According to prisoners who job it was to remove the bodies and transport them to the crematoria afterwards, the screams started as soon as the pellets were deposited into the hole. They recount that the victims were usually arranged into a massive pyramid shape with the strongest and most desperate individuals near the top. Often, the walls would have to be cleaned in between uses to remove the blood left by fingers scraped bloody by people trying, in vain, to claw their way out of the rooms (Levin, 1993).
At the death camps, the strongest prisoners were used to perform the most disgusting work of removing dead bodies and operating the crematoria; this was their only alternative to being gassed or shot themselves. Camps without crematoria used large open burning pits similar to the execution pits employed before widespread use of gas chambers. Sometimes, a prisoner on such work details would recognize individuals in the crowd headed to the disrobing area as a former acquaintance or neighbor. In such instances, they could not do anything to warn the victims of their imminent death without risking being thrown into the gas chambers themselves. In any case, warnings at this stage would have accomplished little but to add to the fear and horror undoubtedly experienced by victims of the Nazis in their last moments of life. Still, the psychological toll of this dilemma was great enough that more than a few working prisoners eventually threw themselves into the flaming pits where the corpses were burned to escape their situations (Guttenplan, 2001).
Work camps maintained extensive networks of prisoner barracks lined up in long rows that were visible to allied aircraft from miles above. Inside each barracks, prisoners slept on wooden slats with hay or dilapidated mattresses and usually in a single layer of thin camp uniforms without any winter clothes to protect them from the cold. Roll calls were held multiple times per day and prisoners who were too ill to get out of bed were simply removed and shot outside the barracks as examples for other prisoners or taken to the "infirmary" and shot their instead (Guttenplan, 2001). Generally, Cholera, Typhus, and Tuberculosis spread rapidly among the prisoners to the extent that even as work camps, more than half of all prisoners died within months of their arrival. Medical treatment for prisoners was nonexistent and usually consisted of a bullet to the head.
Those who managed to survive did so on rations consisting of a slice of stale bread that was often moldy and approximately one small cup of water or "soup" that contained practically no nutrients (Levin, 1993).
Their work consisted of everything from the construction of railway lines outside the camps and new barracks inside the camps to working in manufacturing plants where they produced goods such as uniforms for the German war effort or ammunition. At Nordhausen and other specialty camps, prisoners worked in shifts, sixteen or eighteen hours at a time, round the clock, deep inside hollowed out mountains to manufacture components for the V-2 rockets meant for launch against Britain (Guttenplan, 2001; Levin, 1993; Morse, 1998).
Some of the worst atrocities included horrific experiments, such as those conducted by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, in which prisoners were submerged in ice water to develop data used for German pilot survival training, as well as other torturous surgical procedures without anesthesia, many of which had absolutely no scientific value whatsoever (Guttenplan, 2001; Levin, 1993)
The Aftermath and Historical Relevance of the Holocaust:
Approximately 6 million Jews were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust, and Hitler nearly succeeded in making Europe Juden frie ("Jew free"), killing approximately half of the world's Jewish population and nearly all of the Jews in most of Europe. After the war, the Allies tried the captured Nazi officers as war criminals at the Nuremburg Trials, where, to a man, each defendant disclaimed any personal responsibility and claimed innocence by virtue of just "following orders" (Guttenplan, 2001). Since then, the Nazi Holocaust has been taught as one of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated by man, in connection with efforts to understand the psychological and sociological mechanisms through which such an event could transpire in modern times.
Guttenplan, D. (2001). The Holocaust on Trial. New York: W.W. Norton.
Kershaw, I. (2000). Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis. New York: W.W. Norton.