Move the mouse pointer over a red word in the main text, to view the glossary entry for this word.

Language(s) in the Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp

 a  “Greek Jews suffered more than others […] The second reason was the language barrier. Ashkenazic Jews who knew Yiddish could understand the Germans. We could not understand them and had trouble adapting to the climate. These two factors caused deaths among the Greek Jews from the beginning. Within three months of our arrival in Auschwitz, fifty percent of us were no longer alive.”

(Ya’acov Handeli: A Greek Jew from Salonica Remembers (New York: Herzl, 1993), p. 68.)


 b  “When dealing with an SS man, one first had to whip off one’s cap and give one’s number, loud and clear, in German, of course. I begin to grasp what a blessing in disguise it is that I speak fluent German. Most of the Greek and Italian Jews don’t understand a single order and can't even pronounce their numbers. Of course, they also can’t sing German songs, which we have to volunteer as well, as if doing a takeoff, while marching to and from work. Failure to do those things is reason enough to be beaten brutally, sometimes even clubbed to death.”

(Willy Berler: Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Buchenwald (Augsburg: Ölbaum, 2003), p. 60. (Transl. KL))
 c  “Polish, however, was the incomprehensible language that had greeted us at the end of our journey, it was not the Polish of well-mannered people. […] It was a coarse Polish, consisting of curses, of swear words, which we did not understand; it was in fact a hellish language: German, of course, was even more so; German was the language of the oppressors, the butchers, but many of us, including me, understood a little German, it was not an unfamiliar language, not the language of nothingness. Polish was the language of nothingness.”
(Daniel Toaff / Emanuele Ascarelli: “Rückkehr nach Auschwitz. Interview mit Primo Levi.” In: Primo Levi: Bericht über Auschwitz. Philippe Mesnard, ed. (Berlin: BasisDruck, 2006), pp. 111–125, here p. 112. (Transl. KL))
 d  “Still worse: they didn’t even find friends. For in most cases, it was physically impossible for them spontaneously to use the camp slang, which was the only accepted form of mutual communication. […] Well, in the camp there truly was a problem of communication between the intellectual and the majority of his comrades. It presented itself hourly in a real and painful way. For the prisoner who was accustomed to a somewhat refined mode of expression, it was possible only with much effort to overcome his distaste for saying ‘Beat it!’ or to address a fellow prisoner exclusively with ‘Hey, you.’ Only too well do I recall the physical disgust that regularly seized me when an otherwise quite proper and sociable comrade found no other form of address for me than ‘my dear fellow.’ The intellectual suffered from such expressions as ‘grub sarge’ or ‘to organize’ (which designated the illegal appropriation of some object); yes, even such set phrases as ‘to go on transport’ he uttered only with difficulty and hesitatingly.”
(Jean Améry: At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York: Schocken, 1986), pp. 4–5.)
 e  “I turned to Entress, the SS doctor. Do you know how much I feared him, and how hard it was for me? […] I had the illusion that Entress, after all, was still a doctor and knew that I was one, too. I thought we could even speak in Latin. But we didn’t even understand each other in German.... He looked at me like a disgusting bug, which he didn’t step on only because he wanted to keep the sole of his boot clean.”
(Dr. Kovács, from: Oszkár Betlen: Leben auf dem Acker des Todes (Berlin: Dietz, 1962), p. 92. (Transl. KL))

“Most of the Italians who were with me died in the first few days because they didn’t understand anything. They didn’t understand the commands, and no tolerance was shown to anyone who failed to understand an order… When they needed something, had a need to articulate, even if it could have been satisfied—they didn't even manage to articulate it, and people laughed at them; in terms of morale, too, this was the end, right away. In my opinion, among the many things that cause death in the camp, language was one of the most important.”[1]


Verbal communication was one of the daily problems of concentration camp prisoners in Auschwitz: The command language was German, used by the SS and prisoner functionaries.  a  In addition, there was a need for a vernacular that the inmates could use among themselves. For the “ordinary” prisoners, knowing at least a few words of German was indispensable: Only those who understood commands and could obey them quickly had any chance of survival.  b  Even prisoners with a basic knowledge of German, however, often came up against the limits of their comprehension. For one thing, official “communication” by those issuing commands to the camp inmates almost always took the form of bellowing, and for another, dialects or accents often made understanding more difficult.


In the course of the deportations from growing numbers of European countries to the Auschwitz concentration camp, the number of languages used among the prisoner population also increased. As only some of the inmates were proficient in other languages, communication was often problematic. Within the prisoners’ internal administration system, attempts were made to facilitate communication by appointing one inmate in each block to serve as “interpreter.”


