Daily life was characterised by arbitrary punishments, violence and submission. Prisoners struggled not to give up in their ongoing fight for survival. The smallest violation of a guard’s orders could be punished severely. Provisions were so grossly insufficient that many prisoners died within a few months. The food was of very poor quality and often inedible. Hunger was all prisoners could think about, and it determined their behaviour throughout the entire day. Many prisoners tried to acquire food illegally, while others managed only to survive because they received food packages from their relatives or from the Red Cross.
Prisoners’ clothing initially consisted of blue-and-white striped uniforms made of low-quality material. Shoes were primitive constructions mainly consisting of wooden soles with pieces of fabric or leather. Each prisoner’s number and a coloured triangle indicating the reason for their imprisonment was sewn to their jacket and trousers. In 1943, civilian clothing, some of which came from the extermination camps, began to be handed out to the prisoners. These items of clothing were marked on the back with strips of sewn fabric or large Xs in yellow paint to identify the wearers as prisoners, in case they escaped.
In the beginning, the prisoners slept on the floor in crowded wooden barracks, each consisting of two blocks. In 1941, three-tier bunk beds, lockers, tables and benches were installed in the blocks. More than 300, and sometimes even as many as 600 prisoners were usually crammed together in each of these blocks, which were 50 metres long and 8 metres wide. In 1943 and 1944, two brick buildings with four blocks for housing 500 to 700 prisoners each were erected. From 1944 to the end of the war, bunks were shared by two, and even three prisoners as a rule. This overcrowded situation made it impossible to get a good night’s rest. The sleeping quarters also smelled of sweat and faeces, because sanitary facilities were limited and many prisoners suffered from gastrointestinal disorders. There was no privacy. Stronger prisoners often managed to get the best places to sleep.
“Another reason for the many deaths was the poor sanitation, especially because they used all kinds of rusty bowls for serving food, like washing bowls and such, and these could only be washed in cold water and were used by many different prisoners.”
Børge Steen Andersen from Denmark was imprisoned in Neuengamme concentration camp from October 1944 to the end of the war. (Testimony from 1987, ANg)