From Punishment to Death: Body Practices for Deported Women in Nazi Camps

Doriane Gomet. International Journal of the History of Sport. Volume 30, Issue 9. June 2013.

Rooted within WW2, this study aims at exploring the body practices that Nazis imposed on women in concentration camps. It is based on spontaneous and sought testimonies, both written and oral. The analysis reveals that body practices were widely used by the Schutzstaffel (SS) to weaken or even to exterminate deported women. However, according to the very reasons of their deportation—for persecution or repression measures—the forms and objectives of these practices varied. In Auschwitz, female deportees underwent a series of body attacks which were similar to those imposed on men in the same camp, including sessions of Strafstehen and of Sportmachen, with the threat of being eventually punished by imprisonment in a Bunker or even selected for death by gas. In Ravensbrück, however, the procedures reserved for women were different: while they were confronted with blows and all kinds of privations, the physical exercises imposed on them were mainly based on motionlessness.


Recalling her deportation to Nazi concentration camps, Mme Goetschel said when she got back ‘”Sport” as a punishment was widespread, Female prisoners were made to run, jump, crawl to exhaustion, and if they collapsed, they were beaten with a stick until they stood up again’.

What kind of sports are we referring to? Were female deportees submitted to the same predicament as their male counterparts on this particular point? This study aims to describe the physical practices imposed by Germans (or by inmates holding a position enabling them to do so) on French women deported to Ravensbrück or Auschwitz. Ravensbrück was opened in May 1939. Located 80 km north of Berlin, it was initially designed for women arrested for their supposed or real opposition to the Nazi regime. German female prisoners were at first the largest group, but were soon joined by Polish, Czech, Dutch and French women. A total of 101,473 inmates were recorded in Ravensbrück between 1939 and 1945. From April 1941, men were also sent to the camp. These 20,000 male prisoners were detained in barracks located in a specific area of the KL (short for Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp) and had no contact with female inmates. Auschwitz I (the main camp) was opened on May 20, 1940, and was intended exclusively for men. It was initially established as a traditional concentration camp, but the implementation of the Final Solution scheme deeply altered its objectives and turned it into both a concentration and an extermination camp. In autumn 1941, the ever-increasing number of deportees sent to Auschwitz resulted in the construction of a second camp, Auschwitz II, 3 km away from the main camp. The first deported prisoners arrived there in spring 1942. Finally, the Buna Monowitz Kommando, located 7 km from the main camp, became a self-governing camp from November 1943 and was renamed Auschwitz III—Monowitz. The number of prisoners recorded between 1940 and 1945 in the Auschwitz camps reached 400,355, all nationalities included, among whom 131,708 were women. However, the latter were only sent to Auschwitz from March 1942. They were first detained in the main camp and transferred in August 1942 to Auschwitz II in the ‘women’s camp’ located in the Bla sector. From July 1943, the Blb sector was annexed to the women’s camp. In any case, these areas were strictly forbidden to male inmates and operated autonomously from the men’s camps.

Can physical exertion belong to this world of death? If it is the case, what activities are we talking about? And what purposes do they serve? It may seem surprising to refer exclusively to women, whereas deportation has been studied for long without considering gender as a significant criterion. However, since the late 1990s, some works of research have focused on this issue. The aim of this study is to give women some visibility by focusing on corporal practices, with ‘corporal practices’ being defined as follows:

A set of exercises whose main characteristic is first and foremost to solicit the body, primarily to cause physical effort, so that a task is achieved under duress and the objectives set by German authorities or their subordinates are fulfilled.

With reference to the works of Annette Wieviorka, François Cochet and the more recent publications of the Centre de Recherche en Histoire Quantitative (Research Centre for Quantitative History) and Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Déportation (Foundation for the Memory of Deportation), the word ‘deportee’ refers to men, women and children who ‘were detained in a Nazi concentration camp’. However, a distinction should be made between deportation as racial persecution and non-racial deportation as repressive measures.

