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 a  “To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the musselmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time; they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay, and nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless: they, the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.”

(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], p. 90.)

 b  “Our flesh and muscles melt away, our teeth loosen, our guts liquefy, our wounds fester, and we die, we die, we die. Perchance a deus ex machina—an SS officer, a Kapo, a block boss—precipates the finale with a bullet, a pickax blow, a clubbing. Sometimes, more rarely, one of us is saved from our common grave by him the way an oil-soaked penguin or seal will be plucked out, years later, for washing, nursing, feeding, to see if it recuperates and survives. And I take this absurd, mephitic universe for granted, as though nothing else had ever existed. I have no feelings of anguish, no more than I have questions. It all goes without saying. I’m at the age where one adjusts, and I economize on everything by getting rid of moral suffering, emotions, memories—and regrets as well, a crucial imperative. It’s wasteful to give your affection to ghosts on reprieve. Why set yourself up for tears the next day? The time will perhaps come, if I live, when I'll be able to love again, unless I’ve become sterile.”

(Paul Steinberg: Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoning (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), p. 73.)
 c  “The opposite of the VIP or trusty was the Muselmann [“Muslim”]. That was the ultimate wretchedness in the camp. Prisoners feared this decay, this Muselmann state, more than any disease, because it was in fact the most widespread camp disease. Most people died precisely as Muselmänner. These men attracted all the curses and harassments of those in power. In the selections, they were regarded as useless garbage and singled out for the crematorium. They were in everyone’s way everywhere, they were always on the bottom: kicked, beaten, mistreated, robbed, and humiliated. They were not put in the infirmary, because they didn’t have a high fever; their illness was not contagious. And in the camp, there was room only for the healthy, the cunning and strong. Actually, everyone was in constant danger of becoming a Muselmann, no particular cause was needed. All it took was to catch a slight cold or have a chafed place on your foot from wearing the shoe, get your first boil, or merely be absent-minded one day and thus attract the notice of an SS man or VIP at work or in the block. Then the first blows fell. Someone who is weakened or has been beaten doesn’t work as well as the others, he slows the work pace, and so he is punished again. With the Germans’ collective punishment, everyone was punished for one man’s infraction, so everybody avoided the Muselmänner. A Muselmann was not given better permanent work, every day he was signed up for a different job where he was not entitled to the bread supplement awarded for work. He came back from work wearier and dirtier than the others; always pushed to the back, he often failed to finish his midday soup before the gong, and in the evening he lacked the strength to clean or mend his clothes or repair his wooden clogs, which resulted in a fresh catastrophe. He usually suffered from boils and nutritional edema, was always dirty, neglected, grumbling, insufferable, and didn’t even notice that he stank and was beginning to rot. Probably for this reason, such a man was forced to sleep in the latrine or the washroom. Finally his senses were blunted, he turned into a zombie, lost his strength of will, and no longer had any control over himself – the typical image of the Muselmann. If he was a smoker to boot and exchanged his bread for cheap, strong tobacco, he died quickly. Very often, dysentery led to a Muselmann epidemic. Only good friends could keep someone from becoming a Muselmann.”
((Kuraszkiewicz 1947, pp. 22–23, in: Zdziław Ryn / Stanisław Kłodziński: “An der Grenze zwischen Leben und Tod. Eine Studie über die Erscheinung des 'Muselmanns' im Konzentrationslager” [1983]. In: Die Auschwitz-Hefte Band 1. Texte der polnischen Zeitschrift „Pzregląd Lekarski“ über historische, psychische und medizinische Aspekte des Lebens und Sterbens in Auschwitz. Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung, ed. (Hamburg: Rogner & Bernhard, 1994), pp. 89–154, here p. 101. (Transl. KL)) [Probably not a quote from a Monowitz survivor]

“The so-called Mussulman, as the camp language termed the prisoner who was giving up and was given up by his comrades, no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual. He was a staggering corpse, a bundle of physical functions in its last convulsions.”[1]


The term Muselmann[2] (plural, Muselmänner) was used in the camp language to designate prisoners who were so emaciated by hunger, cold, disease, and exhaustion that they became unresponsive to their surroundings; all that remained was an interest in obtaining food, at times also protection against cold. Zdziław Ryn and Stanisław Kłodziński, who published an extensive study of the “Muselmann phenomenon” in 1983, based on a questionnaire survey of Auschwitz survivors, list the “quantitative und qualitative malnourishment, excessive physical labor, harmful effect of the clothing and unsanitary living conditions”[3] as factors that helped turn a prisoner into a Muselmann. The Muselmänner suffered from emaciation and lost their ability to work; their posture became stiff and stooped and they shuffled along, taking tiny, shaky steps; and because of their physical frailty, they often fell and injured themselves. They ceased to be concerned with personal hygiene and lapsed into a state of neglect, wearing filthy rags, and they suffered from purulent infections and open sores all over their bodies. The even more wretched appearance of the Muselmänner, with their fear-filled or expressionless eyes in gray, puffy faces, set them apart from the mass of the prisoners. “Only their eyes said something now and then, they still could react. These were men to whom fate had been unkindest, the most unfortunate of all the unfortunates."[4]


Ryn und Kłodziński describe the Muselmann phenomenon on the one hand as a nutritional disease, in which a certain degree of starvation proved irreversible and resulted in a deadening of emotions, a narrowing of mental interests, slowed thinking, memory loss, and indifference to the outside world.  a  On the other hand, the trauma inflicted on the inmates by the barbaric, brutal routine of the concentration camp, and the omnipresent mistreatment and murder by the SS led to an abandonment of any and all hope or desire to live and thus caused a prisoner to become a Muselmann. “Death could result from a psychological overload.”[5] Some prisoners who gave up on themselves committed suicide before they could become Muselmänner, for example, by throwing themselves onto the electric fencing that surrounded the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. But most Muselmänner were already too apathetic for that. They died in the camp or at the construction site or were selected by the SS and sent to the gas chambers in Birkenau.


