Survivors of camps sometimes doubt their own memory: "Did what happened, indeed happen?" asked poet Abba Kovner decades after the Holocaust. Memoirs of survivors who tried to describe and analyze the world of the camps are among the best literary works of modern time: Primo Levi, Jean Amery, Vikctor Frankl, Eli Wiesel, Jorge Semprun. There were and are poets, playwrights, film directors, artists, hosts of historians, sociologists and psychologists who tried and still try to decipher the inner rules of the camps universe – most of them are survivors: "the other planet", as defined by author Yechiel Dinur, was an experience only survivors could convey. Dinur wrote under his pen name Kazetnik – the man of the "kazet," initials of the words "concentration camp" in German. Giving testimony at the Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, he fainted while trying to describe Auschwitz.
Indeed, camps, as designed and established by the SS high echelons, are not easy to define. First, because of the variety of types; hard labor camps, concentration camps, POW camps, transit camps, a women's camp, sub-camps for certain nationalities or types of population, and – finally – extermination camps. The lines between the different types were often blurred, according to changing needs. There were a few dozens of main camps, and they had hundreds of sub-camps. Some of the camps existed up to some long 12 years, and some were closed down, or removed to another location after a short while. American post-war committees estimated the number of all camps as amounting to close to 2,000.
Being scattered almost all over Europe, from 1933 to 1945, and especially from 1939 to the end of the war, the camps included population composed of allthe continent's nationalities, professions, political inclinations – and very few children or the elderly. In early 1945 there were about 714,000 prisoners locked in camps, the highest number at a given point in time. The overall number of slaves that had undergone this nightmare is estimated as between 2 to 2.5 million, and there are higher estimations. According to a certain documentation about 450,000 of them perished, yet the current assumption is that some 700,000 – 800,000 is a number closer to reality. Death rate rose gradually, being low in the 1930s and the highest during the last phases of the war. These numbers do not include the about 3.5 million Jews murdered in the six extermination camps, that were either designed for this purpose only, or were tightly closed parts of existing camps.
There is one more major obstacle that hinders a definition of the camps, and this is the lack of sufficient sources: there is a vast discrepancy between the number of camps, their geographic and human scope, their centrality in the Nazi system, the symbol they turned to be, and the available sources. German documentation has been kept, but it is far from covering the enormity of the phenomenon. Much of it was destroyed, for obvious reasons, when camps were closed down or moved, especially so towards the end of the war, during the chaos that accompanied the evacuation of camps when the German defeat drew closer. The inmates could not possibly record or write in any way, and the cases in which they managed to do so, and material has been found, are rare. The high death rate and the constant moving of inmates from one place to another do not allow for a full description of reality. Therefore research is still far from being complete, as even some main camps have not yet been thoroughly examined. Writing about the camps, either analytic writing such as historiography, or sociological and psychological findings, is very difficult to complete, to say nothing of the emotional difficulty that faces one who dares delve into the abyss.
All the above mentioned notwithstanding, let us try and find some common basis for a definition. First, despite the many types, the physical structure of the camps was almost identical: surrounded by barbed wire fences, sometimes electric ones, guarded by machine guns mounted on towers, barracks lacking basic conditions. Second, staff were trained to treat all prisoners, not just Jews, Roma and Slavs, as subhuman, using all possible methods of torturing, starving, overworking and degrading, since the camps served as a tool in the hands of the regime. They were built and run on purpose, to mercilessly subdue and get rid of political opponents, underground members, racially unwanted national entities, socially out-of-liners and the aberrant. The place, the staff and the goals were what made for a Nazi camp.
And finally, the extermination camps, which were all of the above, and yet profoundly different and unique: they were an industry of death that turned millions into ashes in the name of a hallucinatory ideology. The largest of the six, Auschwitz, turned into the ultimate symbol of inhumanity.
Prof. Dina Porat