Among the most feared daily rituals were roll calls. All prisoners assembled on a square; even the sick had to line up (only those in the infirmary were exempt). Prisoners often stood for hours, braving the elements, as the SS completed the headcount. The long wait was punctured by drills. SS guards hit prisoners who could not keep up, as well as those “guilty” of poor posture or dirty clothing. Sometimes the SS also forced prisoners to watch official camp punishments, when other inmates were whipped. The Austrian Socialist Julius Freund, who was forced into the camps in the late 1930s, later published a vivid description of roll calls in Buchenwald.
There was great apprehension before every roll call, for people feared not only the procedure itself but all the other things that went with it. There was a large square where roll call was conducted. It sloped down slightly from the gate to the huts. At the beginning people could go there alone to roll call, but later the block elders led us to the square in rows of ten […]
The [SS] Scharführer checked precisely how many people were in the block, counted the rows, entered the number present in his block book and reported the information to the SS man on duty at the gate.
Then the loudspeaker rang out with the command: “Caps off! Eyes right!” The duty officer then gave the Hitler salute as he reported the number of prisoners in the camp as a whole to the camp commandant or his deputy. At the command “Caps off!” we had to snatch our caps off our heads instantly and a swishing noise made by ten thousand hurried hand movements was heard across the whole square. After the report came the order, “Caps on!” […]
great apprehension before every roll call
The most unpleasant command rang out at early roll call: “Work details assemble!” The rows of prisoners dissolved in a great commotion, all of them scurrying hither and thither, like ants in an anthill, to their detail.
The same performance was repeated at evening roll call, as the work details dissolved and everyone found his way back to his block group. After evening roll call we had a demonstration of the commandant’s good or bad mood, for he sometimes kept us standing as a punishment, or sometimes made us sing […]. Which of us prisoners did not have the experience of standing in the camp for hours in rain, snowdrifts or in the hot sun, because a Scharführer had got his arithmetic wrong!
Source: J. Freund, O Buchenwald! (Klagenfurt, 1945), pp. 162–3
Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes