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 a  “And do not think that shoes form a factor of secondary importance in the life of the Lager. Death begins with the shoes; for most of us, they show themselves to be instruments of torture, which after a few hours of marching cause painful sores which become fatally infected. Whoever has them is forced to walk as if he was dragging a convict’s chain [...]; he arrives last everywhere, and everywhere he receives blows. He cannot escape if they run after him; his feet swell and the more they swell, the more the friction with the wood and the cloth of the shoes becomes insupportable. Then only the hospital is left: but to enter the hospital with a diagnosis of ‘dicke Füße’ (swollen feet) is extremely dangerous, because it is well known to all, and especially to the SS, that here there is no cure for that complaint.”

(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 34–35.)
 b  “You always had to be clean-shaven, but it was strictly forbidden to possess razor or scissors, and you went to the barber only once every two weeks. On threat of punishment no button could be missing on the striped inmate suit, but if you lost one at work, which was unavoidable, there was practically no chance to replace it. You had  to be strong, but you were systematically weakened. Upon entrance to the camp everything was taken from you, but then you were derided by the robbers because you owned nothing.”
(Jean Améry: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 10.)

The men selected upon arrival in Auschwitz to perform forced labor for I.G. Farben received the prisoner clothing worn as a uniform at the Auschwitz concentration camp: trousers and a jacket made of blue-and-white striped cotton ticking, a shirt, a pair of underpants, a striped cap, and shoes. Strips of cloth with a triangle and a prisoner number were to be sewn onto the trousers and jacket. The shoes  a  consisted of wooden soles with linen straps stitched on. “Aryan” inmates were allowed to keep their leather shoes, and in some cases Jewish prisoners also were permitted to do so. In general, the prisoners had to hand over all their own clothing and shoes upon arrival. Then their garments were taken to the Auschwitz storage area for personal effects, known to the prisoners as “Canada.” From these warehouses, clothing was purchased by I.G. Farben and given to the concern’s civilian employees; the origin of the garments was general knowledge.


Each inmate was issued only one set of clothes. The loss of clothing items, especially the cap, was punished. The clothing could be changed only every six to eight weeks. The soiled garments went to the disinfection chamber, where after 1944 they were no longer washed, but only disinfected with steam and returned. The prisoners had no soap, and rarely had the strength to wash their clothes in the little free time allowed them. The sole exception was that the clothing of prisoners who worked in I.G. offices was washed more frequently. In general, the filthy and often damaged clothes, however, contributed to the wretched appearance of the inmates. Still, there was a requirement that the clothing had to look tidy; for example, all the jacket buttons had to be properly sewed on at all times  b , though the required sewing materials were not provided to the prisoners. The garments of prisoners who were deemed “no longer fit for work” and sent to be killed in the gas chambers of Birkenau were returned from there forthwith, for issue to new inmates.


In winter, the prisoners received a prisoner outfit made of somewhat heavier material and, if they were very lucky, a coat or sweater as well. In the course of 1944, owing to a shortage of the striped outfits, the inmates also were given civilian clothes from the personal-effects warehouse, with each item marked with a red bar or cloth strip. Some surviving inmates of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp also report that they were allowed to keep their shoes upon arrival. One such survivor is Miroslav Ribner, who came there in summer 1944.


Even before that time, prisoner functionaries could obtain civilian clothes, wool sweaters, leather jackets, and shoes from “Canada” through the underground economy of Auschwitz. Clothing and shoes were traded in camp or also to civilian workers at the construction site for food. Some inmates were aided by British prisoners of war who gave them clothing. Additional food could be earned by mending, washing, or ironing the clothes of prisoner functionaries, by “organizing” clothing, or by trading oil or grease stolen at the construction site. Those two items were needed by the block elders, to comply with the camp directive that the inmates had to polish their wooden shoes.


The wooden shoes caused blisters, open sores, and an unusually high incidence of phlegmons, purulent inflammations with inflammation of connective tissue. Some prisoners tried to barter for cloth rags to wrap around their feet. But the work at the construction site frequently was done in softened soil, and dirt and damp increased the risk of infection. The inmates’ thin clothing gave inadequate protection from the cold. In winter, scarcely a single detachment came back from work without frostbite, and often there were 30 dead in a day. Since I.G. Farben issued protective clothing such as gloves or glasses to the inmates only in rare instances, prisoners unloading bricks or iron with bare hands were often injured, while the skin of those working on iron or cable-laying teams in winter frequently froze fast to the metal. Fewer than 10 percent of the prisoners were supplied with mittens by the plant management, though the issuance of any at all made it clear that the managers were well aware of the need for them. Individual Meister might try to get better clothing for their detachment.


Although this was forbidden, inmates tried to line their thin prisoner clothing with cement sacks, paper, or straw to keep out the cold. Especially on January 18, 1945, when the SS abandoned the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, prisoners tried to use these materials to reinforce their clothing before the march through snow and freezing cold. Many of the inmates, who had to march through the snow in wooden shoes and wearing only a jacket and trousers, did not survive the death march.

(MN; transl. KL)


Ya’acov (Jack) Handeli, oral history interview [Eng.], August 1, 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.

Curt Posener, affidavit, June 3, 1947, NI-9808. Nuremberg Documents, NI-series.

Miroslav Ribner, oral history interview [Serbo-Croatian], December 8, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Jan Stern, affidavit, May 1, 1947, NI-4828. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, Case VI, PDB 75 (e), pp. 125–128.

Arnest Tauber, affidavit, May 3, 1947, NI-4829. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, Case VI, PDB 75 (e), pp. 111–115.

Noack Treister, affidavit, March 3, 1947, NI-4827. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, Case VI, PDB 75 (e), pp. 160–162, and PDB 79 (e), pp. 1–3.

Robert Waitz, affidavit, November 12, 1947, NI-12373. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, Case VI, PDB 75 (e), addendum, 213, 17 pp.



Améry, Jean: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. New York: Schocken, 1986.

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.