As the Nazis realised that they would have to start closing down their death camps in the east, prisoners were transferred further west to established concentration camps. Typically these were not extermination camps but concentration camps designed to punish rather than kill all of the inmates. Conditions would change with the new arrivals.
At first trains were used for transferring such prisoners, if none were available then forced marches were used. The conditions on the marches were appalling and often became instruments of torture and death themselves. Although Jews were prominent among their number, many other people were caught up, including the citizens who had been forcibly displaced from Warsaw.
Sachsenhausen had been opened in 1936 for German political prisoners. The regime was harsh, executions were common, as well as deaths from other causes. But the prisoners here saw a step change in conditions with the arrival of the transferees from the east.
Odd Nansen was a political prisoner from Norway, with a relatively privileged position, able to receive occasional food parcels from home. His diary, kept in secret at great risk, covered events in the camp – and he also sought to record the stories of other inmates:
One big transport after another is arriving in camp. From Auschwitz, from other camps in Poland, from camps in Germany, and “evacuated” Jews by thousands from Hungary.
Two thousand six hundred Jews arrived the other day from Budapest. The transport hadn’t taken more than three days. Eighty died on the way, and when they got here they were left standing out in the cold most of the night. Eight died on the parade-ground. None had had a drop of water for three days. Food they had brought from home.
I remember, when the first transport of “evacuees” arrived from Warsaw, we were indignant that women, children and the aged should be dragged off in such transports. Now there aren’t many who react. Children, some under ten years old, are detained as convicts here and in other camps. The women are sent to camps of their own.
The aged are allowed to die here. The process is short, but not painless. It’s terrible to see them. Those who come from Poland, for instance, have nothing to put on but the rags issued here, and it’s the depth of winter. Only a very few have anything on their feet but wooden boards tied on with straps or string.
Of course they get pneumonia, tuberculosis and other illnesses and succumb in hundreds. They totter round for a while, go into the Revier [the camp ‘hospital’ or sickbay] (unless they’re Jews, in which case they’re not admitted) and there the crown is set on the work, especially in the Schonungsblocken [a block within the sickbay area], where they’re treated more like animals than anything else.
If one goes through one of the Schonungsblocken (as I have been doing regularly of late), one keeps on seeing living skeletons. Starving Poles, especially those with Durchfall (diarrhoea) who can’t retain any of the miserable fare they get. Diet? One can only laugh. An unknown concept.
A Jewish builder from Budapest, whom I’ve got to know, and who was on the terrible march from South Serbia to Germany, told me that one of his arms began to swell up and ache. He went to the doctor, who diagnosed periostitis, put the arm in splints and bandaged it, explaining that it was due to under-nourishment and the lack of certain substances in his food. He must eat more, a more nourishing and varied diet-fat for one thing. Merely a gibe; a frigid sneer.
The other evening I was talking to an old Pole in that Schonungsblocken. He was sixty-seven, but looked ninety-seven; bones, sinews and skin apart, I’ll wager his flesh and stomach didn’t weigh five kilos.
That he could hold himself up was a miracle, but obviously a miracle which would soon cease. He had great difficulty in speaking, and he spoke nothing but Polish. An interpreter translated. He was a Polish peasant from the Warsaw district, and had been “evacuated” here, starving and suffering; of the rest of his family, children and wife, he knew nothing. They had lost each other during the “evacuation”.
Now he had Durchfall and couldn’t eat. He had already gone out, was no longer a man, only a poor, suffering, still living creature waiting for peace. There are hundreds and thousands like him, innocent, harmless—suffering human beings.