Concentration Camps – The Early Years

“Concentration Camp” – I immediately think – Auschwitz.   Then I think– Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.  Since I was a child these names were drummed into my head as epicenters of evil.

Names like Sonnenburg, Brandenburg, Lichtenburg, Emsland, Esterwegen, Columbia House, and Sachsenburg were unknown to me.  These – all concentration camps in Germany and Prussia – were built between 1933 and 1935.  They were not built for genocide or even for Jews.  In fact, the Jewish prisoner population of these early camps was a mere 5%.   Himmler explained the national imperative – to imprison “all left wing opponents” of the Nazi regime, who “threaten the security of the state.”

Name recognition goes up after 1937 with Buchenwald (1937), Mauthausen (1938), Ravensbruck (1939), Auschwitz (1940) and Majdanek (1940).

And the numbers.  When I think of concentration camps, I think of huge numbers of prisoners.   Well, at the end of 1938, the “big” camps were Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau, each holding 8,000 prisoners (above picture is of Sachsenhausen).   Flossenburg had a mere 1,475 and Mauthausen only 994.  Flossenburg and Mauthausen housed the “worst” criminals.  These camps were built near quarries to best exploit the prisoners’ labor.   The quarries required the hardest labor of any of the concentration camps.  Nazis believed that the “worst” criminals should have the hardest labor.

The Jewish population of Dachau jumped after Kristallnacht (Nov. 9-11, 1938).  Kristallnacht – the “night of the broken glass” — was a pogrom instigated by Goebbels that shattered synagogues’ glass windows, as well as the thin veneer of normalcy in the lives of German Jews.  During those three days, 91 Jews were killed, 7000 Jewish businesses were destroyed, hundreds of synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jews were arrested and imprisoned at Dachau.  So many Jews were brought to Dachau that they became known as the “November Jews” and a makeshift tent, haphazardly built, became their barracks.  By the end of 1938, Dachau’s prisoner population jumped to 11,000.   These November Jews were freed more quickly than other prisoners IF they promised to leave Germany.

The invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 brought the arrest of thousands of Poles and an accompanying demand for more concentration camps.   By end of the summer of 1941 new camps sprang up.  These included more unfamiliar names such as, Neuengamme, Gross-Rosen, Natzweiler, and Niederhagen.   Terror and death in these camp was only the side show.  Center stage was the forced labor used to build up the German army machine.   After all, Germany was at war!

Finally, back to the familiar – Auschwitz.  After 7 years of experience and much practice at terror and death, Auschwitz was established as a huge labor camp.  It became operational on June 19, 1940.  Like farm mules, Poles, Jews and POWs were harnessed for their labor in the name of the Third Reich and the superiority of the Aryan race.

With this extensive infrastructure in place, the Germans were ready for their next big move – the invasion of the Soviet Union.  Stay tuned for the next episode of the “The Evolution of the Concentration Camp.”


  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.
  • Snyder, Timothy.  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.


Apparently Heidrich Himmler was really good at making up slogans for concentration camps.   “Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Makes Free,” one of Himmler’s catchiest slogans, adorned the prisoner gatehouse in Dachau, the first concentration camp, welcoming prisoners on March 22, 1933.   This slogan later also adorned the gates of Sachsenhausen, Flossenburg and Auschwitz.

“Strict but fair” is how Himmler described the new concentration camps in his January 29, 1939 radio address.  “The slogan that stands above these camps,” Himmler explained, is, “There is a path to freedom.  Its milestones are: obedience, diligence, honesty, orderliness, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, readiness to make sacrifices, and love of the fatherland.”

Well, the SS folks loved this slogan and plastered it on the walls and roofs of concentration camps in case the prisoners missed the radio address.  The SS officers dutifully pointed out the slogan to new prisoners, assuring them that indeed “there is a path to freedom, but only through the chimney!”

Nikolaus Wachsmann, in his 865 page history of the German concentration camps details how it took more than Himmler’s slogans to create the intricate and extensive “KL” (Konzentrationslager) system.   Dachau was the first, but from the 1933 on, the Germans set up 27 main concentration camps and 1,100 “satellite camps.”

