Concentration camps are popularly associated with the Nazi practice of retaining political prisoners between 1933 and 1945. However, a broader understanding of the term refers to detention camps that were set up and manned during war times, across the globe and ages.
Drawing illustrations of the camp life, penning down stories on paper scraps, making jewelry from copper wires, and participating in prayer services are all reflections of the immense psychological strength that the Jews depicted in spite of the horrendous living conditions they were put up in.
Concentration camps gained notoriety after the World War II. After the allied forces marched into Nazi-held territories, many such camps were discovered. The horror seen in these camps was unspeakable. Although there were a lot of deaths in Nazi camps, a concentration camp is different from an extermination camp. There is a very thin line separating the two. An extermination camp is a place where prisoners are brought in with the sole reason of execution. There is no time wasted, and all the manpower and logistics are dedicated towards the methods of efficient killing and disposal of the dead bodies.
A concentration camp is different. It is built to efficiently torture prisoners. This torture can be in terms of real torture and forced inhumane labor. They are different from normal prisons in the sense that in a normal prison, the prisoners are looked at as humans. In a concentration camp, the prisoners are usually political rivals, sects and groups of people deemed inferior by the ruling entity of the land, and citizens of a country towards which a very pure form of hatred is directed at.
In the following paragraphs we will try to understand this disgusting concept of a prison better. Why? Because we have to know what people have gone through in these hellish places, we have to know to what depths human empathy can fall, we have to know to what heights human cruelty can soar, and we have to know so that this may not happen again. We have to know so that we can empathize with the sadistic things that are done in these places. They should be studied just as a disease is studied by a doctor. The disease itself is bad, but it has to be studied so that mechanisms can be developed to prevent its reoccurrence.
A Brief History of Concentration Camps
Concentration camps have existed since the Roman times. The Romans built camps for Goths who were moving into Roman territory peacefully, afraid of the Hun invasion. Not able to handle such a large number, and fearing that all their food stockpile and resources might get depleted feeding them, the Romans put around 100,000 Goths in a restricted area. This restricted area was too cramped for such a large contingency of Goths. Hence, the word “concentration” camp.
Food in the camp was heavily rationed. When shortages occurred, natural system prevailed―the stronger preyed on the weaker, stealing food and the weaker perished. Around 30,000 women and children died. The Goths did exact their revenge, but the damage was done.
Invaders erected “Indian camps” when the Colonists took over a territory from the Native Americans. They were starved to death.
Camps were erected for the Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. Many soldiers were forced to live in cramped conditions with little food, water, or warmth. As a result, many of them starved or died from the cold.
Concentration camps were also used by the British during their invasion of South Africa, where they imprisoned politically sensitive people to prevent them from instigating or supporting the people resisting the invasion.
These camps were extensively used in Nazi Germany where Himmler came up with an idea for the final solution of ethnic cleansing of their Fatherland of impure blood. They set up around 1,200 such camps, with many more sub-camps attached to them. These camps were ultra-efficient in one thing―getting the prisoners there, making their life as hellish as possible, killing them, and getting more prisoners there. The prisoners mainly consisted of the Jews, although a significant number of Polish, Slavic, and other unwanted pollutants of their race were present.
Many of these Nazi camps were liberated by Soviet forces. It is very ironic because the same government that directed its army to liberate these camps would then put up and operate their own concentration camps. Just like the Nazi propaganda, the Soviets were very passionate about their brand of Communism that was just born. Stalin had taken control―total control to be specific―so that he was almost ruling single-handedly as a dictator. Just like Hitler was. And understandably, the same trends started showing. Concentration camps were erected for political dissidents. These camps were called Gulags. Anyone who was deemed to be even slightly liberal was imprisoned. Artists, musicians, businessmen, traders, builders, shopkeepers―all were imprisoned.
The living conditions in these Gulags were similar that in Nazi camps. Around 1.3 million people died in these Gulags.
Common factors of the examples mentioned above include cramped living spaces, food scarcity, water scarcity, non-existent hygiene and hard labor. Soldiers were meant to fight a war, and hence during wartime, they were given a lot of respect by their respective countries. They were not subjected to labor in invaded land. Hence, the taken prisoners were made to do it. The conditions were hard, and labor, in most cases, was manual.
