Unlike the other extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau was also a slave labour camp. This meant that some Jews – mostly young people – were selected for work on arrival. The remainder were sent straight to the camp’s gas chambers. The reprieve of those Jews selected to work was only intended to be temporary, with prisoners confronted by disease, starvation, exhaustion, and brutality from their guards. The following testimony from Kitty Felix (today Kitty Hart-Moxon) demonstrates how conventional notions of status and decency were irrelevant to survival in Auschwitz.

Shifting shit was one of my happier jobs in the camp. It was a great step up in the Auschwitz world when I was drafted into the Scheisskommando… Each of the specially constructed lavatory blocks at the rear of the camp had a long row of slightly raised concrete with holes, like some sort of misshapen bagatelle board. They provided a wonderful new meeting-place. If you could find one of your friends during a roll-call commotion, you could sit sharing a hole and talk for as long as you dared. As a matter of course there was a guard at the door to hit you going in or out. But it was worth it. In the Scheisskommando, digging out the mess from underneath and carrying it away in buckets on a yoke across my shoulders to be dumped in the pits, I had the privilege of frequent access to the toilets. This meant twenty times the conversation and organising I’d been able to manage up till now.

By ‘organising’, Kitty was referring to the secret bartering between prisoners of items such as clothing, shoes or food which enabled them to survive. Kitty and her mother survived Auschwitz for almost two years. Following their liberation at Salzwedel concentration camp in 1945, they emigrated to the UK.

Photo: latrines in a women’s barrack, Birkenau; Holocaust Educational Trust

Testimony: Kitty Hart-Moxon, Return to Auschwitz (Quill Press, 2010)