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Prisoner Housing

Division of space in one of the barracks'© Henri Sonnenbluck
Division of space in one of the barracks
© Henri Sonnenbluck

 a  In late October 1942, Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann came first to Auschwitz I and then, a few days later, to the newly built Buna/Monowitz camp. Fritz Kleinmann describes the camp as follows: “The new concentration camp was to be built in the open fields, and there were only a few wooden barracks in the area. We were pushed into the wooden blocks at random, and Papa tried to keep me with him and avoid being separated from our friends. Around the baracks there was neither barbed wire nor any other fencing, and there was no washroom, only a few water faucets in the fields. To relieve yourself, you had to report to the block elder and the SS guard. For us, there was only a dormitory in the barracks. We were not allowed to enter the day room, which was available only to ‘Aryan’ German Kapos and the Polish foremen. So we could only sit on the bed, and two people were assigned to each bed—once again I shared a bed with my father. We had to eat outdoors in front of the barracks, and there was no kitchen in Monowitz either, the food came from Auschwitz. The barracks had no light yet, there were only a few floodlights along the field.”

(Fritz Kleinmann: “Überleben im KZ.” In: Reinhold Gärtner / Fritz Kleinmann, eds.: Doch der Hund will nicht krepieren… Tagebuchnotizen aus Auschwitz (Thaur: Kulturverlag, 1995), pp. 34–114, here p. 64. (Transl. KL))
 b  “I do not know who my neighbor is; I am not even sure that it is always the same person because I have never seen his face except for a few seconds amidst the uproar of the reveille, so that I know his back and his feet much better than his face. He does not work in my Kommando and only comes into the bunk at curfew time; he wraps himself in the blanket, pushes me aside with a blow from his bony hips, turns his back on me and at once begins to snore. Back against back, I struggle to regain a reasonable area of the straw mattress: with the base of my back I exercise a progressive pressure against his back; then I turn around and try to push with my knees; I take hold of his ankles and try to place them a little further over so as not to have his feet next to my face. But it is all in vain; he is much heavier than me and seems turned to stone in his sleep. So I adapt myself to lie like this, forced into immobility, half-lying on the wooden edge. Nevertheless I am so tired and stunned that I, too, soon fall asleep, and I seem to be sleeping on the tracks of a railroad.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 58–59.)
 c  “It must be later than 11 p.m. because the movement to and from the bucket next to the night-guard is already intense […] It is not merely a question of a procession to a bucket; it is the rule that the last user of the bucket goes and empties it in the latrines; it is also the rule that at night one must not leave the hut except in night uniform (shirt and pants), giving one’s number to the guard [...] The night-guard unexpectedly jumps from his corner and seizes us, scribbles down our number, hands us a pair of wooden shoes and the bucket and drives us out into the middle of the snow, shivering and sleepy. It is our task to shuffle to the latrine with the bucket which knocks against our bare calves, disgustingly warm. It is full beyond all reasonable limit, and inevitably with the shaking some of the content overflows on our feet, so that however repugnant this duty may be, it is always preferable that we, and not our neighbor, be ordered to do it.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 61–62.)

In March 1942, work began on the creation of Camp IV for civilian workers, subsequently the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, measuring approximately 500 x 270 meters (546 x 295 yards). The village of Monowice, situated on the building site, was torn down and leveled beforehand by the so-called external work detachment.


After the establishment of the camp, the first 600 prisoners, arriving in late October 1942, found six to eight wooden barracks in which a plank bed was available for each inmate. These barracks originally were meant to hold 55 civilian workers apiece. Built of prefabricated wooden components, each structure was about 26 meters (85 feet) long and 8 meters (26 feet) wide and was connected to the district heating system of the Buna plant. The arrival of transports in quick succession meant that the camp became overcrowded within a few weeks. As many as 250 prisoners were crammed into each barracks. On average, two, sometimes even three or four, inmates shared a bed, sleeping head to foot.  a 


The scope of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp was increased in several stages: Until spring 1943, the prisoners had to put in nine-hour days at I.G. Farben’s construction site, followed by three to four hours of work on the camp itself. Finally the camp was enlarged to contain 56 sequentially numbered barracks, also called “blocks” in the camp language. Among them, located next to the barracks used as housing, were nine barracks in which the prisoner infirmary was set up. Five barracks were occupied by the so-called work education camp, and the camp brothel, the kitchen, the administrative office, and the clothing depot were allocated one barracks apiece. In addition, there was a “VIP block” for up to 50 prisoner functionaries. Some of the camp’s internal work detachments and Kapos were quartered in their workshops.


Each barracks was managed by a block elder, assisted by additional prisoner functionaries. Each block was divided into two spaces: One room was equipped with three-tiered bunk beds where the majority of the prisoners slept. Another room, the so-called Tagesraum (day room, common room) was reserved for the block elder and his immediate subordinates and friends. It contained cupboards that could be locked, a table and benches, and a separate bed for each man: an unattainable luxury for “ordinary” inmates. The day room also served as the place where the soup was rationed out and where the inmates were gathered before a selection.


“Ordinary” prisoners often had only half a bunk available as a “private sphere.” Here their soup had to be consumed and their sodden clothing dried. The frequent filthiness of the prisoners’ uniforms after construction work, their lack of opportunities for physical hygiene, and the prevalence of vermin and diseases of all kinds, in combination with the district heating, gave rise to unpleasant odors and oxygen deficiency in the blocks, plaguing the inmates at night in particular and thus depriving them of much-needed sleep.  b 


Life in the barracks was heavily regimented: After reveille, one of the bunkmates had to “construct the bed,” that is, smooth out the straw mattress, pull the thin blanket taut, and plump the pillow into a perfect square. This had to be done in great haste and on all three tiers of bunks. If a completed bed made a poor impression during the bed check, the prisoners could count on punishments in the evening. Eating breakfast inside the barracks was not permitted. The prisoners had to consume their scanty meal outdoors, whatever the weather. The Stubendienst was responsible for the cleanliness of the barracks and had to sweep and scrub the floor every day. At night, prisoners who needed to relieve themselves had to use a bucket next to the door. Once it was full, the last user, clad only in his shirt, was sent to the latrine to empty it. In the process, it was inevitable that some of the contents would splash out onto the inmate.  c 


As a result of the hard living conditions, theft was a regular occurrence. Hence the prisoners had to keep all their belongings with them as they slept. “If a prisoner owned other treasures, he hid them together with his eating utensils in the wood shavings of his mattress or pillow.”[1]


Even worse than the conditions in the barracks were those in two huge tents set up in summer 1943 to accommodate the large numbers of new arrivals. The usual three-tiered bunks stood on gravel-covered ground, and each tent was designed for about 700 inmates. Soon, however, more than 1,000 prisoners were crowded into each of them. Stifling hot in summer and overheated in winter, the tents were in use at least until Christmas 1943, possibly even until October 1944.

(SP; transl. KL)


Reinhard Florian, oral history interview [Ger.], August 20, 1998. USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Archive, Code 46313.

Benjamin Grünfeld, oral history interview [Swed.], January 12, 2008. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Julius Paltiel, oral history interview [Norw.], June 7–8, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.



Keller, Stefan: Die Rückkehr. Joseph Springs Geschichte. Zurich: Rotpunkt, 2000.

Kielar, Wiesław: Anus Mundi: 1,500 Days in Auschwitz/Birkenau. New York: Times Book, 1980.

Kleinmann, Fritz: “Überleben im KZ.” In: Reinhold Gärtner / Fritz Kleinmann, eds.: Doch der Hund will nicht krepieren… Tagebuchnotizen aus Auschwitz. Thaur: Kulturverlag, 1995, pp. 34–114.

Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 [first published as If This Is a Man].

Wagner, Bernd C.: IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941–1945. Munich: Saur, 2000.

White, Joseph Robert: “IG Auschwitz: The Primacy of Racial Politics.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, NE, 2000.

[1] Stefan Keller: Die Rückkehr. Joseph Springs Geschichte (Zurich: Rotpunkt, 2000), p. 122. (Translated by KL)