Nazi Death Camps: Blurring the Lines Between Life and Death

We are publishing this article for Holocaust Remembrance Day. May their memories be for a blessing.

Death camps represent, perhaps, the most important evidence for the planned extermination of the Jewish people. The death camp manufactured a single product: the speedy and efficient murder of world Jewry. Because of this, the Nazis blurred the lines between life and death. “Life” became an optimistic way to describe an animated dying process, while “death” was normalized into everyday expectation. Nazis sought to turn humans into animals, taking away all semblance of the dignity of human life. Meanwhile, the actual act of murder was the one organized activity with an outward semblance of dignity: showerheads. The Nazis’ careful euphemizing of the killing process resulted in the perception of death not simply as a part of life, but the entirety of life at the death camp. Life and death grew ever closer to each other. Although many victims fought this tendency, Nazis designed the death camps to blur the lines between life and death.

As soon as the victims arrived at the camps, their human dignity was stripped away from them. Jan Karski wrote, “At Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor… the condemned were stripped naked and then killed” (Debórah Dwork/Robert Jan van Pelt, Holocaust: A History, 301). Such was the fate of those immediately sent to their death at the ramp. The Nazis likewise dehumanized the few deportees chosen to live a little longer for slave labor. Vladek Spiegelman recalls, “They took from us our papers, our clothes, and our hair… our names. And here they put me my number” (Art Spiegelman, Maus, 186). Tattooed numbers replaced human identity.

One of the greatest dangers of carelessly told stories of the death camps is the illusion that the Nazis were organized. This they were only in murder. As in other matters, the Nazis were inefficient and disorganized in planning the daily lives of death camp inmates. After a cold shower, new slave workers were made to jog through the snow naked, catching prisoner’s clothing thrown at them, indiscriminate of fit. Mandelbaum, Vladek’s friend, had once been a popular, wealthy man in Sosnowiec, “but now, in Auschwitz, Mandelbaum was a mess.” Because Mandelbaum’s pants were too wide, he had to hold them up with his hand. One shoe was too large for his foot, another too small (Spiegelman, 185-6, 189). Those kept for labor quickly died, just as quickly being replaced by incoming prisoners. In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi describes the “Muselmanner” (weakened laborers at the brink of death) as “an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer” (Primo Levi, 90). Life at the death camps in no way resembled the life of civilized man.

Beaten or killed for the smallest infraction, or for no reason at all, victims lived in constant Foucauldian fear. A German soldier often would make a Jew run out of line, then shoot the Jew for (presumably) running away, earning himself two days of vacation (Spiegelman, 195). In the face of all this, there were those who sought semblances of life even in the death camp. A Polish priest summed Vladek’s tattooed numbers to 18 (the Hebrew number for “life”), encouraging him about his fate (188). Steinlauf, Primo Levi’s friend, told him, “We are slaves, deprived of every right… but we still possess one power… the power to refuse our consent… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die” (Levi, 41). This may be how some survived, but in death camps, survival was the exception, the antithesis to the very nature of the place. The camps were designed for all paths to lead to death. “If you ate how [much] they gave you,” Vladek explains, “it was just enough to die more slowly” (Spiegelman, 209). Levi writes, “The Muselmanner… form the backbone of the camp” (Levi, 90). The Nazi death camps turned living humans into beings whose ultimate fulfillment was death.

While life in the camp was a disorganized, chaotic mess, the actual act of murder was the one predictable, formulaic, planned-out process. Drawing on Raul Hilberg’s essay detailing the planning of the death camps, Dwork/van Pelt write, “The murder machinery would run with the assembly-line efficiency he [Himmler] was so proud of” (Dwork/van Pelt, 287). Indeed, the death camps were unprecedented in their assembly-line efficiency, and such brutal efficiency has not been reproduced since (Hilberg in Peter Hayes, The Destruction of European Jews, 492-510). The killing process was portioned into different steps such that no one person conducted the entire execution. At Treblinka, it only took 10-15 minutes for an arriving Jew leaving the trucks to find himself in the gas chamber (Kevin Mahoney, In Pursuit of Justice, 194).

Unlike the many brutalities the Nazis had experimented with (localized pogroms, Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units), death camps were large, immovable camps where life existed for the sole purpose of genocide. Traditional means of execution, unrefined by German civilization, necessarily appeared barbaric. Nazi officials complained of the incivility with which the Iasy pogrom in Romania was carried out. The death camps, on the other hand, utilized the innovation of over a dozen German contractors (Hilberg). In doing so, they “spared the Einsatzgruppen the ordeal of shooting masses of people at close range.” The bodies would be burned, making it less likely for disease to spread. All this provided a relatively hygienic way of killing Jews. As Hans Frank explained, “We used surgeons as our models, never butchers” (Dwork/van Pelt, 285-287).

It was in such a context that Germans obsessed over euphemizing their barbarism. In Sobibor, Himmelfarht (“ascension road”), drawing on the black smoke that belched out from the crematoria, referred to the path to the gas chamber. The Sonderkommando (“special units”) were death camp prisoners tasked with burning corpses. Muselmanner (“Muslims”) referred to prostrate prisoners about to die. Sonderbehandlung (“special treatment”), further euphemized by the abbreviation “S.B.,” referred to the execution of prisoners. Daily objects like showerheads concealed the horror of the gas chamber. All this worked to normalize and integrate death into the everyday life of the death camp.

The Nazis, so obsessed with order and division, created a hell of chaos for those living in the death camps. They could only justify their own disorganization by flipping the proper roles of life and death. They dehumanized those alive, changing their identities from upright humans into groveling beasts. As Primo Levi writes, “One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death.” And, because the death camp’s only creation was death, the only process resembling life was murder.

The photos of Auscwhitz featured at the top of this post are taken from Yad Vashem.


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