In the former category were the people arrested and deported to be exterminated because of their ethnic origin or religious beliefs. A total of 75,721 French Jews fell into this category, a vast majority of whom were transferred to Auschwitz. Among them were 31,157 women, girls, little girls or baby girls. Only 8637 French women actually experienced the camp system, while the others were gassed immediately upon arrival; 740 women were still alive in 1945.

Deportation as repressive measures concerns individuals arrested because of their opposition to the Nazi regime, whether proved or assumed, and whatever form it took. Among the 88,195 individuals recorded, 8862 were women, i.e. ∼10%, a proportion to be compared with the percentage of women involved in the French Resistance. The Livre-Mémorial indicates that out of this total, a very large number of women (6600) were sent to Ravensbrück or one of its external Kommandos. Pierre-Emmanuel Dufayel’s study reveals that the women arrested were young (20-40 years), most had an occupation and lived in a city. More than half were mothers.

Grounded in the history of WW2 deportation, this study aims to analyse the role played by corporal practices in the punishment and exaction system dictated by the Nazis to female deportees and thus to appraise its link with the Nazi endeavour to making prisoners ‘vulnerable’, that is to say the systematic destruction of female inmates. The point here is certainly not to confront the experiences of men and women but to try to identify the similarities and differences between the various experiences of concentration camps. Our analysis draws from numerous publications concerning the history of the Nazi camp system: Martin Broszat, Olga Wormser-Migot, Falk Pingel, Wolfgang Sofsky and Karin Orth. It also calls upon monographs on Nazi camps written by Germaine Tillion, Bernhard Strebel, Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel on Ravensbrück and also those from the Auschwitz museum. Within the more specific subject of corporal practices, we refer to a paper by Veronika Springmann.

The chosen methodology rests on the analysis of 50 testimonies from male and female deportees published between 1945 and 1960 from which a list of the 5 main physical exertions has been established: StrafstehenSportmachen, selections, fake boxing matches and sport entertainment deportees were obliged to take part in. Strafstehen, literally meaning ‘standing punishment’, involved prisoners being kept standing motionless for a more or less long period of time. This punishment could sometimes be inflicted along with other abuses such as food deprivation or the performance of exhausting exercises. Sportmachen and Strafexerzieren refer to exercises akin to physical preparation, but physically too demanding for normal human beings resulting in significant health degradation. These exercises—running, duck walking or frog jumps—were likely to lead prisoners to a state of complete exhaustion. Although they were presented to prisoners as punishment or physical and moral rehabilitation by the German authorities, they were akin to real torture sessions. The objective of the selection process was to choose among prisoners those to be eliminated over the short term. This was done using simple locomotion exercises or collective ‘games’ involving multiple acts of brutality. The other two types of practices—the punching ball and the Gladiators’ fights—were in fact mock boxing matches. In the former, deportees were used as mere punch bags for the training of Nazis and Kapos, while in the latter, they were forced to fight against each other, usually to death. Finally, sport entertainment included all sporting events that were organised by the Nazis or their subordinates for their own pleasure and in which deportees had to take part.

With the above-mentioned five main physical exertions in mind, the following archives were consulted: the Bundesarchiv Auβenstelle Lichterfelde (BAL) in Berlin, the Bureau des Archives des Victimes des Conflits Contemporains (BAVCC), the Ministry of Defence in Caen and the documents kept in the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (CDJC) in Paris. The records of three trials were also drawn upon Nuremberg, Rastatt and Auschwitz. Testimonies were found in archives compiled by the Comité d’Histoire de la 2nd Guerre Mondiale and kept in the Archives Nationales (French National Archives) under the serial number 72aj on the one hand and in books and autobiographies published mainly between 1945 and 1960 on the other hand.

