By Jessie Levine, Simmons University

During the its operation from 1940 to 1945, Auschwitz Concentration Camp imprisoned over 1.3
million individuals, killing about 1.1 million of them. Of those 1.3 million people, 1.1 million were
Jewish, 140,000-150,000 were Polish, 23,000 were Roma/Gypsies, 15,000 were Soviet
prisoners of war, and 25,000 were prisoners from other ethnic groups. In addition to carrying out
the mass murder of many individuals from these groups, the methods and intensity of the
punishment, torture, and humiliation practiced at the Auschwitz I camp could be considered
inhumane. These practices were used on men, women, and children under the justification that
they were second-class citizens and a plague on Nazi society.

For some prisoners, torture and humiliation was severe as some guards were able to fulfill their
sadistic urges. While certain prisoners experienced punishment and humiliation as a direct
result of their actions (attempted escape, refusal to work, marching out of step, etc.), many
prisoners were punished or humiliated simply for being present at the camp. Several spots
throughout the Auschwitz Museum present the methods of torture, punishment, and humiliation
used at the site. The most common methods of punishment used at Auschwitz were flogging,
penal labor, starvation, or confinement in the camp jail (in ordinary cells, dark cells, or standing
cells). "Strappado" was also a common punishment used in the camp where the prisoner would
be hung by there hands with a chain at a height were their feet would not touch the ground for
several hours. The Auschwitz Museum contains several examples of these devices throughout
its exhibits.

During our tour, we visited Block 11, one of the most well known sites at the camp where torture
and punishment took place. According to some inmates, Block 11 was a prison within a prison
and a place of torture and murder. Among the various other types of torture practiced at
Auschwitz, torture practices on Block 11 included hanging prisoners by their arms for hours at a
time, whipping, practicing water torture, putting needles under their fingernails, searing them
with a red-hot iron, and pouring petrol on them and setting them on fire. It is difficult to imagine
individuals experiencing this torture, and some believe that it would have been better for them to
be killed instead of tortured. However, that was the purpose of the torture for the Nazis.

In addition to their various methods of torture and punishment, the Nazis in Auschwitz also had
many methods they used to humiliate the Jews and other prisoners. To me, one of the most
striking methods of humiliation used was towards women when the camp doctors would
examine them. In order to assess if these women were “clean,” the doctors would perform a
complete physical, which included a vaginal exam. Survivors recall that the doctors used their
fingers to examine their internal and external vaginal areas, “deflowering” them. Many of these
women had saved their virginity for their husbands, however they were deprived of that when
the doctors performed this humiliating and dehumanizing act.

Over the 5 years in which Auschwitz was operational, countless episodes of torture, humiliation,
and punishment occurred. Many of these practices could now be considered inhumane and
sadistic. Despite the justifications given for these acts, they ultimately were performed to strip
the prisoners of their humanity and dignity.

This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at