All prisoners needed others: they could not get through the camps alone. During the war, survival was impossible without help from fellow inmates. Prisoners came together, in large and small groups, to protect each other from illness and death. They shared everything, from food to moral support. Different groups were held together by different ties, such as political, religious or national bonds; equally important were individual friendships and family relations (Jews and Gypsies, in particular, were often deported in large families).
There was much conflict between these prisoner groups. Before the war, there were tensions between German Communists and Social Democrats, between social outsiders and political prisoners. Later, during the war, there were also clashes between national groups. Many of these conflicts were rooted in old prejudices. But they were intensified by the dreadful conditions created by the SS. Because there was never enough for everyone, each group largely fought for itself – even if this condemned other prisoners.
The struggle for resources and influence widened the gulf between inmates. Suffering in the camps was never equal. Prisoners faced better or worse conditions, depending on factors such as their ethnicity and nationality, as well as their seniority. Those at the very top seemed to inhabit a different world, with decent food, warm clothes and better quarters. Those at the bottom, by contrast, were often doomed.
Privileged inmates included so-called Kapos. They supervised other prisoners or worked in the camp administration (in kitchens, storerooms and offices). The SS liked to delegate such work to lighten its load. But it made sure not to delegate too much power. Kapos remained prisoners, and the SS could remove and punish them at will. Still, Kapo posts were sought after, because Kapos suffered less deprivation and violence. But they paid a price: they had to participate in running the camp. During the war, this could mean whipping fellow prisoners or executing them on SS orders. Some Kapos even murdered on their own initiative. But not all Kapos were drunk with power. Many tried to prevent worse abuses by the SS and helped individual inmates.
- 060 – The Auschwitz survivor Benedikt Kautsky on the “laws of the camps”
- 057 – Secret letter on prisoner solidarity in Auschwitz, 1942
- 058 – The Neuengamme survivor H. C. Meier on the importance of friendships
- 061 – The German prisoner Helmut Thiemann on the Buchenwald sick bay
- 059 – The French survivor David Rousset on tense prisoner relations
- 063 – Buchenwald survivor Eugen Kogon on veterans’ hostility towards newcomers
- 066 – A Dachau prisoner testifies about Kapo violence, 1940
- 065 – Heinrich Himmler on Kapos, summer 1944
- 064 – Camp SS instructions for block elders
- 062 – Secret Sachsenhausen diary entry by Odd Nansen on prisoner hierarchies