Lest you confuse the concentration camps with the “death camps” set up to murder Polish Jews, let me explain.  The concentration camps were set up as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933 to imprison political enemies, especially communists, journalists, criminals and “social deviants.”  Hundreds of these camps were set up within Germany to lock up real or imagined Nazi opponents.  The camps were consolidated and expanded over the course of the war as needed.  They became the dumping ground for German enemies, Polish elite, Soviet Commissars and POW’s, and of course, Jews.  The prisoners in these camps were not sent specifically to die there. In fact, most of the early prisoners, after being terrorized and beaten, were released, while the later prisoners were prized for the labor force they provided to the German war effort.

Death camps, by contrast, built in 1942, had one purpose – to murder Jews from Poland and its surroundings as rapidly as possible.  Sam Goldberg survived one of the three Operation Reinhard death camps – Treblinka.  The other two in this deadly trio were Belzec and Sobibor.  Assisting with the rapid elimination of Polish Jews in 1942 and 1943 were Chelmo and Majdenek.   No need for tattooed numbers like in Auschwitz because the vast majority of victims did not live longer than a few hours.  The only thing they had time for was to disrobe and for the women to have their hair shorn and sent back to Germany for mattress stuffing. Of the Operation Reinhard death camps, only approximately 150 people survived, if that many.   In contrast, approximately 160,000 survived the main concentration camps, mostly from Buchwald/Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Mauthausen and 90,000 from over 100 satellite concentration camps.  This helps explain why most people have heard of the concentration camps, while not so much about the death camps.

In the next few blog posts, I hope to share some of the voluminous information I learned about concentration camps from Mr. Wachsmann’s book, kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.

I believe that learning about these difficult issues makes us free.   Hitler and Himmler succeeded in murdering millions, but in the end they lost.  We are here telling the story of death, but also of survival.  We work hard and we are free.


  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.
  • Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps.  Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.  1987.

The Dream

It was a strange dream.  It happened on July 31, 1943.  In the dream, there was a door – the front door of the family home in Stok.  Esther Vishnoew fled from there some four years earlier, at the age of 19, when the Nazis invaded and burned down this Polish Shtetl.  In the dream, the number 4 is written on the door.  Esther approaches the door and with a crayon re-writes the 4. Upon waking and finding herself in the dirt hole deep in the forest she currently called home, Esther believed that “something” was going to happen in four days.  Chayim Kviatek, her junior bunker-mate, also a Stoker, was incensed.  “If something is going to happen,” he said, “it is not going to be good.”

The third day after the dream – August 3rd – they saw “a big ball of fire in the direction of Treblinka – about 10 kilometers away,” Ether said.  This frightened them even more.  They hid in the woods, living life day by day, hour by hour.   Poles were scouring the woods looking to deliver Jews to the Nazis for their reward – a kilo of sugar for every Jew caught.   What they could not know is that the “big ball of fire” was in fact the explosion of the gas station at the death camp Treblinka that started a prisoner uprising.

The very next day was the 4th day.  In the light of the morning, a Gentile woman asked Esther, “Do you want to see some Jews from Treblinka?”  She jumped up and said “yes.”  “I had not seen any Jews for six months, but I thought six years had gone by,” said Esther.  “In addition, I knew a lot about what went on in Treblinka from the farmers who had been to the death camp.  So for me it was like seeing something from another world and I agreed to this, although I knew that to see such Jews could be a pasteke (great danger).”

It was then that she met two well-dressed young men, looking exhausted and anxious.  They explained that they escaped from Treblinka where just the day before the prisoners blew up the camp, killed some guards and ran out through a hole in the barbed wire fence.  One of the two men was Velvel Schneidman, a Stoker, who Esther was so happy to see alive.  The other came from “the small town, Bagatelle, near Vosseve,” Esther described, “who later became a virtual Stoker, and that is my husband, Shmuel Goldberg.”  On that first meeting, the brown haired man Esther encountered was short, broad and handsome.   His most prominent feature was his eyes – translucent blue – as you if she could see into his soul.

