Written 02/08/2021


Anyone who has read or learned about the Holocaust knows about the Nazi camps, which were used by Nazi Germany to systematically kill millions of people during World War II. However, not everyone knows that there were several different types of camps that existed, and the purpose of each type of camp was different from the others, though they often overlapped. Unfortunately, regardless of whether it was a forced-labor camp, an extermination camp, or a transit camp, many people died in every type.

In general terms, a concentration camp is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard". Today, it's a blanket term, used to refer to all the camps the Nazis had established for prisoners, but specifically, concentration camps were places the Nazis used to keep prisoners in one place.

The Nazi concentration camps all had the same administrative structure, which had five sections of staff. The Commandant's Headquarters consisted of the commandant and his staff. There was a protective detention office, run by a Security Police officer. He received instruction from the Reich Central Office for Security and kept prisoner records. In addition, there was also a Commander of the Protective Detention Camp, an administration and supply section, and an SS physician.

In most of the concentration camps, the Nazi SS had installed or had plans to install gas chambers, built to assist in killing prisoners who were too ill or weak to be of use to them in a "euthanasia"-style practice. These were also used to kill specific groups of people that the Nazis wanted to eliminate, such as Polish resistance fighters or Soviet prisoners of war. Later on, however, they would be used to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews in an effort to complete the mass genocide Hitler had ordered.

The first of these camps was established in March of 1933 in Dachau, Germany. In the first year of Dachau's existence, the camp held about 4800 prisoners, mostly political rivals of the Third Reich. These included German Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists. However, the camp soon held other groups of people, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma (also known as Gypsies), homosexual people, and those considered "asocial" or displayed socially deviant behavior from what was deemed acceptable by the Nazi regime. Jews did not start to be interned at Dachau until later; it was only after Hitler started to exact prohibitions against the Jews that the numbers started to rise dramatically. Notably, after Kristallnacht occurred in November 1938, nearly 11,000 male Jews were detained at the camp; however, most of these men were released after providing proof of plans to emigrate out of Germany. Dachau lasted until its liberation in 1945.

When American forces approached the camp in late April 1945, they discovered nearly 40 railroad cars filled with between two and three thousand bodies, sent to Dachau in an attempt to hide them from oncoming Allied forces. The train was supposed to arrive at the camp within a few days; instead, the journey lasted over three weeks. All but about a quarter of the prisoners had died on the way to Dachau. While the survivors were herded into the camp, the bodies of the remaining prisoners were left to rot in the train. This line of railcars became known as the Dachau death train. Today, people can travel out to Dachau from Munich and go on tours of the camp, which is a great way to spread awareness of the horrors that occurred there and bring knowledge to people who might not have been aware of Dachau before.

In several camps, the entrances to the prisons were marked with the words, "Arbeit Macht Frei", or "Work sets you free". Most notably, the words are displayed in large letters over the entrance of Auschwitz. The phrase gave prisoners false hope, implying that if they worked hard enough or long enough, they would eventually be released. However, the Nazis had no intention of making that statement true in the way prisoners hoped. The only way they would be set free was if they were dead. Forced-labor camps were similar to regular concentration camps in their quality, conditions, and the way the prisoners were treated. Forced labor was practiced by the majority of the prison camps; however, these camps were specifically for the use of slave labor to cover labor shortages and for economic advancement.

The first forced-labor camps were opened in 1939, soon after Poland was invaded. Later, Ostarbeiter (eastern workers), Fremdarbeiter (foreign workers), and other forced-labor workers were brought in from the east when the Soviets were invaded in 1941. Laborers were forced to work long hours with little to no time for any breaks. To the Nazis, they were seen as expendable and easily replaceable; as a result of these conditions, death rates were extremely high.

In an effort to realize the intent to make Germany as great as the ancient Roman Empire, huge construction projects were started. Among these projects was a national stadium, set to be built in Nuremberg by Hitler's preferred architect, Albert Speer. Speer's material of choice was stone; as such, camps like Natzweiler-Struthof in France and Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria were built in close proximity to quarries. In line with the other Nazi camps, the quarry camps were no strangers to death. In many ways, they were as cruel as even the extermination camps.

