Daily Life in the Concentration Camps
Prisoners standing during a roll call at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
USHMM, courtesy of Robert A. Schmuhl (Photo #10105)
The first concentration camp in the Nazi system, Dachau, opened in March, 1933. By the end of World War II, the Nazis administered a massive system of over 20,000 camps that stretched across Europe from the French-Spanish border into the conquered Soviet territories, and as far south as Greece and North Africa. The largest number of prisoners were Jews, but individuals were arrested and imprisoned for a variety of reasons, including ethnicity and political affiliation. Prisoners were subjected to unimaginable terrors from the moment they arrived in the camps; it was a dehumanizing existence that involved a struggle for survival against a system designed to annihilate them.
Within the camps, the Nazis established a hierarchical identification system and prisoners were organized based on nationality and grounds for incarceration. Prisoners with a higher social status within the camp were often rewarded with more desirable work assignments such as administrative positions indoors. Some, such as the kapos (work supervisors) or camp elders held the power of life and death over other prisoners. Those lower on the social ladder had more physically demanding tasks such as factory work, mining, and construction, and suffered a much higher mortality rate from the combined effects of physical exhaustion, meager rations, and extremely harsh treatment from guards and some kapos. Prisoners also staffed infirmaries, kitchens, and served various other functions within the camp. Living conditions were harsh and extreme but varied greatly from camp to camp and also changed over time.
The following bibliography was compiled to guide readers to selected materials on daily life in the Nazi concentration camps that are in the Library's collection. It is not meant to be exhaustive. Annotations are provided to help the user determine the item's focus, and call numbers for the Museum's Library are given the call number in parentheses following each citation. Those unable to visit might find these works in a nearby public or academic library, or acquire them through interlibrary loan. Talk to your local librarian for assistance.
Background Information ↑
Berenbaum, Michael, and Yisrael Gutman, editors. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. (D 805.5 .A96 A53 1998) [Find in a library near you]
Collection of articles on a wide range of topics from noted scholars such as Raul Hilberg, Yisrael Gutman, and Yehuda Bauer. Includes series of articles on prisoner administration and prisoner psychology; camp hospitals; the experiences of women, children, and families; as well as specific articles on Roma (Gypsies) and Hungarian Jews.
Cohen, Elie A. Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp. London: Free Association Books, 1988. (D 805 .A2 C5613 1988) [Find in a library near you]
Provides a psychological perspective on life and behavior in the camps as experienced by both prisoners and perpetrators. Discusses general conditions in the camp, with particular notice of the medical consequences of daily life. Describes the living conditions in the camps and gives insight into the psychology of both prisoners and the SS. Based in part on the author’s experiences in various concentration camps. Includes tables, a bibliography, and an index.
Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. (RC 451.4 .H62 D47 1980) [Find in a library near you]
Explores methods of survival in the concentration camps. Discusses relationships among inmates and with camp guards. Draws from both survivor testimonies and secondary sources. Includes a bibliography.
Hackett, David A. The Buchenwald Report. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. (D 805 .G3 B7746 1995) [Find in a library near you]
Presents the text of a report compiled by U.S. Army military intelligence operators who interviewed former prisoners of the Buchenwald concentration camp prisoners in the days and weeks after their liberation. Includes a general history of the camp along with details of daily life, such as the distribution of food, the types of forced labor, punishments, and general living conditions. Includes brief reports of conditions in other camps, a glossary of important terms, a select bibliography, and an index.
Iwaszko, Tadeusz. “The Housing, Clothing and Feeding of the Prisoners.” In Volume II of Auschwitz, 1940-1945: Central Issues in the History of the Camp, edited by Wacław Długoborski and Franciszek Piper, 51-64. Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2000. (D 805.5 .A96 A97313 2000) [Find in a library near you]
Overview of prisoner conditions in Auschwitz I, the main camp of the complex. Discusses the construction, arrangement, and facilities of the housing blocks, clothing and clothing regulations, and the food rations that prisoners received. Distinguishes between official regulations and de facto conditions in the camps.
Kogon, Eugen. The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. (DD 256.5 .K613 2006) [Find in a library near you]
Reprint of former Buchenwald inmate Eugen Kogen’s monograph, originally the result of a report he produced for the U.S. Army’s Psychological Warfare Division in 1945. Addresses in detail many aspects of camp life, from work and living conditions to the treatment of Jews and other “inferior races.” Originally published in German as Der SS-Staat: das System der deutschen Konzentrationslager in 1946.
Langbein, Hermann. People in Auschwitz. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. (D 805.5 .A96 L3613 2004) [Find in a library near you]
Historical account concentrating on the human aspect of both the perpetrators and victims of Auschwitz. Draws on the author’s two-year experience as a prisoner in the camp as well as scholarly research and interviews with other survivors. Includes a bibliography and an index. Originally published in German under the title Menschen in Auschwitz.
