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Benedikt Kautsky’s Description of the Concentration Camp Hierarchy (Retrospective Account, 1961)

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Moslems [Muselmann]

I am unable to explain why this name was chosen in Auschwitz or why in Buchenwald, where they were much less common, they were given the name “tired sheikhs” until the Auschwitz expression was adopted there too.

The Moslem was on the lowest level to which a prisoner could sink. The sight of the daily marches in and out of Auschwitz, when thousands of these miserable wretches dragged themselves off to work in the morning only in many cases to be dragged back home in the evening, was appalling. Tired, hungry, morose, filthy and in rags—that is how one saw them march past the fat camp leader who took the parade all dressed up with his hair smarmed down, smelling of good soap—from “Kanada”, well-fed and complacent, ready at any moment to make a few patronizing remarks and play the camp father or, just as easily, to dole out the most brutal kicks and blows if some poor human wretch aroused his disgust. He was, which in the case of Auschwitz it is unnecessary to mention, invariably a Green. Even the richest tycoon or the most powerful statesman in a democratic state is not so far superior to an unemployed person, who has to sleep on a bench in the open air covered with a newspaper and perhaps has not eaten for days, as this man was to a Moslem. For the rich and powerful can let the poor starve or die; they can rob them of their freedom; they can enjoy everything while he goes miserably to the dogs. But the camp leader in Auschwitz-Buna could do all that and more: he could eat and drink to his heart's content; he had his own cook and what the camp kitchen did not have was supplied by “Kanada” or the “black stock exchange” in Buna. Clothes, linen, shoes—as many and as nice ones as he liked. For why else were the Jews dying in the gas chambers of Birkenau? Women—the camp brothel or the thousands of girls in Buna supplied every type desired. Art—the camp orchestra with first-class musicians: the leader of the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, graduates of the Vienna Conservatory were at his disposal. Painters and draughtsmen fulfilled his every wish. In his own sphere he could realize his architectural fantasies just as much as Hitler. The camp supplied personal poets of every quality desired, both for the physical and for the spiritual realms. The fact that he had a group of actors at his disposal was just as much a matter of course as the fact that he could order any books he wanted. He had specialists from every country at his disposal to treat his real and imaginary ailments—a Polish surgeon, a French internist, a Hungarian eye and a German ear specialist. It is true that he could only move in a restricted sphere, though not confined to the camp, and of course under supervision. But his escort would have hardly cramped his style any more than personal detectives restrict millionaires or politicians. But what they could not do, he could and did: when he had the urge—and that was not infrequently—he could express his sadistic impulses and beat or kill without any compunction and with impunity until he had fully satisfied his urges.

And if one wants to object that the camp leader was after all dependent on the SS and could be brought down by them—well, even the most powerful dictator is dependent on somebody and the Auschwitz camp leaders, whom I saw overthrown, landed very softly in comparison to the other dictators. They disappeared into a satellite camp and, even if they did not play the same role there, nevertheless, as members of the German master race, they were still top people.

A concentration camp was in reality a world, a world full of contradictions and pitfalls, with a hierarchy which was admittedly shaky, but which could always be defined and in which everybody had his place. He could rise or fall depending on luck and ability, but at any one time he had to take up the position allotted to him and to respect that of others.

Source of English translation: Jeremy Noakes, ed., Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998, pp. 162-168.

Source of original German text: Benedikt Kautsky,Teufel und Verdammte. Erfahrungen und Erkentnisse aus sieben Jahren in deutschen Konzentrationslagern [The Devil and the Damned. Experiences and Insights from Seven Years in German Concentration Camps]. Vienna, 1961, pp. 160-69.

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