“It is not safe here – out in the open,” Esther explained.   “Go into the woods and meet me back here at noon, when the Polish people have their dinner.”  The escapees reemerged from the forest at noon to meet Esther with trepidation.   Nazis, Ukrainians and Poles were hunting down the escaped Jews like animals, packing guns and machetes.  Esther, who went by Krishka, her “shiksa name,” met them dressed as a Polish woman, with the signature white kerchief on her head.  Esther, a short, strong woman, with a pronounced crooked lower lip, was intent on saving them.  At that first meeting, Sam recalls how the year of hiding in the woods had transformed this beautiful young woman.  “She looked terrible,” Sam said.  “Nebach, she suffered.   You should see how she looked.  The vermin crawled from her.  She looked very bad, Oy, how she looked, it was geferlach.”   Notwithstanding this horrible appearance, Esther exuded an inner strength that led Sam to feel that there was no better person to help save him.

“Where can we hide out?” Sam asked.  Esther took Sam and Velvel to a Christian woman, Helena Alleshkava, Esther and Chayim’s “angel” who left them food many days and allowed them to sleep in her barn on bitter winter nights.  Seeing the fear in Helena’s eyes, Esther explained that these men escaped from Treblinka and needed to hide.  “If someone does something, not for money, just to help, G-d helps them,” Esther pleaded.  “All day, I pray that nothing bad will happen to you because if you will be ok, then I will be ok.”  “Go to hell,” Helena said, “you must have learned to talk from the Gypsies.”

Nonetheless, Helena “took [us] in and [we] slept by her,” Sam said.  “Not in her house, chas v’shalom, but in her barn, in the stall.”   All four of them – Sam, Velvel, Esther and Chayim – hid in the barn for three days.  Esther’s plea to hide them “not for money, just to help,” did not stop Sam from paying Helena for the great risk she took.  “I paid her all the money I had – $20 pieces – about 4000 zlotes,” Sam said.  “Money was worth nothing in Poland.  If someone informed that she was holding us up, they would have killed her too.  But she held us in a clever way.  We didn’t go out in the day, nowhere.  Only at night, 12, 1 at night.”  The money, Sam continued, was “from the shirts.  It was sewn into the shirts [at Treblinka].  When I worked with the shirts I took it out.”

After three days it became too dangerous to stay in Helena’s barn and the group of four, just like the miraculous number on the door, ventured back out into the dense woods to build new bunkers and try to stay alive.   They knew “from the air” that the Soviets were driving out the Germans. They just did not know whether they would survive to see the Red Army liberate their patch of Polish woods.

What they had seen was the mass murder of their people.  Esther was in the hospital when the German Einsatzgruppen killed the Jews of Slonim, including her parents and siblings (1941).  She was in Stok when the Nazis took all the Jews to Treblinka (1942).  Then after fleeing from Stok, she hid for a year in the woods 10 kilometers outside of Treblinka.  Sam, survived the Soviet army and the German Blitzkrieg, escaped from a German prisoner of war camp, and was caught by the Germans and taken to Treblinka where he “lived” for 13 months.  Historians put the number of people murdered at Treblinka at approximately 850,000.

It took another year of hiding in the Polish forest, living off their wits and the kindness of others, before the Soviet army arrived to save them.


Photo:  The explosion at Treblinka, August 3, 1943 – the uprising – from 10 kilometers away.   I found this photo in the Yad Vashem archive and I purchased a copy and am authorized to publish it, with credit to Yad Vashem (duly given).  When I saw it, I realized that this could have been the exact view that Esther and Chayim had that day.


  • 1993 Interview with Esther Goldberg
  • Writings of Esther and Sam Goldberg in the Stok Yizkor Book (translated from Yiddish by Shlomo Goldberg)
  • Interviews with Sam Goldberg (translated from Yiddish by Shlomo Goldberg)
  • Snyder, Timothy.  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.


Einsatzgruppen and Esther’s Blessing of Typhus

Who could imagine that typhus would be such a blessing?

