Drancy held 5,000 prisoners. Around 70,000 mainly Jewish prisoners passed through the camp between August 1941 and August 1944. On 22 June 1942, the Nazis began systematic deportations of Jews from Drancy to the extermination camps in occupied Poland. In the first transport 1,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the last transport on 31 July 1944, 64,759 Jews had been deported from Drancy in 64 transports. Approximately 61,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A further 3,753 Jews had been transported to Sobibor.
At the bottom of the K.L. hierarchy, even below the criminals, were the Jews. Today, the words “concentration camp” immediately summon up the idea of the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews by the Nazis; and we tend to think of the camps as the primary sites of that genocide. In fact, as Wachsmann writes, as late as 1942 “Jews made up fewer than five thousand of the eighty thousand KL inmates.” There had been a temporary spike in the Jewish inmate population in November, 1938, after Kristallnacht, when the Nazis rounded up tens of thousands of Jewish men. But, for most of the camps’ first decade, Jewish prisoners had usually been sent there not for their religion, per se, but for specific offenses, such as political dissent or illicit sexual relations with an Aryan. Once there, however, they found themselves subject to special torments, ranging from running a gantlet of truncheons to heavy labor, like rock-breaking. As the chief enemies in the Nazi imagination, Jews were also the natural targets for spontaneous S.S. violence—blows, kicks, attacks by savage dogs.
Women were expected to be strong, healthy, and vital. The sturdy peasant woman who worked the land and bore strong children was considered ideal, and women were praised for being athletic and tanned from working outdoors. Organisations were created for the indoctrination of Nazi values. From 25 March 1939 membership in the Hitler Youth was made compulsory for all children over the age of ten. The Jungmädelbund (Young Girls League) section of the Hitler Youth was for girls age 10 to 14 and the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM; League of German Girls) was for young women age 14 to 18. The BDM's activities focused on physical education, with activities such as running, long jumping, somersaulting, tightrope walking, marching, and swimming.
The site was first suggested as a concentration camp for Polish prisoners by SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand, an aide to Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia. After this part of Poland was annexed by Nazi Germany, Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was located administratively in Germany, in the Province of Upper Silesia, Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz, Landkreis Bielitz. Bach-Zelewski had been searching for a site to hold prisoners in the Silesia region, as the local prisons were filled to capacity. Richard Glücks, head of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, sent former Sachsenhausen concentration camp commandant Walter Eisfeld to inspect the site, which housed 16 dilapidated one-story buildings that had served as an Austrian and later Polish Army barracks and a camp for transient workers. German citizens were offered tax concessions and other benefits if they would relocate to the area. By October 1943, more than 6,000 Reich Germans had arrived. The Nazis planned to build a model modern residential area for incoming Germans, including schools, playing fields, and other amenities. Some of the plans went forward, including the construction of several hundred apartments, but many were never fully implemented. Basic amenities such as water and sewage disposal were inadequate, and water-borne illnesses were commonplace.
Lunch was three quarters of a liter of watery soup at midday, reportedly foul-tasting, with meat in the soup four times a week and vegetables (mostly potatoes and rutabaga) three times. The evening meal was 300 grams of bread, often moldy, part of which the inmates were expected to keep for breakfast the next day, with a tablespoon of cheese or marmalade, or 25 grams of margarine or sausage. Prisoners engaged in hard labor were given extra rations.
In Italy I joined the Irgun, the Zionist underground organisation fighting for Israeli independence led by Menachem Begin (later prime minister of Israel), and travelled with an arms smuggling ship, the Altalena, to Tel Aviv. All the time I kept with me my prison uniform, as proof of what had happened to me. We arrived on the shores of Tel Aviv on 20 June 1948 and I found myself at a pivotal moment in Israeli history, in a boat full of weapons that Ben-Gurion would not let on shore. It could easily have turned into a civil war. I was shot at by Israel Defence Force troopers as I jumped into the water and the Altalena was set ablaze and sunk by the IDF. With it sank my suitcase of clothes and my striped prisoner uniform, including my hat, coat, shirt and a knife.
Nazi Germany maintained concentration camps (German: Konzentrationslager, KZ or KL) throughout the territories it controlled before and during the Second World War. The first Nazi camps were erected in Germany in March 1933 immediately after Hitler became Chancellor and his Nazi Party was given control of the police by Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick and Prussian Acting Interior Minister Hermann Göring. Used to hold and torture political opponents and union organizers, the camps initially held around 45,000 prisoners. In 1933–1939, before the onset of war, most prisoners consisted of German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of 'asocial' or socially 'deviant' behavior by the Germans.