Even though this study focuses on physical activities, it nonetheless reminds us of the context in which they were carried out. The camp system, as experienced by male and female French prisoners from 1942 onwards, was designed for submitting individuals to protean, constant, extreme, arbitrary violence. This study shows that physical exertion was an integral part of the various means the SS guards used to weaken and even kill women detained in concentration camps. Physical exertion helped subdue prisoners but also led to their elimination. However, they varied in form and serve different purposes depending on the prisoners’ characteristics.

Strafstehen or Sportmachen, Vexations Were Specific to Each Concentration Camp

Surprising though it may seem, all concentration camps, which were a place for all types of violence and abuses, had their own disciplinary rules and procedures setting out the types of punishment inflicted on those prisoners who did not obey the rules. From 1933, the Dachau rules and procedures worked out by Theodor Eicke included punishments based on physical exertion and notably Strafstehen and Sportmachen.

French deportees, who were sent to the camps from 1942 onwards, remember that Sportmachen was the most common punishment. When speaking about this specificity of Dachau, Falk Pingel explains that carelessly made beds could cause the collective practice of physical exercises for all inmates in the barrack room. Concerning this point, Stanislav Zamecnik indicates:

In the case of a collective offence, the whole group was submitted to punitive physical ‘exercises’. For example, if during body searches, someone got rid of a prohibited object by throwing it on the ground, the SS officer would force the culprit to confess by compelling the whole group to perform genuflexions until exhausted, kicking the prisoners all the while. If it did not work, he would note down all our numbers.

In the book they wrote, former Sachsenhausen prisoners remember that it represented the first level of punishment:

First, there was the Sunday afternoon gymnastics for punishing trivial cases: forgetting to salute, lining up in disorderly rows, laziness at work, greatcoat collar turned up etc.

At Buchenwald too, exercise was used to punish any breach of rules, either individually or collectively: ‘A common collective punishment was a gymnastics session in the muddy roll call area’, M. Berthier remembers. At Dora also prisoners had to perform exercises in the evening as a punishment:

In the subcamps, prisoners with sloppy dress or those failing to march had to perform exercises or to crawl for one or two hours under the command of a SS, before going back to their Block.

The recurring and exhausting physical activities described by survivors included running, jumping, crawling and frog jumps.

Were women deported as repressive or persecution measures subjected to similar treatments?

Strafstehen, the Most Common Form of Punishment at Ravensbrück

Even though Sportmachen is sometimes mentioned, the punishment called Strafstehen has particularly left its mark on French inmates deported on political grounds. Two forms existed: long ‘general assembly roll calls’ and small group punishments. Sundays were particularly favourable to such treatment. On that day, unexpected general assembly roll calls often inflicted along with beatings or food deprivation were the greatest fear of female prisoners. Maisie Renault remembers:

This general assembly roll call was our greatest fear. It lasted much longer than a usual roll call, sometimes for the whole afternoon. I particularly remember one occasion when we had to stand from 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm.

Francine Briand provides some precise information about them:

At any time of night and day, we were forced to go out for reasons we still can’t figure out to this day, and ordered to stand motionless in lines for hours, waiting for authorization to move and walk. That’s the way we spent every Sunday afternoon and official holiday, and this motionless standing position was all the more exhausting as kitchens did not operate on those days. A few days after her arrival, Mme Huard remembers a roll call that lasted 7 h. According to Denise Dufournier, even the children living in the camp had to attend roll calls. Even when ‘general assembly roll calls’ were not imposed by the SS, prisoners were not exempted from standing motionless for long hours outdoors at their guards’ mercy: unlike roll calls, Strafstehen is a punishment often inflicted on specific inmates, or Blocks, or sometimes the whole camp. For 8 months, Micheline Maurel suffered the whims of a Blockowa well known for her wickedness.

Under the rule of Frau Schuppe, we spent every Sunday doing Strafstehen. She sometimes inflicted Strafstehen ‘nach Vorne’ on us, meaning near the entrance gates where female overseers would pass 20 times a day and relish beating us.