In addition, to make major events and topics mutually comprehensible, a jargon developed: the “camp language,” incorporating concepts from a variety of tongues. Its linguistic components varied, depending on the origin of the inmates. In the initial phase of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, it was primarily the German “criminals” and Polish prisoners who literally set the tone: terms such as “blokowy[2] for block elder, “organisacja[3] (verb: “organize”) for illegal acquisition, and patschkas[4] for food parcels from relatives were influenced by the latter group, while the former, according to survivors, coined principally the swear words.  c  This category includes the derisive-sounding terms for those who emptied the latrines, the Scheißkommando[5] and the Scheißmeister,[6] who kept watch over the toilets and could deny access to them. The morning wake-up cry of the prisoner on barracks-room duty, Aufstehen! Wstawac! Ojfstajn![7] and the term for bread, bread-Brot-Broid-chleb-pain-lechem-kenyér,[8] were a mixture of languages.


In April 1943, the large Sephardic communities of Greece, in particular, the Jews of Thessaloniki (Salonika), were deported to Auschwitz. With their arrival, terms from Ladino, such as caravana (“food bowl”) and la comedera es buena (“the soup is good”), were introduced into the camp language; also, “the word that expresses the generic idea of theft is ‘klepsiklepsi’, of obvious Greek origin.”[9] The etymology of some words in the camp language, most notably Muselmann, remains unclear.


An additional source for the camp language was the often-euphemistic phrases that were typical of the language of the National Socialists. These were employed by the prisoners as well, to quote or to camouflage: Oszkár Betlen persuaded the SS doctor who wanted to send him to the gas chambers that he could still take “more than three Zugänge,”[10] that is, survive several “intakes,” or newly arriving transports: “This language the Nazis understood.”[11] Likewise, perverted versions of military concepts were adopted, especially with regard to the inhumane punishments: Sport treiben (“doing PE”) and Strafexerzieren (“pack drill”) referred to military-style PT accompanied by beatings, to which the prisoners, exhausted by physical labor, frequently were subjected as a collective punishment, often to the amusement of the SS men. Kapos had to report the Stärke (“strength”) of their work detachments, and how many Stück (“pieces,” that is, prisoners) they were conducting. The command Bewegung (“Move it”),[12] with which the Kapo or foreman announced the approach of a supervisor, was used by well-meaning foremen as a signal to simulate zeal as long as the inspection lasted. In a few cases, a euphemism was ironically made part of the camp language, as when, for example, fliehen (“flee, escape”) was referred to as flitzen (“scamper, hightail it”).


Often, however, it was also different life experiences and varied ways of adapting to the extreme conditions in the concentration camp that stood in the way of mutual understanding: Jean Améry, going beyond the purely semantic aspect of language, describes the identity problems he experienced as an intellectual in the camp environment.  d  Similarly, ideological barriers, too, naturally are conveyed through linguistic experiences, as Dr. Kovács, a doctor in the prisoner infirmary, expressed it.  e 


Apart from purely content-related issues of comprehension and the camp language itself, which in its harsh terms and and lack of great expressive power reflected the conditions of imprisonment to some extent, in daily dealings language often reduced communication ad absurdum, as its use took place on apparently incompatible levels. This deserves extensive study.

(SP; trans. KL)


E. H. (anonymized at author's request): Überlebensbericht.” Unpublished manuscript, undated. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute.

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



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

Berler, Willy: Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Buchenwald. Augsburg: Ölbaum, 2003.

Berler, Willy: Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald. Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004.

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

Handeli, Ya’acov: A Greek Jew from Salonica Remembers. New York: Herzl, 1993.

Klemperer, Victor: The Language of the Third Reich: LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook. London/New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone, 2000.

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

Martini, Emil de: Vier Millionen Tote klagen an. München-Obermenzing: Hans von Weber, 1948.

Toaff, Daniel / Ascarelli, Emanuele: “Rückkehr nach Auschwitz. Interview mit Primo Levi.” In: Primo Levi:Bericht über Auschwitz. Philippe Mesnard, ed. Berlin: BasisDruck, 2006, pp. 111–125.

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

[1] Daniel Toaff / Emanuele Ascarelli: “Rückkehr nach Auschwitz. Interview mit Primo Levi.” In: Primo Levi: Bericht über Auschwitz. Philippe Mesnard, ed. (Berlin: BasisDruck, 2006), pp. 111–125, here pp. 120–121. (Transl. KL).

[2] Oszkár Betlen: Leben auf dem Acker des Todes (Berlin: Dietz, 1962), p. 78.

[3] Joseph Robert White: “IG Auschwitz: The Primacy of Racial Politics” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, NE, 2000), p. 153.

[4] Willy Berler: Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Buchenwald (Augsburg: Ölbaum, 2003), p. 62. There is an English version—Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald (Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004)—but owing to differences between the German book and the English translation (from French), all citations refer to the German text. (Translated by KL)

[5] Berler: Hölle, p. 74.

[6] Berler: Hölle, p. 60.

[7] Berler: Hölle, p. 60.

[8] Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published in English as If This Is a Man], p. 39.

[9] Levi: Survival, p. 79.

[10] Betlen: Leben, p. 67.

[11] Betlen: Leben, p. 67.

[12] Berler: Hölle, p. 77.