During the time of World War II, people considered inferior to the Nazis were sent off to concentration camps. Determining who lives and who dies was done mainly by separating those who are healthy and able to work from those who are not. So in order for these inmates to survive, they had to make themselves appear as healthy and work-capable as possible for as long as possible. Making this work was a struggle for most people. But for those that made it off of the train and into the cells of the concentration camp, there was a sliver of hope.
This hope came from the letters and packages that they were allowed to receive from home, and also the forced labor gave them a sense of life security as long as they did their job better than everyone else. From these three things, the people of Auschwitz were able to not only survive, but conquer the concentration camps and everyone running it as well. In the beginning of Auschwitz, letters and packages from home or anywhere else outside of the concentration camp were forbidden. However, as Tadeusz Borowski explains, things were getting better.
After a while people who were not Jewish were allowed to send and receive letters and gifts from back home. These gifts usually consisted of homemade foods, or some sort of clothing for the receiver and played a huge part in the survival of those held captive. They would either eat the food or use items themselves or trade it with others in the camp for other goods or services. For example, in one of the short stories, one of the prisoner-workers says the wrong thing to the guard, who was also a prisoner, and threatens to report the prisoner for sentencing to the gas chambers.
But before this happens, the prisoner has his friend go talk to his boss and try to work something out and ends up trading a watch sent from home for the safety of the prisoner. The entire goal in the camp is to remain as strong and healthy as possible for as long as possible. The gifts sent from home made this a little easier. The food kept them from becoming starved and therefore too weak to work and the clothes made them look more well-kept and just overall pleasing to the eye as compared rags or, in some cases, nothing.
The people in these camps did not just fend for themselves though. Together, the whole group tried to keep each other alive as best they could. They shared their food with those who need it, those who do not have families to write to or receive things from. For example, during a lunch break while working at the concentration camp, everyone is allowed one bowl of soup and those selected by the watchman are allowed to have two bowls because they want the strong workers to stay strong so that they can work longer instead of wasting their food on those headed for the gas chambers.
One of the workers who were allowed two bowls of soup gave his second bowl away to his friend because he was weaker and did not want to see his friend head into the gas chambers. The people in the camps developed relationships with each other than none of us can even imagine. Somehow, the fear for their lives and the struggle to stay alive brought these people from different backgrounds together kind of like a family and made them care for each other in way which normally they would not, for instance, giving up their own scarce source of food for the benefit of the weak.
Also, these new-found friendships gave them a purpose to stay alive, and a sense of hope. Another sense of hope for those held prisoner was the letters sent from family and friends back home. Being able to communicate with them and tell them what was happening gave the prisoners a feeling that this was only temporary and that once it was over, life would return to normal and everything would be fine. Not everyone was allowed to receive these letters though. For a while, Jews were not allowed to communicate with the outside world, but once the rules were changed, mail spread like wildfire.
These letters can be seen as a safe way to vent about what is happening to them without being judged by those around them or punished for it by the guards and those running the concentration camps. In these letters, the prisoners talked mostly of the death they have witnessed, the poverty they live in, and the people they have met. Besides all of the gruesome sights they had witnessed they also talked of the past; the way life used to be. In one letter I read, the writer spoke of his family. He described the beauty of his wife in great detail and the town he used to live in.
He recalled the day they met and the day his kids were born. All these things lead to one thing: hope. Thinking of and being reminded of the way things used to be always seemed to bring joy to the prisoners. In a way it is not the letters themselves that create a good feeling, but the memories they store inside of them. These memories kept a certain fire alive and burning in each of the prisoners, one that allowed them to continue to put up with the Nazi army and not rally against them, in the hopes of making it out alive.
Another thing these letters did was that just by hearing from their families, more hope was created. Most of the time, these letters were coming into concentration camps from those who were not imprisoned. Therefore, constantly receiving the letters and hearing about life outside of the camps gave them that extra assurance that their families and loved ones were okay. It also allowed for the prisoners to sleep better at night which allowed them to be fully rested and ready to work the next morning, which in turn allowed them to stay alive and out of the gas chambers.
Although letters and packages were an excellent way to stay motivated and keep healthy, that was not the most reliable way to stay alive. The best way was to prove their usefulness within the camp was by working for the guards and other commanders within the camp. By proving themselves useful, they would, at least for the moment, be saved from the gas chambers simply because they could be used to improve their overall goal and make the camps bigger and more optimized for larger transports and groups of prisoners. There were several jobs in which a prisoner could be assigned to.
For instance, women were often assigned the duty of sorting through the newcomers’ clothes, shoes, and other personal belongings to be sent back to Germany for use there. Others were taught to be barbers and work in the kitchens, preparing the meals for the workers and other fortunate members of the concentration camp. Still others were forced to work in coal mines or miscellaneous construction projects such as digging or cleaning out ditches along highways that had been built by the hand of other prisoners by the order of the Nazis.
These last groups of people were exposed to the worst of conditions because of the harsh outdoor climates and their lack of breaks they were allowed to take. It was not uncommon to have the weak weeded out by these tasks, but those who worked harder and stronger than the others had their lives secured so long as they could keep it up. All-in-all there were three things that kept the people of Auschwitz alive and well: the letters and packages sent from home as well as work they were forced to do.
All of these things combined managed to instill a surprising amount of hope in the victims of this terrible new government that had set in. Not only did it make them feel hope for themselves, but they grew together as a group and developed hopefulness for the other people in the prison. They grew together as a family, which allowed for their will to survive to grow and become even stronger than it was before. These people fed off of the vibes of one another, and if one person had hope than the whole group of people had a bit of hope instilled upon them as well.