Germaine Tillion denounced this type of practice in her operetta, using the word ‘poser‘. She indicated in a note, ‘the punishment consists in leaving women standing for 2, 4, 6, or even 24 h running’. Geneviève De Gaulle and Wenda Dubaczensker mention this first level of punishment in their own testimonies:

Standing to attention in the central courtyard for several hours was a punishment applied to a single individual or to the whole block (collective responsibility). This was the punishment for a broken window or small material damage. On very cold or very hot days, this punishment was dreadful.

Conversely, Sportmachen practices were obviously not so frequent in Ravensbrück, even though they were part of the repressive means used by guards. Some atrocities combined with sexual humiliations committed in the Wattenstadt subcamp were reported:

Those women had to take off their pants, crouch on tiptoes and stretch their arms. Two SS would then beat them with their whip on the lower back and nose with one shouting orders with every blow for 20 min on end: Stand up! Crouch!

However, such descriptions are few and far between, which suggests that they came from individuals and were not a common form of punishment.

Among the various types of physical exertion identified in the preliminary study, Strafstehen was very common in Ravensbrück. The camp language had a specific term for qualifying the long hours spent standing motionless as Francine Briand remembers: ‘nous piquons (a French phrase meaning “we stand motionless”) for hours, in line, waiting for authorization to move and walk’. Everyday, the lengthy standing position in all weathers made women more and more vulnerable and contributed to their gradual weakening. In her clinical survey, Doctor Don-Zimmet-Gazel estimates that the ‘prolonged time in standing position’ is a factor actually contributing to the weakening process of inmates:

(…) We can hence admit that the cause of the increased natural death rate results from these three, factors often in combination: 1. Near exhaustion through lack of nourishment and all sorts of deficiencies; 2. Forced labour and too lengthy standing position; 3. Vermin, overpopulation and lack of hygiene.

A Macabre Variety of Punishments in Auschwitz II

In Auschwitz also, women were submitted to Strafstehen. This punishment was often associated with multiple refinements of cruelty, a fact revealing that living conditions in Auschwitz were even harsher than in Ravensbrück: adding further to hours spent standing, Nazis compelled prisoners to hold bricks over their heads or to stand to attention:

The guard ordered us to stand to attention. One is able to stay in such a position for one hour if need be. But we stayed like that for 3 or 4 h.

One form of punishment deriving from the Strafstehen is often reported in testimonies: a lengthy motionless position, kneeling, most of the time with one’s arms up. Mme Goetschel mentions this punishment in her testimony: ‘Sometimes, without any reason, we were subjected to a punitive roll call kneeling with our arms up’. So does Charlotte Lucker: ‘All the women in our block had to kneel for hours’ or Odette Abadi: ‘After roll call, we had to kneel all morning long, with our legs in the mud and arms up’. Camille Touboul relates one whole night spent kneeling on the gravel after an inmate had escaped. The particularly humiliating and demeaning nature of this position should be noted, but such vexation was not often reported in the other camps.

One of the most feared punishments was the ‘standing cell’. Female inmates who were imposed this punishment did not go back to their barracks after work but were sent instead to a 1 m2 jail into which four inmates were crammed and could only stand until the break of day. If Pelagia Lewinska was lucky not to be inflicted this torture, she nevertheless mentions it in her book:

Just imagine a very small cell without air or light, where you could not move or sit and do nothing but stand one against the other. After one night spent in the Bunker, you literally fainted from exhaustion and lack of air (…)

Beside the various forms of Strafstehen, it is particularly interesting to note that ‘sport’ exercises were frequently used to wear down Jewish women’s stamina. While this form of punishment was unusual at Ravensbrück, punitive physical exercises were an integral part of the repressive arsenal of Auschwitz II. Ania Posner remembers when inmates were forced to walk all day long in the camp on Sundays. In her testimony at the Nuremberg trials, Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier mentioned them:

There were these endless roll calls night and day, or exercises: we had to lie face down, stand up again, lie face down, stand up again for hours (…)

Pelagia Lewinska refers to one specific day when, after one of the female inmates escaped from the camp, women were forced to ‘run 10 km across a swamp’. Undeniably, in Auschwitz, women were ill-treated almost as cruelly as men.