Morrison, Jack G. Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp, 1939-45. Princeton, NJ: Wiener, 2000. (D 805 .G3 M6143 2000) [Find in a library near you]
Case study of life in one concentration camp that makes connections to the broader history of Nazi Germany. Profiles major prisoner groups such as political prisoners, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, and the French and addresses aspects of prisoner life such as friendships, work, crime and punishment, and cultural activities. Includes numerous illustrations, a glossary, bibliography, and an index.
Neuhäusler, Johann. What Was It Like in the Concentration Camp at Dachau?: An Attempt to Come Closer to the Truth. Munich: Manz A.G., 1960. (D 805.5 .D33 N3813 1960) [Find in a library near you]
An exploration of the daily experiences of prisoners in Dachau, with an emphasis on the experiences of Catholic clergy imprisoned in the camp. Provides details about the everyday life of prisoners in the camp, including a thorough physical description of the camp from a prisoner’s perspective.
Saldinger, Anne Grenn. Life in a Nazi Concentration Camp. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001. (D 805 .A2 S25 2001) [Find in a library near you]
Introduction to various aspects of concentration camp life. Includes a glossary, an annotated bibliography, and an index. Intended for young adult readers.
Shuter, Jane. Life and Death in the Camps. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2003. (D 804.34 .S639 2003) [Find in a library near you]
Heavily-illustrated general history of living conditions in the Nazi concentration camps. Includes sources for further study, a timeline and list of camps, a glossary, and an index. Intended for young adult readers.
Sofsky, Wolfgang. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997. (DD 256.5 .S5813 1997) [Find in a library near you]
Provides a sociological perspective on the structure of control and order in the camps. Addresses overarching themes of prisoner’s conceptions of space and time, social structures, work, and violence and death as methods of controlling inmates through terror. Includes a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996. (D 804.3 .T6313 1996) [Find in a library near you]
Examines the existence and nature of morality among concentration camp inmates, resistance fighters, and inhabitants of Nazi-occupied territories. Draws from a wide range of sources, including works by Primo Levi, Victor Frankl, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Includes an index.
Personal Accounts ↑
Numerous memoirs and other personal accounts written by survivors have been published since 1945. The following is a representative sampling of major publications; this is not a comprehensive listing of Holocaust memoirs of life in the camps.
Antelme, Robert. The Human Race. Evanston, IL: Marlboro Press/Northwestern, 1998. (D 805.G3 A7513 1998) [Find in a library near you]
Describes life as a kommando in the Gandersheim labor camp as well as the death march from the camp to Dachau. Describes the way prisoners wielded power over each other, and how some prisoners held on to their humanity in the face of degradation and dehumanization.
Aroneanu, Eugène, editor. Inside the Concentration Camps: Eyewitness Accounts of Life in Hitler’s Death Camps. Westport: Praeger, 1996. (D 805 .A2 K6613 1996) [Find in a library near you]
Thematically-arranged eyewitness testimonies of concentration camps assembled from 125 sources. Themes include life in the camps, labor, sanitary conditions, medical experiments, and methods of execution, among others. The source of each statement in the book is easily identified by a numerical index of witnesses. Includes an appendix of camps, command posts, and prisons as well as an index.
Boder, David P. I Did Not Interview the Dead. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1949. (D 804.195 .B634 1949) [Find in a library near you]
Earliest published collection of survivor testimonies describing life in the Nazi camps. Consists of eight interviews with displaced persons conducted in camps throughout Europe in 1946.
Heimler, Eugene. Night of the Mist. Jerusalem: Gefen Pub. House, 1997. (D 805 .5 .A96 H45 1997) [Find in a library near you]
Detailed memoir of life in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Tröglitz, and Berga an de Elster. Asserts that memory of prewar life was a powerful tool in surviving the dehumanizing aspects of the camps, by allowing prisoners to maintain some sense of personal identity that the Nazis could not steal. Includes descriptions of the Gypsy camp in Auschwitz and an analysis of the social order of the camps. Originally published in 1960.
Herz, Gabriele. The Women's Camp in Moringen: A Memoir of Imprisonment in Germany, 1936-1937. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. (D 805.5. M67 H47 2006) [Find in a library near you]
Memoir written by a Jewish woman imprisoned in Moringen for her anti-Nazi beliefs. Provides insight into daily life in a camp before the onset of World War II, when most of the inmates there were Jehovah’s Witnesses or Communists. Includes brief biographical notes for individuals mentioned in the text as well as a brief biography and index.
