Prisoners working to broaden the Dove-Elbe canal. Photograph by the SS, no date (NIOD 244F/17738)

Slave Labour

Concentration camp prisoners were forced to work for business ventures owned by the SS, which then profited financially from their labour. Neuengamme concentration camp was initially established as a “work camp” for the production of clinker bricks. The prisoners had to perform hard labour, beginning with building the prisoners’ barracks, the SS barracks and the new brick factory. One of the work details with the most horrible working conditions was making the Dove-Elbe navigable and digging a branch canal with a dock. After the new brick factory began operating in 1942, prisoners were increasingly sent to work in the clay pits to extract clay.

Work was characterised by violence and harassment from the guards who were always ready to beat the prisoners. The prisoners worked from morning to night, regardless of whether it was raining, hot, or cold enough to get frostbite. They were forced to work 10 to 12 hours a day, without enough food and with clothing that offered no protection from the elements.

In the second half of the war, armaments production became the main focus of work in the concentration camp. The prisoners were employed in the armaments factories of the Jastram and Messap companies, the Neuengamme metal works (Walther-Werke) and the factory of the SS-owned company Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke (DAW).

“An overgrown ditch filled with silt was turned into a waterway for large barges to pass through. The prisoners had to haul the silt from the banks or out of barges with wagons and wheelbarrows and spread it around. The SS guards, the kapos [prisoner functionaries] and the foremen with their clubs made sure that this was done at a fast pace. Those who couldn’t work anymore were beaten until they fell to the ground. […] every day when returning to camp, the prisoners carried back the sick and the dead – up to 20 or 30 of them, if the weather was bad.”

Ewald Gondzik from Poland was a prisoner in Neuengamme concentration camp from August 1940 to the end of April 1945. (Testimony from 13 November 1945, ANg)