From these statements, it is possible to highlight the complex relationships the SS had with the social attributes of gender. Although they degraded women deported for repressive measure so much that they deprived them of any opportunity of preserving the marks of their femininity (hair, body care, clothes) and although they compelled them to work like men and beat them violently, first-level acts of violence were established following certain social norms: where men were subjected to motion, women were to motionlessness.

Conversely, Jewish women were subjected to the atrocities as men: Strafstehen, Sportmachen, Bunker, regardless of their sex, thus making them even weaker and more vulnerable than their male counterparts.

Selection and Killing of Deported Women by Means of Physical Activities

In concentration camps, the living conditions and especially the meagre food intake doubtlessly were the main factors of extermination in which the various forms of punishment called Sportmachen and Strafstehen, as well as the endless roll calls, took an active part.

In addition to this form of indirect execution, the Nazis used a whole gamut of killing methods: shooting, torture or hanging and euthanasia (known as code ’14 F 13′) that had a peculiar status: if death was to occur by gas or phenol injection, there was a previous rational medical ‘selection’ of inmates considered unfit by the Nazi system.

In Auschwitz, this type of mass murder started in the spring of 1941 and carried on until April 1943 for non-Jewish prisoners and until October 1944 for Jews. ‘Selections’ were often carried out in the camp’s medical centre but could also be performed in the roll call area. As Rudolph Höss specified, selections were aimed at those inmates whose output at work was deemed insufficient because of their state of health. This could also be observed in other camps for men such as Mauthausen or Dachau. Even though procedures applied by physicians in charge of selection varied, physical exercises ranked among the ‘tests’ employed. Depending on the doctors’ whims, men were asked to do small jumps, run or squat like ‘frogs’. Any weakness, minimal as it may be, could be fatal. Moshe Elie Garbars, deported to Auschwitz, remembers one selection:

After the SS was gone, Marek ordered us to squat, and if one guy was too weak to hold the position according to the rules, with upright chest and thighs apart like a frog, he would write down his number on the list of the condemned prisoners for the following morning.

Basing his evidence on survivors’ testimonies at the trial of Rudolph Höss, Franciszek Piper identified another procedure: on their return from work, prisoners were asked to jump over a ditch or a stick ‘held at approximately 0.5 m above the ground’. Those who failed were gassed. In the testimony he gives to Mme Wormser-Migot, Robert Frances refers to short races: ‘During the selection process, inmates were made to run over 25 m. If they fell, they were sent to Birkenau and gassed’.

Were women also subjected to similar treatment? Were many of them selected to be gassed on the basis of such physical tests?

Selecting and Killing Women in Auschwitz II

In Auschwitz, Jewish women were unquestionably subjected to the constant threat of a selection that could bring their lives to an end as related in the report drawn out by the members of Frenay’s Ministry at the Nuremberg trial:

Among those brought to Auschwitz and Birkenau, many could not hold out for long. Indeed, regular selections were carried out among the worst cases of sick men or women.

During the roll call assemblies, SS physicians would decide on the life or death of female inmates within a few seconds. Claudette Bloch, deported in June 1942, witnessed that practice:

During roll call, SS especially appointed for this task inspected us in minute details and took with them those women who looked too tired or ugly, those who had a pimple on their face, and more particularly those with swollen legs.

Marie-Claude Vaillant Couturier, Pelagia Lewinska and M.E. Nordmann all gave an account of a particularly harsh selection that took place during a ‘general roll call’ early in February 1943. The roll call began at 3:30 am and ended at 5:00 pm. Women were transported to a flat open area, often half naked. Those who displayed any sort of weakness or could not go back to the camp in the evening were transferred to Block 25, the antechamber of death. After so many hours spent motionless, they were compelled to go back to the camp and run ‘over 10 m’ through the camp gate. Those whose legs could not endure such an effort were also selected to be gassed.

