Labour as torture

Prisoners had to work at a frantic pace. Anyone caught resting was likely to be kicked or punched. Many SS guards did not care about output. All they cared about was tormenting the prisoners. They paid special attention to those they despised the most, like prominent political prisoners and Jews. These inmates were also often tormented with pointless labour. One of them was Harry Naujoks, a Communist activist from Hamburg, who spent most of the Third Reich in concentration camps. In his memoirs, he described his arrival in Sachsenhausen in November 1936, when the camp was still under construction.

040 – The political prisoner Harry Naujoks on pointless labour

I was told that I was being assigned as a newcomer to the forest unit and so that afternoon I set off for work with 25 to 30 other prisoners. Our job was to level off a piece of woodland that had been cleared. We had to pull out tree stumps and move great piles of earth. An SS vehicle park was going to be laid there. The work was heavy and I was not accustomed to it […]. There was no chance to take a breather […].

Our noses, mouths and ears were full of sand

Suddenly an SS man came up to our unit. With his arms akimbo he said: “Now I’ll show you what it means to work!”. Then louder: “Dig to the count! One – two! One – two!”. Before anyone realised what was happening he was charging about in a fury, kicking and punching us. Then the command: “Spades up – spades down! Spades up – spades down!” We were all exhausted by the time he gave the order “Attention” and we could pause for a moment. “I repeat, dig to the count!” he said in an exaggeratedly quiet voice and then, “One – two! One – two!”. The commands began slowly and then got faster. Each of us dug away wherever he happened to be standing. The work we had done thus far was destroyed for no reason. The whole site turned into a mass of craters. […] The furious pace of work made sand fly in our faces and course down our bodies. Our noses, mouths and ears were full of sand. We were simply robots reacting mechanically to the counting. […]

That was my first day’s work. We worked for half a day and everything we achieved we were forced to destroy on the whim of an SS man. Could the same happen tomorrow? “Of course”, said my fellow prisoners, who had been there for longer.

Source: H. Naujoks, Mein Leben im KZ Sachsenhausen, 1936–1942 (Berlin 1989), pp. 35–6

Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes