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Prisoners were confronted with death every day—they saw their dead and dying fellow prisoners, and they were in constant mortal danger themselves. The pungent smoke from the crematorium also constantly reminded them that violent death was a part of everyday life at the concentration camp. Prisoners were clubbed to death, drowned, hung, shot, killed with poison gas or sadistically tortured to death. Prisoners also starved or perished because of the insufficient clothing and housing they received or because of the terrible hygienic conditions to which they were subjected. They died from lack of medical aid or medication and from exhaustion brought on by overwork and constant maltreatment and harassment. Many lost the will to live and chose to kill themselves by crossing the guard cordon or by touching the electrically charged fence that surrounded the camp.

In the spring of 1942, a group of doctors visited Neuengamme concentration camp and selected prisoners “unfit for work”, Jewish prisoners and other prisoners to be killed with poison gas at the “euthanasia” murder facility in Bernburg/Saale. In 1942, the SS introduced executions as a punishment at the camp. These executions were often carried out in front of the prisoners on the parade ground. In the spring of 1943, a large number of prisoners in "preventive detention" who had been transferred to the camp by the judiciary were driven over the cordon by the SS and shot.

Neuengamme concentration camp served as a central facility for the execution of police prisoners. In August/September 1943, prisoners of the judiciary were also executed here. They were either shot near the sewage plant or hung at the detention bunker. Soviet POWs who had been selected at Wehrmacht POW camps following the “commissar order” (the Wehrmacht’s guidelines for the treatment of Soviet political commissars) were also killed in Neuengamme. In the autumn of 1942, 448 of them were gassed with Zyklon B in two concerted murder campaigns.

The arithmetic of death

The names of around 20,400 people who died in Neuengamme concentration camp and its satellite camps (including executed prisoners of the Gestapo and the judiciary) prior to the evacuation of the main camp in late March 1945 are currently known. The total number of prisoners killed by the end of March 1945 is estimated at around 26,800. At least 16,100 prisoners died during the evacuation marches and transports to the reception camps (not counting those who were evacuated to Bergen-Belsen) and in the bombing of the prisoner ships in Lübeck Bay. This adds up to a verifiable number of at least 42,900 people, including executed prisoners of the Gestapo and judiciary, who lost their lives as prisoners of Neuengamme concentration camp. The thousands of Neuengamme prisoners who died after having been transferred to other camps, often in a severely weakened state, and the prisoners who died after their liberation as a result of their imprisonment must also be taken into account. Over half of the around 100,000 prisoners of Neuengamme concentration camp did not survive their persecution by the National Socialists.

Detention bunker at Neuengamme concentration camp. (ANg)
Death at the Electric Fence. Drawing by V. Peltrov, a former Soviet prisoner. (ANg)
Crematorium ovens in May 1945. (NIOD)
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