We are lined up at the entrance of the camp and are ordered to run. Those unable to do so because their legs are numb from cold, or those recovering from an illness or that are too old and hence refuse to obey are sent to block 25.

In other cases, selections were carried out on the basis of apparently insignificant physical exercises. Using the records of the Rudolph Höss trial, Franciszek Piper points out that the SS ordered women to ‘run over a few meters’. Claudette Bloch also remembers that SS doctors used this method to decide on their fate:

Jewish women were submitted to roll call, that is they were lined up and each one of them compelled to run along a gangway before a jury. If one stumbled or limped, she was put aside and automatically selected for block 25. If one of your comrades clung to you, she would often drag you into her fall and to your own demise.

Mme Persitz reports similar memories to the Comité d’Histoire de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale and indicates that this form of selection took place mainly before 1944:

Mme P was told by long-time inmates that before 1944, things were done differently: female inmates were lined up in the courtyard and compelled to march and perform exercises, like running over 50 m or jump over a ditch.

Women were also asked to jump over a ditch or a stick. Just as for men, those who failed were sent to the gas chamber.

The methods implemented by physicians for choosing their victims did not vary according to sex. The fact that there was no sex differentiation sometimes had unexpected consequences. Contrary to men, women had had little opportunity to do any sport in their previous life, and this very fact suggests that, when it came to running, jumping or performing physical exercises, women were far less fortunate than their fellow male inmates, and consequently even more vulnerable.

Selecting and Killing in Ravensbrück

Between 1941 and 1944, selection processes for the gas chambers were also carried out in Ravensbrück, even though they were not as widespread as in Auschwitz. In her book, Germaine Tillion talks about the ‘black’ transport: convoys of women who had become physically and/or morally vulnerable and who were transferred to Hartheim castle or Majdanek to be murdered. Mainly carried out in the Revier (camp infirmary), selections were based on the usual criteria such as ‘age, illness, exhaustion, despair and madness’ likely to hamper productivity in the opinion of the Nazi higher authorities. However, it is not easy to know the exact methods used by physicians for selecting 50–70 women and organising these small convoys two or three times a month until the summer of 1944.

At the end of 1944, however, as the whole system was starting to collapse, selection processes were stepped up at Ravensbrück. In October 1944, the camp commandant was given the order to kill 2000 prisoners a month, retroactive to 6 months. The means implemented had specific characteristics but also common features with male prisoners’ camps. To select the prisoners to be sentenced to death, Nazis referred to lists drawn up prior to this process and displaying the names of women who voluntarily answered an offer to get a ‘pink card’. When they registered, women believed that they could benefit from easier working conditions because of their age or failing health. In fact, early in 1945, they were transferred to a small adjoining camp called Uckermark where hundreds of them were to die, as a result of receiving insufficient food rations for weeks and undergoing long roll call assemblies starting in the morning and ending in the evening:

Those women who survived in Uckermark were given half food rations and had to keep standing outdoor for five to six hours a day. (…) In those conditions, nearly fifty female inmates died everyday in this camp.

Moreover, they were submitted to daily selections that gave them little chance of surviving. The ‘pink cards’ pretext was not used in men’s camps and seems to be a specificity of Ravensbrück. How can this be interpreted? Admittedly, the gender-specific social relations could explain the obedience of some vulnerable women to this illusion: in spite of the time spent in the camp, they did not figure out the shift in values the Nazi system operated on the more vulnerable ones.

Women who were kept in the main camp were also submitted to ‘selections’ whose methods were quite similar to the practices used for years in the male or female camps of Auschwitz. Besides the apparent physical condition, physicians carried out

(…) selections compelling sick inmates to prove their ability to walk by covering several meters in front of the physician.

Confirmation of such practices can be found in the book published by the Association of Women Deportees of Ravensbrück. During the last months of the selection process, physicians appraised the inmates’ health by their naked legs. Sometimes they were asked to run: ‘You took a few running steps and you were put in the right or left line’.

