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 a  Primo Levi describes the wall art in a washroom of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp: “The walls are covered by curious didactic frescoes: for example, there is the good Häftling, portrayed stripped to the waist, about to diligently soap his sheared and rosy cranium, and the bad Häftling with a strong Semitic nose and a greenish color, bundled up in his ostentatiously stained clothes with a beret on his head, who cautiously dips a finger into the water of the washbasin. Under the first is written: ‘So bist du rein’ (like this you are clean), and under the second: ‘So gehst du ein’ (like this you come to a bad end); and lower down, in doubtful French but in Gothic script: ‘La propreté, c’est la santé.’ On the opposite wall an enormous white, red and black louse encamps, with the writing: ‘Eine Laus, dein Tod’ (a louse is your death), and the inspired distich: Nach dem Abort, vor dem Essen, Händewaschen nicht vergessen. (After the latrine, before eating, wash your hands, do not forget.)”

(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 39–40.)
 b  “Just my bad luck, my family name started with S, which came right after the Rs. And someone who had a last name beginning with that letter had a hepatitis virus. I was infected along with thirty or forty others who had no antibodies. The epidemic broke out after a few weeks' incubation, and I’m probably the only one who survived it.”
(Paul Steinberg: Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoning (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), p. 46.)
 c  “In Buna it was not the SS but the clique of the camp VIPs that made their fellow prisoners’ lives miserable with rules for tidiness and bed-making. Here I saw for myself the story, reported from all the camps, of the man who didn’t want to mess up his bed because he thought it was so well ‘built,’ and therefore lay down under the bed to sleep, in great style. The night before an announced inspection, two prisoners had to sleep in each bed, so that only half the beds would have to be made the next day. I wouldn’t tell all these details, which sound ridiculous, if the sum of these trifles had not perhaps completely filled the prisoners’ life and offered the opportunity for terrible harassment and barbaric punishments.”
(Benedikt Kautsky: Teufel und Verdammte. Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus sieben Jahren in deutschen Konzentrationslagern (Zurich: Gutenberg, 1946), p. 218. (Transl. KL))
 d  “But it also happened often enough that block leaders made unannounced inspections in the evening or at night, for example, to see whether feet had been washed or whether prisoners were lying in their block wearing underwear or even sweaters or socks. Then it came to pass that the guilty man, sometimes even the entire block, was sent outdoors, especially in winter, where the dirty feet were washed with snow or the people sleeping in underwear were forced to run around the barracks several times, barefooted and in a shirt.”
(Benedikt Kautsky: Teufel und Verdammte. Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus sieben Jahren in deutschen Konzentrationslagern (Zurich: Gutenberg, 1946), p. 218. (Transl. KL))

“In this place it is practically pointless to wash every day in the turbid water of the filthy washbasins for purposes of cleanliness and health; but it is most important as a symptom of remaining vitality, and necessary as an instrument of moral survival.”[1]


From the very start of their imprisonment, the deportees were confronted with rules that were impossible to obey. In particular, this was true of the requirement for cleanliness and hygiene that was proclaimed in commands and on wall signage.  a  Upon their arrival in camp, the prisoners first had to undress completely, and then they were shaved, showered, and disinfected. Disinfection entailed either a Lysol dip, in which the arrivals were immersed one after the other, or the use of brushes to slosh the disinfectant on their naked bodies. This process, however, was more apt to have the opposite effect. Similarly, the tattooing of innumerable people with the same tattoo needle was linked with a danger of infection.  b 


In camp, it was virtually impossible for the prisoners to maintain a modicum of hygiene, because the most elementary preconditions for it were absent. Indeed, thousands of inmates had to report every morning to wash in one of the five washroom barracks. Because only an hour was allotted for breakfast, “bed construction,” and personal grooming, however, and many of the weakened men wanted to save their strength, personal hygiene often got short shrift: most inmates merely dampened their naked upper bodies. The floor of the dark, drafty washrooms was covered in mud. Primo Levi describes the water as unfit for drinking, foul-smelling, and often turned off for hours at a time. Anyone who drank it had to expect diseases to be the result. The inmates were expected to shower once a week, but only once a month did they receive a sliver of sandy, fat-free soap, which disintegrated immediately. No other personal care products or items (such as toothbrushes) were available to the prisoners. Moreover, theft was a frequent occurrence in washrooms. Only “VIPs” had largely unrestricted access to soap, showers, and separate washrooms. In the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, there were six buildings of toilets, so-called “latrines.” These were nothing more than pit latrines without any flushing system, and they, too, were utterly filthy—especially as the inmates frequently suffered from gastrointestinal complaints.


The prisoners’ clothing was collected every six to eight weeks and disinfected with steam. The garments were never washed, and were mended only in rare instances; usually they were nothing but dirty rags. Spots of mud had to be scraped off by the inmates themselves; “paint, grease and rust stains were, however, permitted.”[2] Regular shaves with the barracks’ only razor contributed most notably to infecting the prisoners, one after the other, with barber’s rash. Checks for body lice led to disinfection of all the clothing of the inmates in the entire block, with the garments returned, still damp, only the next morning. This procedure did not result, however, in meaningful control of the parasitic insects. Attempts to enforce the other regulations, too, can scarcely be termed anything but harassment.  c 


While personal hygiene was almost impossible, and the air in the barracks was stifling and stank of human effluvia and the toilet bucket beside the door, close attention was paid to the cleanliness of the barracks themselves. The Stubendienst (prisoner on barracks-room duty) scrubbed the wooden floor daily. The bunk beds were fastidiously made. At first glance, the empty barracks had a well-kept air.  d  This kept potential visitors from realizing that they were in a place where infectious diseases were rife and there was a constant danger of epidemic.

(SP; transl. KL)


Siegmund Kalinski, oral history interview [Ger.], September 11, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

[Posener, Curt]: “Zur Geschichte des Lagers Auschwitz-Monowitz (BUNA).” Unpublished manuscript, undated, 53 pages. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute.



Betlen, Oszkár: Leben auf dem Acker des Todes. Berlin: Dietz, 1962.

Kautsky, Benedikt: Teufel und Verdammte. Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus sieben Jahren in deutschen Konzentrationslagern. Zurich: Gutenberg, 1946.

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

Levi, Primo / de Benedetti, Leonardo: “Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz—Upper Silesia).” In: Primo Levi: Auschwitz Report. London/New York: Verso, 2006, pp. 31–78.

Steinberg, Paul: Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

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

[1] Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 40.

[2] Levi: Survival in Auschwitz, p. 34.