Esther Vishnui was 21 when she contracted typhus.  She was in a hospital in Slonim when 10,000 Jews were shot into a pit just outside the town by the German Einsatzgruppen.  She survived because the doctor made her stay at the hospital. But this gets ahead of the story.

Esther is not originally from Slonim.  She was born in the Polish town of Stok (Stozchek).  The Nazis occupied and burnt the houses of Stok just a few days after the war began in September of 1939.  The family was shocked and devastated.   They, like so many others, moved to the Soviet-controlled side of Poland (reminder – Germany and the Soviet Union made a peace pact splitting Poland in half).  They settled in Bialystok, a town approximately 10 kilometers from Stok.  It was safe, but overcrowded.  Esther describes the conditions:

“Bialystok was more than overpopulated, because Jews came here from all sides to save themselves from the German Sadists, and there was no room, not just to find a place to live but the street was so crowded that one could not even pass.”

In Bialystok, Esther worked – first making hats with a landsman, Yoel Landau, “who had acquired a lot of wool and used to later sell the hats.”    They did not have real knitting needles.  She recalls that her “father took a ‘rittle’ from a broom” and made some kind of knitting needle.  Later Esther found work with a wealthy Polish family, who paid her and gave her food to eat.

“I had the best time of my life” Esther exclaimed.  “I was young and I went to the movies and the Yiddish theater, which played in Bialystok at that time, and partied (farnrengt) in such a way that in Stok one could not imagine.  I still had a little Polish money.”

Eventually, because of overcrowding, the Soviet government sent people to other towns.   Esther’s parent and younger siblings were sent to Grodno, while Esther and her brothers were sent to the nearby town of Slonim.  In Slonim, they settled in to a small apartment, trying to make a bit money here and there.  They had enough to eat – “no luxuries, but enough.”  Living in Slonim for two years, they were eventually reunited with their parents and younger siblings.

Then, Esther recounts, “came the horrifying day of June 22, 1941 – the day that the German overran Russia.”

After the Germans invaded, things went from bad to worse.  Shortly after the invasion, “special task forces called Einsatzgruppen began to shoot political enemies and Jews” (Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin at xi).

The Einsatzgruppen were Nazi forces that traveled behind the army to “clean up.”  There were four Einsatzgruppen forces. Testifying at the Nuremberg trials, the Chief of Einsatzgruppen D testified that the Einsatzgrupppen:

“[W]ould enter a village or city and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of resettlement.  They were requested to hand over their valuables to the leader of the unit, and shortly before the execution to surrender their outer clothing.  The men, women and children were led to a place of execution which in most cases was located next to a more deeply excavated anti-tank ditch. Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, and the corpses thrown into the ditch.” (Lucy Dawidowicz, War Against the Jews at 170)

It was Einsatzgruppen B that murdered Esther’s family.   The killing force followed the German Army who was on a march to conquer territory stretching from Warsaw to Moscow.  In Bialystok, “some 7,000 Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in July.” (Id.  at 270)  It only took another month for the killing to reach Slonim and Esther’s family.

It was during the Jewish month of Av, a historical time of destruction for the Jewish people that the Einsatzgruppen came to Slonim.  Esther remembers the day precisely – August 20, 1941.  The Einsatzgruppen, marched into town with their uniforms and swastikas and:

“Gathered together (herded) about 10,000 Jews from Slonim and its suburbs, including the mitglider of the Judenrat and the Jewish Police and they said that they [  ] would be sent to work.   Taking young and old people was a daily dershinung (event).   But this time they took the captives to a place from which they would never return: they took them on the road to Baranovich, where they told to dig deep ditches, and they shot them and some of them were buried half-alive.”

So where was Esther and how did she escape this fate?

This is where the blessing of the typhus comes in.  While all this killing was going on, Esther was still in the hospital.  She contracted typhus in May, a month before the German invasion and three months before the Einsatzgruppen’s murder spree in Slonim. Esther had recovered and “was almost ready to go home,” she explains, “but the doctor kept me in the hospital, apparently because as long as I was in the hospital I was assured of something to eat.  I helped with the work in the hospital and my father asked (gebetten) me to stay in the hospital, rather than suffer from hunger at home.  I would often meet my family and I knew that they had nothing to eat, but I could not help them.  Later, things happened that were worse than mere famine.”

