Reconceptualizing Nazi Camps (Summary)

Wed, 11/30/2016 - 3:44pm

Reconceptualizing Nazi Camps: Changing Categories, Shifting Purposes, and Evolving Contexts
November 7, 2016

Reconceptualizing Nazi Camps: Changing Categories, Shifting Purposes, and Evolving Contexts

A panel discussion with Verena Buser, PhD (Alice Salomon University); Martin Dean, PhD (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum); Andrea Rudorff, PhD (Institut für Zeitgeschichte); and Sari J. Siegel, Doctoral Candidate (University of Southern California). 

At this public panel organized by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, three international scholars presented about the evolution of Nazi camps, illuminating different types of camps and how the functions and purposes of camps changed, often serving multiple functions as external and internal conditions changed over time.

Verena Buser, PhD (Alice Salomon University) – "Hachshara, Forced Labor, and Camps for Mischlinge"

Buser’s talk focused on Hachshara, non-Zionist training sites that provided vocational or occupational training and focused on “Hachshara” -- the practical preparation of immigrants to enter Palestine through the transformation of the whole person (work, language, instruction in Jewish culture and religion). Thousands of German Jews lived and worked in these camps, which predated the Nazi party and were built up into a system of camps all over Germany. After Hitler came to power, entering Hachshara camps became a way to respond to the persecution of German Jews, by pursuing emigration out of Nazi Germany.

Buser argued that from the first years of the regime until 1937-1938, retraining and vocational training for German Jewish youth were a necessity, not a wish. Rather than primarily providing preparation for emigration like before, the Hachsharah training became a form of youth work for Jewish communities. As the younger generation was increasingly officially excluded from schools and universities, it became impossible for youth to receive vocational training anywhere else. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made apprenticeship impossible. In the Hachshara camps, young people could specialize in a certain field (e.g., agricultural, cattle, chickens, planting, harvesting, forestry, crafts, domestic training). 

Between 1933 and 1938, from the perspective of the Jewish authorities that ran the camps, the camps were spaces of education and negotiation of Jewish identity, focused on strengthening the Jewish consciousness. Even after November 1938, the Reich Association still expanded its existing sites and farms, establishing new sites. From the perspective of German Zionists, the camps were spaces of education towards Zionism and places of negotiation of Jewish identity. They saw the Hachshara camps as a place to awaken and strengthen Jewish consciousness. 

However, after the beginning of the war, the Hachshara camps were integrated into the forced labor service. The German Jews in them were viewed as an available labor pool. The regime took advantage of the fact that no separate camps had to be established since these workers already lived separately. Laborers were used for agricultural, forest and industrial work. Between 1941 and 1943, the majority of the sites were closed or liquidated under the auspices of the “transformation of vocational training institutions into labor enterprises.”

Buser focused on the dynamic and sometimes contrary self-perceptions of the individuals in the Hachshara camps, as illuminated in the postcards, poems, letters, and interviews from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive that she analyzed. Overwhelmingly, people describe their disappointment at no longer being wanted in Nazi Germany and having to leave their homeland as refugees. In addition to their disappointment, the letters, diaries, and interviews also reveal sorrows and hardships related to their forced separation from their families and loved ones. People often describe their guilt at leaving Nazi Germany when their families could not. They carried with them a burden of loss. Fears, uncertainty about the future, and the anxiety of constant waiting dominate the correspondence she analyzed.

Yet there are also conflicting memories of great happiness in the Hachshara camps as people describe their enjoyment of the countryside, meeting their first loves, and their personal relationships and friendships. From the perspective of the interviews, one is left with positive impressions of the Haschara experience, which makes sense, Buser explained, if you consider that in their late teens or early twenties, these young people lived outside the capital, even outside towns and villages, free of parental authority. Additionally, in the separated camps anti-Jewish assaults were not a part of daily life. 

As she wrapped up her remarks, Buser explained that as the labor camps were being liquidated, they often were transformed to serve other functions, and ultimately serving as camps for mischlinge. 

Andrea Rudorff, PhD (Institut für Zeitgeschichte) – “The Camps of Organization ‘Schmelt’”

Rudorff presented on a forced labor camp system for Polish Jews in the Silesia and Sudeten regions under the SS Organization “Schmelt.” When Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, they incorporated formerly German areas of Silesia, which had been controlled by Poland since World War I, and an area that had never been part of Germany or Silesia before. The original plan was to deport all the local Jews, but the decision was made to keep them there to use them as laborers. 

In October 1940, responsibility to distribute all Jewish laborers was transferred to Albrecht Schmelt, the police chief in Breslau. He recorded all laborers systematically, requiring all companies to transfer authority of their Jewish workers to Organization Schmelt, which became the only agency allowed to place Jews for work, such as, for example in camps for the construction of the German motorways.

Rudorff described how in the Reichsautobahn labor camps, prisoners received pocket money declared as salary, they could go home on vacation, but they had no legal entitlements to these concessions. As interest in Jewish laborers expanded, Schmelt laborers worked in armaments industry and construction, and large Schmelt camps were erected near sites considered important for the war efforts. Individual payments were no longer the norm. Organization Schmelt leased out workers. By December 1942, the Schmelt Organization had 11.5 million Reichsmark in its bank account.