On March 12, 1938, Austria was annexed by the Nazis. Two weeks later, the construction of the Mauthausen-Gusen quarry camp was announced. All German and Austrian men, the prisoners consisted of political opponents and people labeled as "asocial" or "criminal". The first group of prisoners was transferred to Mauthausen on August 8, 1938 from Dachau and were forced to start work on building their own camp and set up quarry operations. A second quarry camp was set up in Gusen in December 1939.

After the war outbreak, thousands of people from across Europe were transferred to Mauthausen and Gusen as well as the numerous, smaller camps interconnected with them. Prisoners worked around the clock without breaks or food, carrying large blocks of granite up a set of stairs. The 186-steps were called the "Stairs of Death" for a reason. If a prisoner was able to bring his load to the top, he was forced to go back down for another block. If they couldn't and they collapsed under the weight, it resulted in an often fatal domino effect that crushed those still at the bottom of the stairs. Sometimes, a prisoner would reach the top, only to be pushed down anyway by Nazi officers or Kapos, fellow prisoners who carried out the dirty work of the officers' jobs. Oftentimes, the soldiers would force exhausted prisoners to race up the stairs with their blocks. Survivors of this race would be lined up at the edge of the quarry cliff. The prisoners would then be forced, at gunpoint, to choose between being shot or pushing a nearby prisoner over the edge. The deaths of victims pushed over the edge of the quarry cliff by the SS or Kapos would be recorded as "suicide by jumping" in the official documents. These people were nicknamed "parachutists" by the SS, thus giving the cliff a name as well—"The Parachutists' Wall".

The US Army liberated Mauthausen and Gusen on May 5, 1945. Out of the approximately 190,000 people imprisoned at Mauthausen-Gusen and its surrounding subcamps, at least 90,000 were dead. Today, people can visit the memorials in Mauthausen, Austria and climb the since-repaired 186 "Stairs of Death", and remember the atrocities that occurred there between 1938 and 1945.

Transit camps were established in Nazi-occupied lands to bring Jews in those areas into one place before being deported to more permanent camps, usually a killing center. These camps were similar to regular concentration camps; conditions were poor and unsanitary, and overcrowding was all too common. However, unlike the regular camps, which were all run by SS officers, transit camps could be run by collaborators, such as Westerbork in the Netherlands or Drancy in France, which was run by the French Police until 1943.

The Drancy Internment and Transit camp was established in August of 1941 by the Germans. Placed in the northeastern suburb of Paris, France that it was named after, the camp served as a temporary detainment center for foreign Jews in France. The French police, under control by the SS, staffed the camp until July 1, 1943, when the SS took back direct control. Approximately 70,000 prisoners were interned at Drancy between August 1941 and August 1944; almost all were Jews, except for a small number of French resistance fighters. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis began deporting the Jews from Drancy to extermination camps. Of the nearly 65,000 Jews deported, 61,000 of them were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. On August 15 and 16, 1944, Nazi officers in Drancy burned the official prison camp documents and fled as Allied forces approached. Among the 65,000 Jews deported from the Drancy transit camp, fewer than 2,000 survived the Holocaust.

While every type of camp written about here featured death as a main occurrence, extermination camps were designed specifically to make mass murder as efficient as possible. The Nazis frequently used code words to disguise what they were actually talking about. The Final Solution was the term that referred to the plan to annihilate all the Jews in Europe. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, anti-Semitic policies started to escalate, starting with the establishment of ghettos. Polish Jews were forced to live in these unsafe, unsanitary areas with little food and high crime rates. After the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Nazis began to introduce the six extermination camps, starting with Chełmno, which was up and running by December of the same year. An additional three camps, Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, were built in 1942 and were placed near railways in order to make transportation easier. Majdanek, originally a regular concentration camp, became a killing center in the same year with the introduction of gas chambers and crematoria. The last and most infamous of these camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau, built as a large complex, was in operation by March of 1942. All six of these extermination camps were the pinnacle of Nazi cruelty, a permanent reminder of the cruelty of man.

Auschwitz-Birkenau consisted of a concentration camp, a forced-labor camp, and an extermination camp and eventually had a network of over forty satellite camps. Initially, it was primarily Poles that were sent to Auschwitz; it wasn't until about 1942 that the vast majority of prisoners were Jews, as the main reason Auschwitz was established was to have a place for the overwhelming numbers of Polish prisoners.

In 1941, the Nazis began the expansion of Auschwitz. From 1943 on, the main camp was referred to as Auschwitz I. Auschwitz I also housed the SS headquarters and was the concentration camp part of the complex. The third section of Auschwitz was Monowitz, the forced-labor camp, the largest subcamp of the complex. Auschwitz III, as Monowitz became known as, oversaw subcamps whose prisoners worked in industrial production, quarry work, or coal mining. Those whose prisoners worked in agriculture and on farms were subordinated to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Laborers periodically had to go through selection by the Nazis. If a prisoner was deemed too weak or sick to work, they were sent to the crematoria.

Birkenau is the camp that most people today think of when Auschwitz is brought up. Known as Auschwitz II, it was the largest section of the complex and served as the extermination camp. Around September of 1941, the Nazis at Auschwitz began to run tests with the insecticide Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide), using Soviet prisoners-of-war and severely ill and weak Poles. After confirming the efficiency and effectiveness of the poison (the deadly gas would kill within minutes), the SS began to use it to carry out the Final Solution, starting in 1942. Four large crematoria were built at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943 to accommodate for the massive numbers of people arriving at the camp, each complete with a gas chamber, disrobing area, and crematory. During the height of deportations, an average of 6,000 Jews were gassed each day.

Often, the majority of new arrivals were immediately sent to the gas chambers, disguised as showers. Others were selected to perform forced labor, though anyone who was not sent to the crematoria rarely survived more than a few weeks. Like in all other camps, the prisoners were seen as disposable and easily replaceable. In many camps, but at Auschwitz especially, some prisoners were also held for medical experiments. SS doctors would use prisoners as test subjects for drugs and immunization compounds, so-called cures for hypothermia, and concoctions to try to make seawater drinkable. They would use them to test the effects of altitude. They would do tests to see what different diseases had on different races. The most famous of these doctors was Josef Mengel, who had a particular fascination with twins.

Between 1940 and 1945, at least 1.3 million people were deported to the Auschwitz complex. Of those, about 1.1 million men, women, and children were killed. In early January of 1945, the Nazis began to evacuate Auschwitz as the Red Army approached. Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced to march to either the west towards Wodzislaw (about 35 miles away) or to the northwest towards Gliwice (about 30 miles away). SS guards shot anyone who could not continue. Those who fell behind were also killed, and thousands of others died from the cold, starvation, and exhaustion. The prisoners who made it to the cities were then transported in freight cars to several concentration camps in Germany, as well as Mauthausen in Austria. Many died on this transport due to the lack of food, water, and warmth. The remaining 6,000 at Auschwitz were liberated by the Soviets later the same month. Today, hundreds of thousands of people visit the Auschwitz site every year.

Much of what students learn in school is usually the same throughout their time learning about the Holocaust. Most students know about the six million Jews that were victims of the genocide. They know about Auschwitz and what went on there. They know about the ghettos and the steps many people took in an attempt to hide from the Nazis. However, many people do not realize that there were specific types of camps for specific types of prisoners, especially in the beginning. Some camps evolved to suit different purposes, like Auschwitz. Others remained the same in their primary purpose, like the transit camps. Regardless, every prisoner deported to any type of Nazi camp was subject to horrific abuse, neglect, and torture, whether from medical experiments, starvation, forced labor, or the gas chambers. Today, we must remember the victims of the Holocaust and never forget what happened during the Third Reich, lest history repeats itself.