wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Anna Pawelczynka

Values and Violence in Auschwitz

The first items to go into circulation on the camp market were prisoners' food rations—not only their regular portions, which they were willing to forego in order to get better shoes or cigarettes, but also food expropriated by prisoners who took part in its distribution (i.e., the kitchen crew, the Blockaltesten, etc.); thus a prisoner who had a surplus of margarine, for example, might wish to exchange it for other food or for some other necessary article. Simultaneously, farm crops (raw potatoes, carrots, etc., depending on the season of the year) acquired by the crews working out in the fields came on the market. Some prisoners were bold enough to eat their acquisition during work hours; some dared to bring it through the camp gates (risking severe penalties) in order to trade it for something else, or for a friend who lacked such possibilities. Goods also came on the market from prisoners working in the kitchens or in the SS barracks; other goods were brought in by the work crews used during the arrival of a transport, or by the crews that sorted clothes. Coupons for the canteen were also an article of barter, as were the very few commodities to be gotten there. One type of article could be used to buy a different type of article from another prisoner in the same situation. Sometimes (in favorable circumstances and with a desirable commodity), one could bribe the prisoner-functionaries on the barracks staff and remain for one day on the grounds of the camp, without going out with a work crew. In time the market's wealth was increased by the modest inheritances of the dead. A better sleeping spot left vacant by someone's death was also an article of trade.

Fundamental changes in the nature of the market took place above all in connection with the implementation of assembly-line techniques of killing and the introduction of the sometimes very costly belongings of the murdered victims (who had brought their most valuable possessions with them) and, finally, in connection with the permission to send food packages to the prisoners.

Prisoner crews, supervised by an SS officer and prisoner-functionaries, were utilized to transfer and sort the belongings of those sent to the gas chambers. It was their job to classify, clean, and pack for shipping to Germany those articles considered to be the rightful property of the Third Reich. Among these articles were huge amounts of inviting-looking food and clothing, as well as money and jewelry. How much warm clothing and food would find its way into the camp and by what means depended on the prisoners' ingenuity and boldness.

In spite of the permission from the authorities to send food packages, only a certain number of prisoners had the opportunity to receive packages; moreover, the caloric value and desirability of the packages varied widely, depending on the senders' possibilities. Sometimes, thanks to diverse individual and collective strategies, names and numbers of prisoners not receiving packages managed to be passed on to the 'outside,' causing food packages to be sent to them. Packages that came for prisoners who had died in the camp were, as a rule, returned to the senders. Packages that came (for a while they came in great quantities) from the families of Jews who were murdered immediately after arrival in Auschwitz were fated for the kitchens of the SS. How many of those packages would reach the camp or hospital barracks and by what means depended on the ingenuity and daring of the prisoners working in the package depot.

Within the community of prisoners, recipients of packages became a privileged group; they had the extra food necessary for survival, they had the possibility of sharing it with their closest friends and they had the possibility of purchasing warmer clothes on the camp market. The contents of the packages also constituted an internal camp currency with which to buy lighter work assignments from the prisoner-authorities and limits on the daily persecution.

Packages played a huge role in the life of the camp. They delayed the biological deterioration of their possessors, and often (but not always) that of their friends. They also made a breach in the structure of terror exercised by prisoner-functionaries, who at the time came mainly from criminal milieus (especially in the women's camp) and who were deprived of similar privileges. A middle-level prisoner-functionary possessed a certain latitude of authority, but none of the extremely desirable economic commodities which the prisoner subject to his authority did possess. A period of 'petty briberies' set in that was extremely important for the prisoners' self-defense. In exchange for butter, an onion, sugar, or a sausage, a prisoner might save himself or another person. He could buy a good mood from an 'authority' who was more interested in tasty food than in keeping watch over the 'order' in the barracks or at work. Dialogue on a business level opened up, which broke down the barrier imposed by one's place in the camp structure and created a loophole in obligatory behavior.

The property left behind by the murdered victims made an even greater breach in the camp structure. Warm sweaters, blankets, comfortable shoes, medicine and food made their way into the camp, both as a form of unselfish aid for a comrade and as a commodity on the market. Market prices for a commodity fluctuated sharply, depending on the supply. Periodic expansion of the food supply from outside the camp and its circulation through the market contributed to the radical fluctuations in price for such articles as camp food and camp clothing. Depending on supply one paid anywhere from five to ten cigarettes for a piece of camp bread, but sometimes one cigarette would do. As those prisoners who stood higher in the camp hierarchy and those who received good packages began to feed themselves mainly with food from outside the camp, thefts of ordinary prisoners' food rations declined. In some periods the number of prisoners interested in the camp soup declined, and this gave the rest a chance to receive additional portions. All the possibilities arising out of the changed market structure were not, of course, available to everyone. The majority starved and died regardless of camp trade. However, the black market saved the lives of many prisoners.

The role of this market was extremely important and it affected the structure of relations in the camp. The dimensions of the plundered property and its range of quality were so great that the situation produced another breach in the power structure, this time within the group of SS. Certain arrangements were worked out between the particular group of professional murderers and the prisoners through whose hands (by reason of their work) passed objects of great value. Many SS officials desired to appropriate some of these goods in a systematic way. Owing to the camp's hierarchical structure, they were seldom able to do it individually and 'with their own hands.' Knowing themselves and their SS colleagues, they collaborated with each other only in exceptional cases, when their mutual services—like a doubleedged weapon of blackmail—guaranteed mutual loyalty.

Greed, therefore, compelled them to cross the uncrossable line and to enter into contact with prisoners. In the case of a one-time appropriation, a prisoner could be used as a tool and then exterminated as a witness. In the case of systematic thefts, he became an indispensable partner, who chose the most valuable goods for the SS officer and helped him toward his goal, which was to get rich. In this way some of the SS officials came to depend on prisoners, who could in turn skillfully make demands of their own. A currency strong enough to buy the services of SS officials and prisoner-functionaries had made its appearance inside the camp. New groups of interests arose, linking particular officials with prisoners who were no longer anonymous. Within the SS mob of murderers, a relatively innocent (compared to their regular assignment) activity started up, that went counter to administrative orders and had to be concealed from their superiors and from other members of their group. This activity considerably weakened the effectiveness of some SS officers. For many of them getting rich had become their main objective, and striving toward it consumed some of the energy which had formerly gone into winning a promotion in the official hierarchy. Some—those who previously had not seen their place in society outside of that hierarchy—experienced a new vision of power in the form of riches. To this 'lyricism over money' among the SS many people owe their lives. Some are aware of it, others are not.