values that facilitated their survival.