Herzberg, Abel J. Between Two Streams: A Diary from Bergen-Belsen. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1997. (DS 135 .N6 H47 1997) [Find in a library near you]
Diary of a Dutch Jew interned in Bergen-Belsen from 1944 until liberation in 1945. One of the few diaries actually kept in a camp rather than a ghetto or in hiding. Translated from Dutch.
Lengyel, Olga. Five Chimneys. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1995. (D 805.5 .A96 L4613 1995) [Find in a library near you]
Originally published in 1946, this memoir tells the story of the author’s year in Auschwitz and the harrowing death march after the camp was abandoned in January 1945. Provides detailed insight into many aspects of camp life, including the author’s work in the camp infirmary.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Collier Books, 1986. (PQ 4872 .E8 S4313 1986) [Find in a library near you]
Originally published in under the title If This is a Man in 1958. Presents a series of 17 chapters, each illuminating a particular event or aspect of life in the camps that show the daily Nazi assault on humanity through large and small acts of cruelty.
Müller, Filip. Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1999. (D 805.5 .A96 M8513 1999) [Find in a library near you]
Eyewitness account of Auschwitz as told by the author, who worked in the Sonderkommando, a unit of Jewish prisoners assigned to work in the gas chambers and crematoria. Testimony draws mainly upon the author’s personal recollection of work assignments. Includes an appendix of plans of the camp and a glossary.
Nel Siedlecki, Janusz, Krystyn Olszewski, and Tadeusz Borowski. We Were in Auschwitz. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000. (D 805.5 .A96 N45 2000) [Find in a library near you]
English translation of one of the earliest accounts of life in Auschwitz, originally published in Polish in 1946. Presents a short description of the camp, a glossary of terms used by prisoners in Auschwitz, and 14 stories illuminating various aspects of life in the camps. Includes insights into the evolving nature of camp life, as the three authors each experienced the camp at different times during the war.
Neurath, Paul Martin. The Society of Terror: Inside the Dachau and Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2005. (D 805.5 D33 N49 2005) [Find in a library near you]
Recounts the author’s personal experience in as well as a historical analysis of two concentration camps. Describes daily life in camps, types of prisoners, and camp administration, and details the complex social relations between prisoners and guards and among groups of prisoners in the two camps. Includes an afterword written after the author’s death by fellow scholars and a bibliography.
Niewyk, Donald, editor. Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives by Holocaust Survivors. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. (D 804.195 .F74 1998) [Find in a library near you]
Collection of survivor testimonies recorded by David Boder in 1946 that provide first-hand accounts of life in various camps. Includes a glossary of terms and camps, an index, and a bibliography.
Novac, Ana. The Beautiful Days of My Youth: My Six Months in Auschwitz and Plaszow. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. (D 805 .P7 N6513 1997) [Find in a library near you]
Personal journal of a Jewish teenager from Transylvania originally maintained on scraps of paper during her internment in various work and concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
Nyiszli, Miklós. Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. New York : Fawcett Crest, 1961. (D 805.5 .A96 N9513 1961) [Find in a library near you]
Relates the experiences of a Jewish physician who became the personal research pathologist of Dr. Josef Mengele in order to survive. Provides first-hand insight into some of the more macabre aspects of the camp, including medical experiments on prisoners, as well as the ethical dilemmas that faced many of the prisoners, like Dr. Nyiszli, who had to work with the Nazis in order to survive. Originally published in English in 1960.
Shelley, Lore, editor. Auschwitz: The Nazi Civilization: Twenty-three Women Prisoners' Accounts: Auschwitz Camp Administration and SS Enterprises and Workshops. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992. (D 805.5 .A96 A9659 1992) [Find in a library near you]
Compilation of testimonies from twenty-three female prisoners that forms a large narrative covering types of work assignments. Describes administrative and office work, the laundry detail, mending, tailoring, cleaning, and work in a grain warehouse. Includes appendices covering SS biographical information and the “Auschwitz Song,” a glossary, bibliography, and an index.
Vrba, Rudolf. Escape from Auschwitz: I Cannot Forgive. New York: Grove Press, 1986. (D 805.5 .A96 V73 1986) [Find in a library near you]
Provides a detailed account of life in Auschwitz written by a former prisoner who worked in the Kanada complex, processing clothing and goods taken from prisoners who had been sent to the gas chambers. The author was one of the few prisoners who successfully escaped from the camp; he had fellow prisoner Fred Wetzler smuggled out detailed plans and descriptions of the camp to pass along to anti-Nazi partisans.
Online Resources ↑
Additional Resources ↑
When searching library catalogs or other electronic search tools for materials on life in the concentration camps or related topics, use the following Library of Congress subject headings to retrieve the most relevant citations. Ask a librarian for assistance in using subject headings to help with your research.
- Concentration camps
- World War, 1939-1945 -- Concentration camps
- Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Personal narratives.
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