Food was heavily rationed and unappetizing. What was unappetizing in the start became the only means of survival when things got ugly. The food was far lesser than what was required by the body to do the hard work. And since the body was using more energy than it was generating, large amounts of muscle wasting was seen. Fat was not existent, and bodies are emaciated beyond recognition. Soldiers who liberated Nazi camps recall the prisoners appearing as ghosts of just skin and bones, walking listlessly, unaware of their surroundings.
Minimal clothing was provided. The provided clothes were not even remotely sufficient to shield the inmates from the elements, be it heat, cold, rain, or frost. Even if the prisoner somehow evened out with his grossly insufficient diet plan, the cold and frost would assault his extremities, resulting in frostbites. When the survivors recalled their stories, they say that they were subjected to hard labor even in the cold rain. In their living quarters, they were not given sufficient bedding and no blankets. The designers of such camps had in mind that if the food did not take them out, one of the elements will.
Hygiene was non-existent too. Medicine in those times, especially antibiotics, was expensive. Mass production of drugs was happening in selected factories, and that too was diverted to the front lines for the soldiers. It was deemed a waste to waste such precious resources on these prisoners. In such abject living conditions, where there was an average of one lavatory for 400 men and women, conditions got worse. Diseases such as typhus and tuberculosis were rampant. With such a high density of people compressed together, the spread of such diseases could not be controlled. Thus, disease was the third to exterminate prisoners.
As mentioned before, labor was hard and manual. Average working hours were 12 to 14. Working conditions were brutal too. Prisoners were punished if found even pausing to catch their breath. They were flogged publicly as an example for the rest. Usually, in such depravity, the inmates died in the flogging, and this was considered an easy way to dispose of excess. Hence, flogging got more frequent if the number of inmates increased.
A Typical Day in a Nazi Concentration Camp
5.30 am – Wake-up call. Usually a gong or a horn is used. The wake-up call is preponed to 4.30 am in summers. The inmates are ushered to their wash areas and given a couple of minutes to wash and relieve themselves. Relieving themselves other than this time could lead to death. They are supposed to gather outside for a roll call. If a person is missing, the whole group is punished by skipping breakfast. Sometimes, they will be made to stand in the sun or cold the whole day without food.
6.00 am – Breakfast is served. It consists of a mug full of coffee, which is brown-flavored water. If the inmates are lucky, the water is warm. They also get a piece of bread. The bread is saved for the rest of the day, as it is the only piece of solid food they will get in the whole day.
6.30 am – The inmates are marched to their respective places to work. Sometimes they are made to march long distances before they even start working. No water is given. The work is brutal, and floggings are common. Inmates are not supposed to help each other. Everyone is on his own. Their work is scrutinized closely. Any inefficiency is met with cruel punishment.
12.00 pm – Lunch is served. Usually, it is lentil soup. Which means it is green-colored water. Earlier, when the camps were established, the soup contained lentils, potato, and some flour to thicken it, but by the end of the war, a piece of vegetable was rare.
12.30 pm – The workers are ushered to work again until nightfall.
8.00 pm – There is dinner served which consists of soup and a piece of cheese or marmalade.
The piece of saved bread is also eaten now. Some save the piece for the next day. Rumors of inmates eating rats is also common.
9.00 pm – The evening roll call is observed. Latecomers are made to stand in the open and not allowed to sleep for the whole night.
9.30 pm – The inmates are expected to retire to their respective quarters. Sleep is a luxury.
Concentration Camps: The Present Scenario
The present perception of the people is that the horrors of concentration camps is past. But it is not so. Even with the acceptance of Geneva war conventions and vigilant human rights bodies, there are concentration camps present even today. Most of them are present in North Korea. Although prisons with extremely poor human rights records exist in many countries, mass punishments are very rare. And hence, these prisons cannot be called concentration camps.
However in North Korea, such camps exist and parallels between it and the Nazi regime are hard to ignore. The inmates are usually political dissidents. They are a bit more vocal in showing displeasure of the current government of the country. These camps are known as “internment” or “re-education” camps where people with liberal views are brought and “cleansed”.
Some of the inmates, after being released, somehow managed to escape to South Korea, where they narrated their stories. These stories contain graphic content and almost inhuman conditions. Their ordeal spelled torture, starvation, cannibalism, sodomy, and murder.
It might surprise many of us to see that working models of concentration camps still exist. In fact, they not only exist, but even thrive with efficiency. Human rights watch groups are working hard to bring awareness among such perpetrating countries. If they do have some empathy, they might just listen. If they do not, use of force to bring them to justice is debatable.