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The camp system
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany created an extensive
system of camps in which they imprisoned millions of people
from Germany and the occupied territories. These camps
served a wide range of functions:
––concentration camps primarily functioned for any person
Nazi Germany deemed a threat;
––forced labour camps were centred around factories and
––death camps were primarily built for the mass murder of
It is estimated that about 10-12,000 camps existed across
Concentration camps in the occupied
• Following the outbreak of the Second World War and the occupation of Poland,
the camp system was expanded and thousands of new camps were built on Nazi
Germany’s newly-conquered eastern territories. As these territories expanded
eastwards, the nature of the camp system changed greatly: instead of serving as a
place of detention for political opponents and a source of forced labour, the camps
now served as places where biological destruction was to be carried out. In
occupied Poland, concentration camps became places for the murder of the
country’s elite and for the mass murder of the Jewish population, a policy later
expanded to include all of European Jewry under Nazi rule.
• German concentration camps were also the sites of large-scale pseudo-medical
experiments that were conducted on prisoners. Nazi doctors studied such things
as the resistance of the human body to rapid temperature change and also tested
new medicines on prisoners who had been infected with malaria, typhus,
tuberculosis or were suffering from hypothermia. Other experiments included
muscle and bone transplants and sterilisation. Many of these experiments were
performed for German chemical and pharmaceutical companies, while others
were conducted to benefit the German state. They resulted in the death, disabling
or infection of thousands of prisoners
Location of the death camps
The location of the camps in the east was
determined by a variety of factors. To reduce the
chance of escape, the camps needed to be located in
remote, isolated areas. Death camps were mostly
located in forests near sparsely populated areas. At
the same time, they needed to be close to lines of
communication, such as roads or railways, to
facilitate the transport of prisoners. Additionally,
forced labour camps were often located near
factories, mines or quarries.
In the period of 1941-1945, for the first time in the
history of mankind, industrial plants were used to kill
people. A total of six extermination camps were
established for the genocide of the Jews. The six
extermination camps were all situated in former Poland
and had mass murder as their purpose.
They were: Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka.
Majdanek and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were considered
"mixed" camps because they functioned as both the site
of four gas chambers and crematoria intended for mass
• The use of gas chambers was the most common
method of mass murdering the Jews in the
extermination camps. The Jews were herded into
the gas chambers, then the camp personnel closed
the doors, and either exhaust gas (in Belzec, Sobibor
and Treblinka) or poison gas in the form of Zyclon B
or A (in Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau) was led
into the gas chamber.
• Another method was the use of gassing trucks. In
Chemno gassing trucks were used, where Jews,
after being driven into the trucks, were suffocated
by the exhaust fumes that were led into them in the
• A third method was mass shooting.
The decision to locate the death camps in occupied Poland
was made for several reasons:
• Firstly, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish
community and the largest numbers of Jews were still living
in this area.
• Secondly, the central location of Poland within Europe
meant that the cost of transporting Jews into Poland from
other countries – such as France, Denmark, Hungary or
Greece – would be lower than elsewhere.
• Thirdly, the Germans were convinced that in Poland it
would be easier to hide their crimes: all Polish witnesses
could be resettled or eliminated, and the operation would
be undertaken away from public view.
The end of the war!!!
The end of the war: the liberation of the camps and the death marches
At the end of the war, when it was apparent for the Germans that they would lose the war,
they began to attempt to remove evidence of their criminal activities. By late 1944, the death
camps at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka had all ceased operation and had been
demolished by the Germans.
Other camps that were still in operation were liquidated and their equipment was destroyed
The number of prisoners and victims
Overall, between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis established 10-12,000 different types of camps
and sub-camps in the Third Reich and the 17 occupied countries.
More than 18 million people passed through these camps and more than 11 million of them
were killed. Approximately 9 million of them were specifically
sent to concentration camps and death camps and at least 7.2 million (81%) died. In the
death camps alone, the Nazis murdered over 3 million Jews.
In the occupied Polish territories the Nazis established nearly 6,000 camps that imprisoned
7.5 million people in this area. Approximately 6.7 million, mostly Jews and Poles, were
murdered. Over 3 million of these victims were Polish Jews, about 90% of the pre-war Jewish
population of Poland
• The living conditions in these camps differed little from those in the
concentration camps. They were subject to local commanders of the SS and
police, criminal police, the secret political police or civil administration. The
biggest forced labor camps existed on Polish territory in Łodz, Poniatowa,
Wronki, Mysłowice, Rawicz, Skarżysko-Kamienna, Czestochowa, Wieliczka,
Kraków, Lubicz and Sulejow. The number of foreigners engaged in forced
labor for the Third Reich reached 10 million people.
