1 was turned loose on the prisoners without much instruction by the camp commander, or the executive officer, together with two other beginners, Schwarzhuber and Remmele. Remmele later became the executive officer of one of the industrial factories near Auschwitz.
Somewhat nervous, I stood that evening during Appelle [roll call] in front of the forced labor prisoners who were entrusted to me, as they curiously eyed their new company commander. That’s what the block leaders were called then. It was only later on that I understood the question that showed on their faces. My sergeant really had the company running smoothly. The word company was later called a block and the company sergeant was called a block senior. He and his five platoon leaders were political prisoners. They were later called room seniors. They were old, fanatic, dyed-in-the-wool Communists who were former soldiers and who loved to talk about their experiences as soldiers in the army.
At the moment of their induction into the camp most of the forced labor prisoners were very sloppy and degenerate persons; however, the room seniors trained them very quickly to be orderly and clean without my ever having to say a single word. The forced labor prisoners took great care not to attract attention to themselves because after six months their release depended on their conduct and on their work performance. If it was not satisfactory, another three or six months would be added for their reeducation.
In a short time I knew all of the approximately 270 men of my company very well, and this helped me to form judgments about their readiness for release. There were only a few I found incorrigible during my time as block leader and these were to be transferred to a prison as asocials.
This type stole anything that wasn’t nailed down. They tried to get out of work and were sloppy in every respect. Most of them left completely rehabilitated after serving their time in the camp. Very seldom did anyone return. Unless they were criminals or asocials, they were depressed by imprisonment; they felt ashamed, especially the older ones, who had never
Been in trouble with the law. Now suddenly they were serving time because they hadn’t reported to work, either because they didn’t feel like going, or because of their Bavarian stubbornness, or because the beer tasted too good, or there were other reasons which caused their loafing which prompted the Bureau of Labor to send them to the concentration camps for reeducation. They all easily survived the hard part of camp life because they had a reasonable assurance that they would be free again after their time was up.
But it was different with the remaining 90 percent of the camp, which consisted of one company made up of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those who tried to leave Germany; another company of asocials; and seven companies of political prisoners, most of them Communists.
There was no set prison term for political prisoners. It depended on factors which were unpredictable. The prisoners knew this and that’s why they suffered so much. And because of this uncertainty, life in the camp became torture for them. I spoke to many intelligent and perceptive political prisoners about this uncertainty. They all said that they could suffer all the indignities of camp life, such as the impulsiveness of the SS guards or the prison seniors in charge, the harsh discipline, living together in close quarters, the monotony of all the daily routines; all of that could be endured, all of that could be overcome, but not the uncertainty of not knowing how long they would remain in the camp. This was the most crushing blow, which paralyzed even the strongest will. From my observation, the unknown length of the sentence and its depending on the whim of low-ranking officials, exerted the strongest and the most negative influence on the mental health of the prisoners.
At least the professional criminal who was sentenced to fifteen years in the penitentiary knew when, at the very latest, he would be free again, and maybe even sooner. The political prisoner, however, was often arrested because of a vague accusation by someone who hated him and was ordered into a concentration camp for an unspecified sentence. This could be for one year or this could last ten years. The quarterly review of sentences which was the law for German prisoners was strictly a matter of form. The final decision rested with the bureau that had ordered him into the camp, and they did not want to admit that they had made any mistakes. The prisoner was the real victim, who, for better or worse, was at the mercy of the bureau that sent him. For him there was no legal defense, nor any legal complaint. Now and then there were extenuating circumstances which allowed exceptional cases to be reviewed which ended with
A surprising release.* But they were all exceptions. As a rule the time spent in concentration camp depended on a quirk of fate.
1. Many political prisoners were arrested solely on the accusation of someone who disliked them, or who had a score to settle with them. It was only because of the number of arrests and the laziness of the minor officials in charge of prisoners that there did not exist any review for prisoners. Reviews usually occurred because a sum of money or other favors were offered as bribes. Bribery was a way of getting justice in a totalitarian state.