Although they were not performed on a regular basis before 1944, selections multiplied in Ravensbrück over the last months of captivity. Methods implemented had certain characteristics such as the ‘pink cards’ and obvious common points with methods used in Auschwitz II, and more generally with the treatments inflicted on male deportees.

Sadistic Games and Gladiator Fights

Among the favourite violent acts perpetrated by the SS or their subordinates, the sadistic games held a central place and cost numerous French their lives, notably in Mauthausen and Auschwitz. Survivors mention at least two main types of such practices: the ‘collective games’ and the ‘boxing matches’ that were very similar to gladiator fights.

No Gladiator Fights in Women’s Camps

Georges Dudal, a survivor of the ‘convoi des 45,000’ (a convoy of 45,000 prisoners), remembers a Polish prisoner from Block 8A who organised mortal fights among inmates. In Auschwitz, Raymond Montégut reports the evening ‘dances of death’ during which Blockältester would beat Jewish prisoners—sometimes to death. Prisoners had to go up to a small room where an area the size of a ring had been cleared, and Blockältester would punch each of them in a three-against-one fight:

The dance of death began, the blows violently rained down and the poor guy had to jump; if he collapsed, he was kicked until he stood up again and sometimes the pain was so intense that in a kind of hallucinatory frenzy, the guy would try to escape.

Violent blows and kicks were common practice in women’s camps, and obviously both in Ravensbrück and in Auschwitz. About that matter, Doctor Don-Zimmet-Gazel says that the SS were fond of techniques specific to boxing:

I guess that during their training sessions in the SS barracks, they all had learnt to box. Actually, their punching technique was perfect and always the same: throwing a straight right then, a few seconds later, throwing a left, and right afterwards, a violent punch would hit your chin, lips and nose from the bottom upward. The latter punch was powerful and unexpected (it is dubbed uppercut in professional boxing, I’m told) and sent us to the ground.

Conversely, no testimony reports fights organised between female inmates. How can we explain this? The most convincing assumption is linked to social representations. Regardless of possible sufferings, the SS did not even imagine they could enjoy watching women fighting.

The Sadistic Games: A Practice That Existed in Auschwitz but Not in Ravensbrück

The existence of sadistic games is reported in the testimonies of former deportees from Mauthausen and Auschwitz until the beginning of 1944. They had things in common with physical exertion: they involved identified areas, imposed rules, specific teams and tasks. Some won, others lost. ‘Losing’ the game only meant dying.

Through his description of Paulo, André Lacaze provides an accurate description of ‘corridas’ that were inflicted on inmates from the Loibl-Pass subcamp during the 1943 summer weekends. Invented by Kapos, this game consisted of enclosing prisoners in a specific area and starting off a kind of manhunt with their flogging whips. Any prisoner wishing to escape the beating and stepping out of the authorised area was immediately shot by a German sentry. Moshe Elie Garbarz details with precision the ‘games’ organised by the SS in Auschwitz during the summer of 1942. Those ‘games’ served a dual purpose: killing on the one hand and entertaining the so-called ‘master race’ on the other hand. The games were simple: prisoners had to run carrying earth while guards rained blows on them. The toll was obviously high.

Whether they ran fast enough or not, most of my fellow inmates died, either on the spot, or one or two weeks later.

If such practices could not be identified in Ravensbrück, this was not the case in Auschwitz. Pelagia Lewinska describes a highly dangerous collective ‘game’ that showed similarities with treatment inflicted on men:

We were ordered to stand in line, with all the guards and kapos standing in line parallel to us with their bludgeons in their hands, a few steps from one another. Along the embankment made from the earth dug out of a ditch, male prisoners holding shovels were lined up very close to each other. We were then ordered to run along the ditch while those men were to cast shovelfuls of earth into our aprons we held in front of us. We were then to run across the camp gates and empty our load of earth without stopping, along a line drawn on the ground. You’d then go back for more earth and this coming and going went on and on under the watchful eyes of Germans. All the while kapos were raining blows on us with their sticks.