So, it was the blessing of typhus and an upstanding doctor that saved Esther from the Einsatzgruppen.  Though she escaped this fate, the Einsatzgruppen were extremely effective.  By the end of 1941, they killed approximately one million Jews in the Soviet-controlled lands. (Bloodlands at 189).

Free of Typhus, her parents and siblings murdered, Esther did not know where to turn.  She went home to Stok.  Stay tuned.


  • Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945.  New York, NY. Bantam Books.  1975.
  • Snyder, Timothy.  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
  • Interview with Esther Vishnui Goldberg.  April 12, 1993.

Picture – Esther Vishnui Goldberg with her daughter Fay, after the war in Displaced Persons Camp.

Hitting of Biblical Proportions

Hitting someone takes courage and conviction and is always risky. You never know how it will turn out. 

In this week’s Torah Portion, Shmot (Exodus), we are introduced to Moses.  Raised as an Egyptian Prince, Moses goes out to his “brothers” and sees the burdens of the Hebrew slaves.  He witnesses an Egyptian Overlord hitting a slave and, after looking around and seeing no one, Moses hits the Egyptian, killing him.   Moses buries the Egyptian in the sand.  The next day, Moses realizes that in fact two Hebrew slaves saw the deed. They call him to task when he criticizes them for fighting.  The news of the murder is reported back to Pharaoh and Moses flees to Midyan to save his life (Exodus 2:11-15).

This Biblical story reminds me of Sam Goldberg’s two famous hitting stories.  One is with a plank of wood and another is with a frozen turkey.  

Sam was a slave at Treblinka from June of 1942 until August 3, 1943.  He was the supervisor of the laundry.  He worked with a group of women who, together with him, washed the mountains of clothes from the murdered Jews. 

During the time when transports arrived daily from the Warsaw Ghetto, a Kapo (Jewish Overlord) saw some of his relatives get off the train.  In an attempt to save them, he ordered Sam out of the laundry.  He intended to replace Sam with four of his Warsaw relatives.    Sam said “I am working for a year already.  You are going to take me out of here and put me in hell.”    

The Kapo started to hit Sam with a “beitch” and a “conchic” made from wire and leather.  Sam took a board and hit the Kapo over the head.  This did not kill the Kapo, but blood ran from his head.  The Kapo called the Nazi Oberstumfurer who Sam describes as “a bastard, a terrible bastard.  We called him ‘stinker.’”  The carpenters were building a gallows to hang Sam.  

The women of the laundry stood up for Sam and said, “don’t hang him, hang the Kapo.  If you hang him, hang us all.”  The Nazi asked, “Why?”   One woman said, “Because the Jews are coming now from Warsaw and they were going to take him out and put in four of theirs.”  The German asked the Kapo why he was going to hang him.  The Kapo said “because he stole money and gave it to the Ukrainians.”  The women said “this is not true, he didn’t steal any money, he works very hard.  But you want to take him out.”  The German saw what was going on and gave Sam the gun to shoot the Kapo.  Sam said – “no, I won’t shoot anybody, no sir, I don’t want to.”  So the German shot him in the head.  Sam stayed in his work in the laundry.

The second famous hitting story occurred after the war.  Sam, Esther and baby Fay were living in the DP camp in Stuttgart.  There was a coupon program in place to allow the refugees to get food.  Sam had used his coupons to purchase a frozen turkey.  As he stepped onto the bus to return to the DP Camp, a German man said to him, “Jid – to the back of the bus!”  Sam hit the man over the head with the frozen turkey.  The man fell to the floor and Sam got off the bus. 

It was hard, even for Moses, a Prince, to stand up to the injustice of the Egyptian Overlord’s cruelty.  Kal V’Chomer (how much more so) for Sam to stand up to the Kapo and the German on the bus.  These hits were of Biblical proportions.