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The Racial Hierarchy in the Camp

Nazi racial ideology played an important part in the concentration camps in terms of its effect on the employment and the hierarchy of the prisoners—and hence on their chances of survival. In the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, the share of Jewish prisoners rose continuously, growing from about 70 percent initially to 90 or 95 percent of the approximately 11,000 inmates by late 1944. Late in the camp’s existence, there were indeed also some Jewish prisoner functionaries, and sometimes Jewish inmates were “Aryanized” and henceforth considered political prisoners, so that they could take positions in the prisoner administration. In the early period, however, most prisoner functionaries in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp were Reichsdeutsche (ethnic Germans who were citizens of the Reich) or Poles who were imprisoned as “criminals” or “asocials.” The Germans held the most important positions in the prisoner administration, though they accounted for only 386 of the camp’s 9,792 inmates by January 1945; their knowledge of the German language and thus their ability to understand the orders given by the SS were also contributing factors. Unless a Reichsdeutscher was guilty of serious misconduct, his survival was practically assured.


After the Jews, the largest inmate groups were the Polish and Russian prisoners. In August 1944, at the time of the Warsaw Uprising, around 1,200 Poles were taken to Buchenwald, which greatly reduced their representation in the population of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. Non-Jewish inmates were allowed to receive one package each month, containing food and clothing, and this policy especially benefited Polish prisoners whose relatives lived closer to Auschwitz and could send something.


In general, Nazi racial ideology, with its focus on extermination of the Jews, proved to be more important than economic considerations. Non-Jewish prisoners frequently were removed from the selection lists by the Political Department, which was responsible for the composition and security of the transports to Birkenau. It seemed increasingly less in the interest of the SS to gas prisoners who were Reichsdeutsche or Poles, whom they needed for the administration of the camp. On the other hand, Jewish inmates who were not yet Muselmänner were selected to an increasing extent. After 1943, almost 100 percent of those selected were Jews. The Jewish prisoners also were exposed to the greatest pressure in terms of extermination—not only by the SS, but also by the I.G. Farben employees, because the Jews at the construction site had to put up with anti-Semitic bullying, extremely hard labor, and mistreatment by the German Meister, or master craftsmen. The documents of the I.G. Farben trial in Nuremberg also contain solely punishment reports for Jewish prisoners.


The Jewish inmates came from such diverse geographic, cultural, and social backgrounds that a common interest could hardly be alleged. Prisoners from southern countries had to struggle with snow and freezing weather, considering the Polish winter, and strictly observant religious Jews faced unresolvable dilemmas because of the food and living conditions in the camp. Language skills, too, determined the formation of groups or could lead to difficulties for prisoners who had not mastered German. Jews from all social and educational strata—workers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals—and political backgrounds—Zionists, communists, liberals, conservatives—met in the camps. Often it was also their origin that determined who helped and could help whom, and thus defined their strategies and chances for survival as well. All Jewish prisoners were marked as such with the yellow triangle, which placed them under constant threat of death. For this reason, many prisoners, in the confusion of the death march in early 1945, removed their yellow triangle, preferring a red triangle that would mark them merely as “political” and thus increase the likelihood of their survival.

(MN; transl. KL)


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

Freddie Knoller, oral history Interview [Eng.], June 13, 2007. 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.

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

Ya’acov Silberstein, oral history interview [Hebr.], July 29–30, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.



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.

Setkiewicz, Piotr: “Ausgewählte Probleme aus der Geschichte des IG Werkes Auschwitz.” In: Hefte von Auschwitz 22 (2002), pp. 7–147.

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.