This is usually a comedy site, so apologies for getting all somber for a second, but we just got back from Auschwitz. I know, not typically what you hear someone say after their vacation. I wanted to take a break from laughing matters for a second to do a post on one of the horrible and mind-opening things we learned at this tragic place.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that Auschwitz may very well be the worst place on Earth, especially for a period from 1940-1945, when, um, some really bad shit went down at this little camp in Poland. Among the things I learned upon visiting the sobering site is that although most prisoners were simply murdered immediately upon arriving at camp, some 400,000 of them were kept alive and put to work. As the SS captors viewed their prisoners as generally less than human, I don't have to tell you that the working conditions were not exactly union standard.
Think your job sucks? Try one of these (in increasing order of shittiness):
7) Block Couple
This was probably the best job one could hope for at Auschwitz. In some of the earlier campus prison blocks, a room was designated to house the "Block Couple," usually a man and woman who were in charge of accounting for and managing the other prisoners. Sort of like Death Camp den mothers, if you were a part of this couple you got your own room and were even provided nearly-humane eating and sleeping conditions. The main downside is that you were expected to find out about any resistance plans and snitch them to your SS superiors, so that they could shoot whoever was making them. If you didn't, and/or somebody escaped, then of course you were shot and another couple was put into place.
6) Indoor Labor
A tiny percentage of qualified prisoners (biologists, accountants, etc) were given specialized lab or office jobs, where their skills were exploited for Nazi gain. These indoor working conditions were premiere compared to conditions in the fields or crematoriums. Still, there was always the danger of your job becoming obsolete and you being sent to the gas chambers, or your boss not liking your work ethic and just shooting you in the head.
5) "Canada" Cleaners
Millions of shoes, rings, clothing sets, heads of hair, etc were harvested from the 1.1 million Auschwitz victims, and somebody had to sort and clean these items before they could be sent back to Berlin for use or sale. Those selected to for this task, mostly women, lived in an isolated area near the crematoria known as "Canada," after an old Polish joke about Canada being the land of plenty. The good news was that, in order to clean merchandise, you had to be relatively clean yourself, and were thus exposed to a lower risk of disease than regular prisoners. The bad news was that eventually, you realized where all these teeth and heads of hair were coming from, but you had no choice but to continue sorting them, day in and day out. Working in Canada meant that at least you had a job, but you led a tough and depressing life, much as working in Canada still does today.
For every ten or so blocks of prisoners, there was only one block of latrines, and prisoners were only allowed to use them once at the start of the work day, and once at the end of it. This resulted, twice a day, in a mad bathroom rush in which filth piled up high and disease ran rampant. Enter the Shiessekommandos, who as much as their name sounds like the title of a bad German fetish action movie, had but one role in life: to clean crap. I have to say, if I had to pick the job I'd least prefer to do, Holocaust Death Camp Latrine Shit-Cleaner would definitely be up there. Ironically, this crappy job (ouch) was preferable to some of the other work available at Auschwitz: as one survivor put it "I got to use the bathroom as much as I wanted, and I smelled so horrible that the SS men left me alone."
3) Outdoor labor
Although this work might not sound like the worst job, even cleaning your dead countrymen's shoes and shoveling shit was better than being on one of the many outdoor labor teams at Auschwitz, which tended to such tasks as fish farming, coal mining, and mass grave digging. Though two out of three of these jobs are things some free people for a living, there's one major difference: there isn't an SS Soldier standing over you making you work for 12 hours straight, ready to shoot you on the spot if you stop to rest. Tens of thousands of laborers died from exhaustion, exposure and disease, and were then lugged home by their surviving co-workers, who returned to their 12-to-a-bed living quarters to rest up to do it again the next day.
There was one thing worse than cleaning the scalped hair and pulled teeth of dead Holocaust victims: being the one who removed said hair and teeth from the corpses in the first place. An elite group of Sonderkommandos were housed away from the rest of the prisoners, because of the horrors they knew, and were forced to first yank gold teeth and shave hair from the bodies in the gas chambers, then drag the bodies into the crematorium ovens and burn them. Every few weeks, the current Sonderkommandos were all gassed and new ones were brought in, their first ironic assignment to harvest and dispose of the bodies of the people whose jobs they had unknowingly just taken.
1) Having No Job At All
All of these Auschwitz occupations were terrible, even the relatively preferable ones. But any of them was better than the other option: not being selected for a job at all. Because the only alternative to working at Auschwitz was dying, and those who were not selected for a job were immediately sent off to the gas chamber, where they had no hope of ever working again, and their bodies and possessions would soon be disposed of by Sonderkommandos, cleaners, and the rest.
Of the 405,000 people recorded as being kept alive to work as slaves at Auschwitz, about 340,000 eventually perished anyway. Although I usually write about happy and funny things like puppies and Japanese people getting worked by obstacle courses, there isn't any humor in the Holocaust. So please remember it so we don't make the same mistake again, and I promise my next post will be about puppies on obstacles courses.