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Survival Strategies

 a  “In this the Germans’ psychological methods often failed. They tried to get the inmates to think only of themselves, to forget relatives and friends, to tend only to their own needs, unless they wanted to become ‘Mussulmen.’ But what happened was just the reverse. Those who retreated to a universe limited to their own bodies had less chance of getting out alive, while to live for a brother, a friend, an | ideal, helped you hold out longer. As for me, I could cope thanks to my father. Without him I could not have resisted. I would see him coming with his heavy gait, seeking a smile, and I would give it to him. He was my support and my oxygen, as I was his.”

(Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 80–81.)

“To survive you had to try to adapt yourself—and be able to make the adjustment. Which right from the outset was impossible for highly structured personalities, men in their forties with social standing, a sense of dignity, men who couldn’t accept that communication from on high to us, the bottom, came only through blows and insults.”[1]


For a prisoner, survival in the extreme conditions of the concentration camp depended mainly on his ability to adapt and on great good luck, as well as on his inventiveness and the support he received from higher-ranking fellow inmates.


Anyone who failed to adapt in the first few weeks to the control system of the camp ended up in Birkenau. Only a few were able to survive isolated from the group of prisoners. Many tried to get through with the mutual assistance of relatives or one or more friends.  a  More or less well organized groups, such as Communist resistance fighters or religious communities, as well as communities based on regional origin or a shared language, had a somewhat easier time of it. Membership in a group also affected an individual’s chances of surviving: for Jews or Russians, who occupied the bottom rung of the Nazis’ racial hierarchy, it was almost impossible to get one of the life-saving functionary positions. By contrast, anyone who “was of German nationality […] got, more or less without any effort on his part, some kind of function in the prisoners’ system of self-administration. Thus, even without belonging to one of the influential groups, he was relatively certain to survive, unless he was guilty of something out of the ordinary.”[2]



For the bulk of the “ordinary” inmates who had no influential position, opportunities were more limited: Some made a positive impression on the Kapos because of a neat, clean appearance or an increased workload and hence were given a functionary position. Others tried, at great personal risk, to “organize” additional food or items for exchange, for example, by begging civilian workers to give them leftover food at the construction site, or by stealing materials from I.G. Farben or pilfering articles of food in the kitchen. Block elders were required, for example, to provide the prisoners with grease to rub on their clogs; this grease could be “organized” by prisoners to trade for soup or bread. In addition, inmates could sell their labor or certain skills: they might act as block barber and shave the other men, “construct” the beds of one or more prisoners, use their training as a cobbler to repair shoes, or even make their skills in arts and crafts available to a Kapo or to the SS. In several cases, inmates succeeded in becoming the protégés of prisoner functionaries, who then helped them by providing additional food and protected them from numerous risks of camp life. Often the protégés were young inmates whom the prisoner functionaries helped out of kindness; in many cases, however, the youths were expected to provide sexual favors in return.


It was more difficult for concentration camp prisoners to make contacts with civilian workers or British prisoners of war, especially at the I.G. Auschwitz construction site. Many civilian workers were made uncomfortable by the sight of the prisoners, or they simply feared any contact with them, which was forbidden. Once contact was made, the resulting assistance rendered (food, clothing, letters, cigarettes, or passing on information) often enabled the prisoners to survive.


Besides the purely physical demands, life in the concentration camp required enormous psychological strength on the part of the prisoners: usually separated from family and friends, whose death they frequently had had to witness, or uncertain about their fate, robbed of personal dignity, and in constant fear of abuse and death, the prisoners had to make an effort not to give up and to retain their will to live. Despite the extreme physical burden, some men met in political resistance groups or religious gatherings that kept a feeling of being human alive in them. Other prisoners, in turn, speak of conversations about culture and history as their elixir of survival. This too, though it sapped precious reserves of strength, could help them survive.

(SP; transl. KL)


Benjamin Grünfeld, oral history interview [Swed.], January 12, 2008. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Siegmund Kalinski, oral history interview [Ger.], September 11, 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.

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

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.

Wiesel, Elie: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969. London: HarperCollins, 1996.

[1] Paul Steinberg: Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoning (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), p. 47.

[2] Bernd C. Wagner: IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941–1945 (Munich: Saur, 2000), p. 137. (Translated by KL)