• They were situated near large industrial centers or building sites, they
were the base of the free labor.
• The forced labor camps played a Specific role in the Nazi system. They
bore different names: criminal labor camps, forced labor camps, penal
camps of construction services, construction of military equipment
camps, camps for workers from Eastern Europe, labor camps for Jews.
• The prisoners of the camps were treated inhumanly. They received insufficient
food ratios. People were kept in bad conditions. Some prisoners served as a
material for medical and pseudo-medical experiments. Prisoners were beaten to
death for minor offences. Sometimes German soldiers killed people without any
reason whatsoever. In the labour camps the prisoners were allowed to:
• Write letters to their families
• Receive parcels from families (it was often the case that German soldiers
confiscated some of the things, sometimes prisoners had to share with their
inmates, however some of the prisoners received some of the sent things)
• There was a hospital and a dentist.
• Simultaneously, in the same camp people died of diseases. The degenerate
wardens harassed the prisoners. For instance prisoners had to stand naked in
severe frost, which led some of them to death. During such assemblies, randomly
chosen prisoners were cruelly beaten in front of their inmates. At Christmas the
same soldiers who organized the cruel assemblies gave prisoners a barrel of bear
and two pieces of gingerbread.
Biography of Jan Maszczyk- memories from
the Auschwitz-Birkenau „Death Block”
,,The prisoners tried to survive on 10 decagrams of disgusting dark
bread and a cup of dishwatery coffee. For dinner - a litre of stinking
soup for three people. Every day it was someone’s turn to lick the
bowl. They cut bread with a spoon handle sharpened on a floor. It
took them seven days… Every crumb was worth its weight in gold.
Jan remembered they made a makeshift scale from a plank. The
leftovers were meticulously weighed and shared among
companions. Altogether, there was one loaf of bread for ten
prisoners. The prisoners missed smoking. Sometimes they managed
to smuggle cigarettes in exchange for something. They smoked
together, everyone could have one drag on a cigarette. The smoke
was blown into a companions mouth. They stroke fire by rubbing a
ball of wool against a plank.”
Biography of Jan Maszczyk
„The saddest day was Christmas Eve. This year, for the first time he
didn’t spend it with his family. In the cell, in this dreadful place, the
prisoners secretly tried to evoke the spirit of Christmas. However,
every now and then one of the companions would leave the cell for
the last time. Staying in the cell on the side of the courtyard, where
the Death Wall was located, they could hear screaming and
wailing, and in the end shooting. There was a thick smoke hovering
over the camp. Not a single blade of grass could be found. Even
birds bypassed this place. Everyone knew these were their last
moments. The SS men cared for the Christmas spirit. They put a
Christmas tree in the corridor, and a beating chair next to it…
On a command, in close formation, all prisoners were forced to
sing a Christmas carol “Heilige nacht, stille Nacht”. Silent Night,
Holy Night… On these days they gave prisoners a little bit of peace.”
Biography of Jan Maszczyk
„At the beginning of the month so called “sztands” took place.
These were summary court meetings – standgericht. At the
beginning of January Jan survived another of them.
An SS man played a lottery. From the list he chose the names he
liked - over two hundred people each time. At that time Jan
Maszczyk went through a moment of terror. The door opened, the
SS man read out his surname. It could mean only one thing – the
end. He took off his sweater and gave it to his companions. He
wouldn’t need it anymore. In a frenzy he got off his bunk and he
wanted to leave the cell, but the SS man pushed him back in. Into
his hands the SS man squeezed … a parcel from his wife. “I took it”
– Jan said – “I climbed the bunk. I knew they were alive and that
they knew where I was. Crying and embracing the parcel I sat on
the bunk the whole night…”- Jan remembered with a trembling
Jan Maszczyk like millions of Europeans went
through hell at that time. The hell that can’t ever
happen again. The hell that left its mark on him and
his family. He was left with post-camp psychosis,
nightmares with SS men shouting and killing people
and fear of any kind of violence. He died in peace in
2001, at the age of 85, surrounded by his closest.
For him the war never ended. For us the memory of
the events never died.
Written by: Marta Korus - great-granddaughter
Translation: Joanna Janas-Sajdak
people to this fate”
• Educational Materials for International Student Tours
to Holocaust Sites in Poland. Galicja Jewish Museum,