Living Conditions

By: Bria Emerson

(about the author)

The physical surroundings prisoners became familiar with in the Auschwitz concentration camps are extremely significant when examining the emotions and overall conditions. I personally can identify with being heavily affected by my surroundings in any situation I encounter. The prisoners were scared and unfamiliar with such harsh conditions. To investigate the many rules and uncomfortable conditions, I used books such as Values and Violence in Auschwitz by Anna Pawelczynska, Witness, Voices from the Holocaust by Joshua Greene and Shiva Kumar and Birkenau, The Camp of Death by Marco Nahon. Each source used a different approach to explain several areas of the Holocaust in depth.

Building Structures:

Upon arriving at Auschwitz to the train deck, directly in front of the entrance, prisoners noticed barbed wire and tall fences. Auschwitz I was confined to a 300 x 200 m area. Birkenau sat on a 750 x 1800m piece of land. The surrounding fences were electric to prevent the escape of prisoners. 27 brick barracks, which held 3000 people, and 90 wooden barracks, which held 9000 people, housed the prisoners. Five large, noticeable crematories used to gas and burn bodies stood within the camp. Kitchens, laundry facilities, storehouses, package depot, hospitals warehouse and bathhouses were a few of the structures where prisoners were forced to work.

Sleeping Quarters:

Some brick barracks were made to hold 600-800 prisoners. Often hundreds of additional prisoners were squeezed into the barracks. The wooden barracks housed approximately 200 prisoners. Most barracks lacked lighting because of the limited windows. Often barracks did not have windows. The ground was either compacted dirt or brick. The prisoners were forced to live in cold, dirty quarters that housed hundreds of people.

Brick barracks’ walls were lined with ‘roosts’ which were similar to bunks. Wooden beds were attached to the walls. Wooden barracks were filled with wooden bunks lined up side by side. Four to ten prisoners would smash into these tiny sleeping areas. Washrooms, which held approximately 40 people, were used for very quick bathing and difficult access to limited amounts of water. Toilets were numerous holes in long raised planks that enabled many prisoners to use at one time.

Wake up times: After a hellish night full of awful cries and pleading to God, prisoners were awakened at 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Once prisoners were out of bed, they were given tiny rations of food and rushed off to roll call.

Identification and Clothing:

Upon entering the camp, prisoners were forced to take off all their clothes and were given a pair of pants and a jacket. The jacket had the ‘matriculation’ number on the front and strips of white cloth on both the sleeves and chest. Prisoners were also issued underwear, shoes, a cap and a shirt.

Identification triangles were sewn onto the jackets. Red triangles represented political reasons, pink represented sexual offenders, green represented common law offenses and black represented sabotage. Jews were given yellow and red Stars of David with letters representing home countries sewn onto them. Children often wore the red triangle. Letters and numbers were also used to represent nationality.

A child’s destiny:

Sadly, children were automatically sent to the left line where the handicapped and elderly unknowingly waited to die. Women who were pregnant were also automatically killed. Women who hid their pregnancies and eventually gave birth immediately were parted from their newborns that were killed.

Food Rations:

Prisoners explain the extremely meager and unhealthy amounts of food they are given each day. There is no choice or variation. Everyday the prisoners are given the same type of food for each meal. Food ranges from coffee, soup, meat, bread, water and sometimes milk. Occasionally prisoners are given a bonus, which is extra meat or bread. Prisoners forget there are other types of food because of the repetitive meals they are given.

The lack of protein and other nutritious vitamins causes malnutrition and other mental and physical damages. Nahon, author of, Birkenau, The Camp of Death, states, "Such a diet is undoubtedly one of the forms of execution" (p. 43). Prisoners became extremely weak and most often died from starvation and disease if not exterminated in the gas chambers.


As Nahon explains in, Birkinau, The Camp of Death men were occasionally awakened in the middle of the night and led to their destiny of sterilization. This sterilization is mostly experimental; enhancing the knowledge of the Germans. Men and even women are chosen to be sterilized. Women are castrated, but men have a more detailed surgery. First, men have an electric current passed through their genitals and later have both testicles removed.(Nahon)

Germans wanted to be confident that these prisoners were never able to reproduce. The sterilization was not only used to gain knowledge, but to be assured that these people were never to be a threat to the German country.

Organized events, music and punishment games:

A very important evening event in the camp, roll call, was more like a ceremonial event. Heads were to be without caps. Prisoners are counted and if the number is short an alarm is sound and the guards search for the missing prisoners. Throughout the entire search, the present and exhausted prisoners must wait, standing on two tired feet, in front of the barracks. Often the prisoners waited all night in the cold, damp night air.

Early in the morning and in the evening, the Kommandos march to music. Along with the music they all adored was synchronized marching. This event was enjoyed by the all the authorities in camp. While these men are marching with pride and honor, thousands of prisoners are suffering and dying. The prisoners had to adjust to this pleasure of the prison authorities which only made the prisoners angrier.

The Nazis really found much pleasure in watching prisoners suffer. The Jews and all other prisoners were forced to participate in the cruel activities, listen from afar or watch their fellow prisoners in agony. Nazis enjoyed releasing dogs to attack victims who cannot run free. Every morning a prisoner would attempt at hiding and skipping a hard day of work. The Nazis would find the prisoners and run after them hitting them with sticks and whips; like a game. The prisoners did not have a choice of participation.

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