The Jewish Council of the East Upper Silesian ghettos guaranteed a stable supply of the required numbers of laborers, drawing up lists and providing written summons for Jews to appear for labor duty. Those selected could pay for their release, but many could not afford it. At first, due to high unemployment, many volunteered for the work. However, by late 1941, there were protests against labor conscription. In early 1942, the growing camp system needed more workers, and the resistance grew as well. By this point, every family was missing one or two members. Labor recruitment grew more brutal, as Jewish police made raids and arrested Jews, giving them summons to labor. 

Resistance against labor recruitment subsided when deportations to Auschwitz began in 1942. People began to feel that conditions in the Schmelt camps were more secure than in the towns where they could be deported to Auschwitz. People began begging and bribing camp personnel to gain entry for themselves and their family members into the Schmelt camps. For one region, Rudorff described that by the end of August 1943, there were no Jews remaining except   those in hiding and those in the camps of Organization Schmelt. 

There were 180 camps of Organization Schmelt. Most held several hundred inmates each, but a few had over a thousand. Rudorff described the harsh conditions of the camps and the shape of everyday life, as revealed in letters, poems, diaries, and camp newsletters. Auschwitz was a constant threat hovering over the prisoners. She described how survivors emphasize that the conditions in the Schmelt camps were more bearable than the horrors they had to experience in the last phase of the war. As the base for labor recruitment disappeared due to deportations to Auschwitz, the number of prisoners stagnated. Rudorff went on to describe the dismantling of Organization Schmelt as Schmelt camps were transformed into concentration camp subcamps. 

Rudorff concluded by arguing that the forced labor of Jews under Organization Schmelt postponed their intended extermination in 1942 and 1943. The geographic location of the camps spared many of them, but not all, from the death marches. The Jews in the Schmelt Silesia and Sudeten subcamps were freed in May 1945 after a long time of captivity and forced labor. They survived due to the dominance of economic interests in the region. The camps of Organization Schmelt were thus also a place of survival. 

Sari J. Siegel, Doctoral Candidate (University of Southern California) – “More Than a Death Camp: Prisoner-Physicians at the Intersection of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s Different Roles”

Siegel opened her talk by arguing that while Auschwitz-Birkenau was the single deadliest location of the Holocaust, it was not solely a death camp. Prisoner-physicians were at the intersection of Birkenau’s three identities: death camp, labor camp, and transit camp. She described how selections occurred not only at the arrival ramp, but also at the camp’s hospitals and clinics. Prisoner-physicians were witnesses of selections, but also participants, aiding Nazi doctors. 

Siegel defines “prisoner-physicians” as “inmates, who, on account of their training as doctors, were recruited to utilize their medical knowledge and skillsets towards a variety of ends in the prisoners’ hospitals and out-patient clinics in Nazi camps.” She argued that prisoner-physicians have received minimal attention in the historiography. There are a great number of sources for doctors’ accounts – memoirs, witness statements in war crimes trials, and the interviews of the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. 

Siegel described the tasks for these doctors, which included treating wounds inflicted by the SS, as well as tending to the conditions of prisoners that resulted from the horrific sanitary conditions and insufficient rations. Treatment of the sick at Birkenau was challenging given the paltry supplies and drugs on hand, but Siegel argued that sometimes just a patient’s temporary reprieve from labor is what had the greatest effect on a prisoner’s recovery before being returned to labor detail. Medicines also came in through the black market. For the prisoner-physicians themselves, Siegel pointed out, their own role provided a number of privileges, such as being able to work indoors and receiving more food. 

Siegel used the construction and layout of Birkenau as a guide to structure her talk, going section by section to highlight different characteristics, roles, and patterns of involvement of the prisoner-physicians as they served the camp’s different populations and purposes. Different sections of the camp were associated with the camp’s different functions -- -- selecting people for death, providing laborers for the war effort, and serving as a site of transit for the movement of prisoners and laborers from one labor camp to another. 

For example, section B2A was known as the “Quarantine Camp,” where new prisoners were trained and hazed. The name demonstrates its purposes as prisoners were kept there and monitored for illnesses. Prisoner-physicians would occasionally hide the really sick patients, who would otherwise be selected for death, and put the patients who would get better into the clinics. Prisoner-physicians would send the very sick inmates they did not hide to section B2F – a section devoted to the “healthcare” of male prisoners in Birkenau and surrounding camps. This was the pathway to the gas chamber for most people.

In summary, Siegel explained that the three different functions of Auschwitz-Birkenau provided prisoner-physicians with limited room for maneuver. The actions of these doctors and nurses oscillated between coercion and resistance.

The Q&A period for the panelists was lively as questions from the audience provoked each of the panelists to consider how changing politics, needs, and conditions influenced the evolution of the camps they studied. In Buser’s remarks, retraining camps became forced labor camps. In Rudorff’s talk, forced labor camps eventually became concentration camp subcamps. There were also questions from the audience about the role of medical experimentation at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the possible reasons that prisoner-physicians have not received more attention until now. 


Summary by Martha Stroud