Macha Ravine describes a similar scene: women compelled to run back and forth carrying earth, between rows of SS and inmates with specific responsibilities who each beat them harder than the other. Sometimes, these ‘games’ only had one single aim: a massive ‘selection’. The scene reported by Eva Tichauer, which took place early in December 1942, was nothing but a race against death. That day, after gathering together all the female inmates, the SS lined up in two long rows forming a corridor, some of them had clubs, other had canes. Then they ordered prisoners to run in the middle of this double line.

This form of selection quickly proved to be much crueller than what we had experienced until then. With their hooked sticks, the SS in the left row caught their victims by the neck and easily made them fall. The SS in the right row compelled them to stand up with their cudgels or whip, and chased them away. A rearguard in uniform was set the task of pouncing on those who could not stand up again, and drag them away from their race for life, thus condemning them to death.

All those who happened to fall were doomed. Here, the similarities with atrocities carried out in men’s camps are striking: the ‘game’ is based on the same rules and results in the same fatal outcome for numerous women.


Physical exertions were used in all concentration camps as a punishment contributing to the extermination of prisoners. Strafstehen was a first-level punishment aiming to wear prisoners out. In Ravensbrück, ‘piquer‘, a French word meaning ‘staying motionless in a standing position’, was institutionalised. Obviously, the absence of movement may seem surprising in a survey on the role of physical practices. However, it is undeniable that prolonged time in a standing position constitutes a significant physical exertion because of its duration and the conditions in which it is inflicted.

Besides this first form of exaction, Sportmachen also played an essential role in camps. Running, duck walks or frog jumps were reported almost everywhere, with the possible exception of Ravensbrück where testimonies were few and far between. Physical exertions were also imposed by SS physicians who had the power of life and death. Finally, the SS and Kapos organised games of extreme savagery whose objective was to murder the largest number of prisoners possible: races combined with beatings, ‘corridas’ and ‘punching ball’ fights.

The analysis of atrocities committed at Ravensbrück and Auschwitz against French female deportees reveals how complex it is to examine the experience of concentration camps from the sole angle of gender: the treatments imposed on Jewish women in Auschwitz and female inmates in Ravensbrück suffice to highlight great differences. If, like their female counterparts in Ravensbrück, women in Auschwitz were submitted to long and humiliating Strafstehen, they also suffered many other forms of violence. In many aspects, their time in a concentration camp was more akin to that of their male counterparts elsewhere in Poland: Sportmachen was not an uncommon practice and induced the death of many women, all the more so since the latter generally had no previous experience of physical activities. Just like men, they were submitted to selective physical exercises that included simple movements and exercises besides brief medical examinations. Like men, they had to endure the SS’s sadistic games that led a number of them to programmed death.

In Auschwitz, both men and women shared the same fate as they underwent the same atrocities, with the SS apparently not differentiating between the two populations. This observation does not mean that men and women were on an equal footing to bear and cope with the imposed physical exertions. The two groups neither had the same physical abilities nor the same body culture from the pre-war period or the same relationship to their body.

From the various testimonies, we may identify an ultimate thought process involved in all the atrocities imposed on deported people: the weaker and more sickly prisoners looked, the more beatings they received from the Nazis. Therefore, it is extremely rare to find testimonies reporting this: those who lived such a plunge into hell generally perished in death camps. Jean Mialet remembers this ultimate experience from which he escaped with his life, speaking about himself in the third person:

But his ugliness, filth, fixed stare typical of a short-sighted person deprived of their glasses and his dripping nose aroused everybody’s disgust and hatred (…) But he was so repulsive and offered such a shabby appearance with his long emaciated and ridiculous figure that they enjoyed beating him.

The very title of David P. Boder’s book, Je n’ai pas interrogé les morts (I Did Not Ask the Dead), is a conclusive proof of the tangible limit of this study.