Several hundred thousand concentration camp prisoners died from hunger and illness during the Second World War. Their final days were marked by extreme agony. Extremely emaciated, they could barely walk, talk or eat. They were full of dirt and disease, and always hungry. In the camps, these doomed prisoners were often known as Muselmänner (or Muslims). As the Polish scholar and Sachsenhausen survivor Władysław Kuraszkiewicz wrote in 1947, every prisoner was at risk of becoming a Muselmann.
Most of those who died did so as so-called “Muselmänner”. “Muselmänner” attracted all the curses and bullying of those in power. At the [SS] selections they were chosen as useless garbage for the crematorium. Wherever they were they were in everyone’s way. They were always the last and were shoved, beaten, ill-treated, robbed and humiliated. They were not allowed to go to the sick bay because they did not have a fever, nor did they have an infectious disease. In the camp there was room only for the fit, the quick-witted and the strong.
there was room only for the fit
In fact, everyone was in constant danger of turning into a “Muselmann” for it could happen without being caused by anything special. All it took was for someone to get a slight cold or for his shoe to rub a sore spot on his foot, to get a first abscess or one day simply to be absent-minded and thus be noticed at work or in the barracks by an SS man or somebody important. That led to the first beating. Anyone who is weakened or has had a beating cannot work as well as the others. He slows the pace of work and so is punished again. The Germans’ practice of collective punishment meant that everyone was punished on account of one, so everyone avoided the “Muselmänner”.
They […] came back dirtier and more exhausted from work than the others. Because they were always pushed to the back they often did not manage to eat their lunchtime soup before the gong went and in the evening they had no more strength to keep their clothes clean or mended or to patch their clogs, which resulted in a fresh calamity. They usually got abscesses and hunger swelling, and were always dirty, shabby, grumbling, repellent and never noticed that they were stinking and decaying. That is probably why they were pushed out to sleep in the latrines or the washroom. Finally they would become numb and stupid, losing their will and their control over themselves – that was the typical “Muselmann”. […]
You had to have good friends to save you from becoming a “Muselmann”.
Source: Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (ed.), Die Auschwitz-Hefte, vol. 1 (Hamburg, 1994), p. 101
Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes