MORALITY AT THE AUSCHWITZ CONCENTRATION CAMP
The article, which is a fragment of a larger whole, presents the typical traits of the moral attitudes among the prisoners at the Concentration Camp in Auschwitz. The source on which the present reconstruction of the picture of the camp morality is based is the published memoirs of Polish prisoners of that camp.
Mortality among Auschwitz prisoners amounted to 84 per cent. Death as a result of starvation or torture did not make much impression upon the remaining prisoners. The dead and the dying were passed by with indifference even if the victims happened to be relatives or friends of the people concerned. Prisoners accepted death at the oppressors’ hands without protest. Only the sight of children being exposed to death did succeed to make any impression.
The conditions prevailing at the camp placed people in opposition to one another, destroying any existing bonds of loyalty. An exception to this were groups of prisoners that had worked together for some time and had established some links of solidarity and comradeship. Members of such groups helped one another and also tried to assist other prisoners. Assistance to those in need was not a common phenomenon and was given only to such persons that seemed to give some hope of getting through.
Stealing from fellow-prisoners, which was pretty common, met with general condemnation. Persons stealing food belonging to another prisoner were lynched. But everybody tried to preserve his life to the best of his ability by means of so-called „organizing”, which meant stealing food and other stuffs from the camp stores and appropriating objects which did not constitute the personal property of fellow-prisoners. Such „organization” was not morally condemned, on the contrary, people who exhibited particular deftness at it were surrounded by admiration.
Family sentiments among prisoners died out, being cultivated, on the other hand, with respect to relatives living in freedom outside the camp. Love was a rare phenomenon at Auschwitz, it was replaced by brief sexual contacts of a brutal nature. Camp conditions encouraged all sorts of sexual aberrations, especially in the case of prisoners who were better off materially. This was more frequent in the men’s camp than in the women’s.
Prisoners did their work in such a way as to save their strength as much as possible. Professional ambition of any kind was quite alien to them, even if their efforts might bring some profit to their companions. They did everything they could to transfer the burden of any duties imposed on them by the camp authorities on to someone else. It was preferable to be massacred to death for failing to do a task rather than perish as a result of extreme exhaustion through excessively hard labour.
The brutalized manner of mutual relations among the prisoners was an external manifestation of the primitivisation and lack of mutual respect.
Violent methods of self-defence from the oppressors, taking the form of killing, was morally approved. One’s own life was more valuable than that of another in the universal struggle to preserve one’s bare existence. Physical weakness failed to rouse sympathy, while physical strength and cleverness in managing to get on despite everything, constituted an object of admiration and respect.
It is the prisoners’ opinion that the stay at the camp caused a regress in their morals, a lowering of their moral worth as compared to that prior to the imprisonment. Factors held to be the most destructive to morality were hunger, physical torture, labour inducing extreme exhaustion, uncertain future, and fear of death. These depraving influences were most bravely resisted by persons possessing a humanistic ideology and progressive political convictions, irrespective of their particular social status, nationality, education or creed.
The process of demoralization was consciously effected and carried out systematically by the creators of the Auschwitz Camp, with the object of breaking down the spirit of resistance in the prisoners, cutting bonds of mutual solidarity, and thereby speeding up physical extermination or complete subjection.
Prisoners were being continually placed in conflicting moral situations without any chance of free choice of their forms of conduct. Within the framework of the existing alternatives offered by the camp conditions, the choice that was best from the moral point of view could only be that which chose the lesser evil.