Particularly susceptible to becoming Muselmänner were young, old, and ill prisoners, as well as those who lost hope and faith in a moral or religious world order while in the camp and thus gave themselves up as lost. Ryn and Kłodziński see a prisoner’s ability to break quickly with the world of his past and adapt to the camp situations, despite all the trauma they induced, as the decisive factor in determining whether he became a Muselmann or managed to avoid that fate. Anyone who was unable to establish contacts in the camp in order to barter for additional food, get into a better work detachment, or otherwise improve his living conditions relative to those of the majority of prisoners soon turned ino a Muselmann. “Being a Muselmann was a breaking of all bonds to the surrounding world, it was, above all, social death, for biological life continued to smoulder; becoming a Muselmann was a symptom of approaching death.”[6]  b 


Though the Muselmänner made up a large share of the prisoner population, they no longer participated in the life of the inmate community, and they were of no interest to resistance groups or other groups of prisoners who helped each other, as they had lost all ability to contribute anything. They were on the lowest rung of the prisoner hierarchy, and other inmates tried to avoid them or sought to keep from working in the same detachment with them; sometimes they were treated as if they were already dead, as objects. But individual prisoners also attempted to bring Muselmänner back into the world of the living with food and friendly support, to help them continue to live with their traumas.


The apathy and fatalism of the Muselmänner aroused hatred in many Kapos, and as a result the unfortunates were especially exposed to the latter’s caprices. The inattentiveness of the Muselmänner to their surroundings, to what was permitted, forbidden, and required—such as doffing their caps at the right time—and the constant threats of camp life, which they could no longer manage to avoid, resulted in run-ins with SS men and prisoner functionaries, who beat or killed them. In many cases, the Muselmänner were so starved that rationally based actions that could have protected them were rendered inoperative. Their remaining attention, will, and interest frequently were focused exclusively on the search for food.  c 


In Buna/Monowitz, Muselmänner were an everyday phenomenon, especially in detachments that did very heavy labor. The SS often interpreted their apathy and weakness as laziness and thus took an especially brutal line of action with them, while the plant management of I.G. Farben pushed for selections. The work assignments and the living conditions led to such debilitation of 80 percent of all prisoners on average, at a more or less rapid pace. “The Muselmann was a ‘product’ of the death factory that the concentration camp was.”[7]

(MN; transl. KL)


Marcel Ginzig, oral history interview [Hebr.], July 25–26, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Ya’acov (Jack) Handeli, oral history interview [Eng.], August 1, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Israel Löwenstein, oral history interview [Ger.], July 27, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

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.

Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript.

Norbert Wollheim, Second Interview [Eng.], May 17, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript.



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

Ryn, Zdziław / Kłodziński, Stanisław: “An der Grenze zwischen Leben und Tod. Eine Studie über die Erscheinung des ‘Muselmanns’ im Konzentrationslager” [1983]. In: Die Auschwitz-Hefte Band 1. Texte der polnischen Zeitschrift „Pzregląd Lekarski“ über historische, psychische und medizinische Aspekte des Lebens und Sterbens in Auschwitz. Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung, ed. Hamburg: Rogner & Bernhard, 1994, pp. 89–154.

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.

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

[1] Jean Améry: At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 9.

[2] The origin of the term Muselmann is unclear. Some survivors point out, however, that the apathy and swaying gait of the enfeebled prisoners perhaps were reminiscent of the image of Muslims at prayer that was part of the European Orientalist tradition. Only very few camp inmates indeed would have been truly familiar with the sight of praying Muslims.

[3] Zdziław Ryn / Stanisław Kłodziński: “An der Grenze zwischen Leben und Tod. Eine Studie über die Erscheinung des ‘Muselmanns’ im Konzentrationslager” [1983]. In: Die Auschwitz-Hefte Band 1. Texte der polnischen Zeitschrift „Pzregląd Lekarski“ über historische, psychische und medizinische Aspekte des Lebens und Sterbens in Auschwitz. Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung, ed. (Hamburg: Rogner & Bernhard, 1994), pp. 89–154, here p. 92. (Translated by KL)

[4] Ryszard Kordek, one of the Auschwitz survivors participating in the survey conducted by Ryn and Kłodziński for their study, in: Ryn / Kłodziński: An der Grenze, p. 149.

[5] Ryn / Kłodziński: An der Grenze, p. 92.

[6] Ryn / Kłodziński: An der Grenze, p. 147.

[7] Ryn / Kłodziński: An der Grenze, p. 150.