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letters from detention

Contrary to popular perceptions, the "concentration camps"1 that littered Germany and other places in Hitler's Europe exhibited a wide variety of purpose, organization, and longevity, and differed in terms of inmate populations, camp administrations, and many other factors. 

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From labor camps to transit camps to killing centers specifically designed to murder as many people as efficiently as possible, these places of detention, exploitation, and murder constituted a diverse universe of terror.2 

Not surprisingly, diaries, letters, notes, drawings, and other texts and documentary forms (including art) Jews produced in these places of detention also differed widely. In some places, even thinking about committing one's thoughts or emotions to paper, or trying to communicate with someone outside the camp, was impossible. Most Jews whom the Nazis and their helpers transported over vast distances, from Paris, Amsterdam, Warsaw, or Budapest, to be murdered in the killing centers in occupied Poland, for example, were murdered within the first few hours of arrival. The most some could do was to throw a piece of paper with a few words on it out of the deportation train, as Gitla did.3 In many camps, on the other hand, writing was possible, if very difficult. In addition to the fact that writing letters—and communication in general—was often forbidden and punishable, one had to procure paper and a pencil, things difficult to come by in a labor camp. Still, in many cases this was possible, and many letters from Jewish camp inmates have been preserved.

These letters vary in their content and concerns, usually according to the circumstances in which individual authors found themselves. But many of them, like other Jewish writing from the Holocaust, show concern for the authors' family members, and sometimes move beyond the personal, to take stock of the general predicament of the Jews in Europe.

The history of concentration camps in the Nazi Reich and the territories it controlled between 1933 and 1945 are outlined in the excellent essay by Nikolaus Wachsmann, "The dynamics of destruction: the development of the concentration camps, 1933-1945," Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories (London: Routledge, 2010). For the latest magisterial account, see Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

For the latest comprehensive history of these places, see the volumes published under the Mandel Center's ongoing project, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos. For an overview of the kinds of Jewish sources produced in these camps at the peak of the Holocaust, see Emil Kerenji, Jewish Responses to Persecution, Vol. 4, 1942-1943 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 43-84.

Even in places such as Birkenau, however, Jews forced to work in the machinery of death found a way to bear witness to murder and hide their writings in the ashes of the crematoria; see Kerenji, Jewish Responses to Persecution Volume IV, 60-2.