Standing still in a standing cell

Cells at Auschwitz concentration camp’s notorious Block 11.
Hatch to a standing cell is seen at the end of the corridor. Source: Wikipedia

Around two o’ clock in the morning the key rattles in the lock of the first cell door at the other end of the corridor. We’re all awake at once. The unlocked foot-shackle makes a metallic clink on the floor. The prisoner from cell number one takes the first few steps into the Bunker courtyard. A shot rings out. A life is extinguished.” – Walter Buzengeiger

A standing cell is essentially exactly that, a cell that is so small that it only allows its occupant enough room to stand and nothing else. A standing cell or ‘stehbunker’ as the Nazi’s called them or a ‘kisha’ to the Soviet’s as Josef Stalin also implemented their use, was used as a torture method to reprimand prisoners. Standing cells are a historical punishment but it wasn’t until the Nazi’s adopted them for the concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz that we really became aware of their use as many prisoners that survived them gave evidence of their experience in the cells at trials such as the American Military Tribunal. We have documented sworn oaths by Auschwitz and Dachau Prisoners Of War, which give us a first-hand account of what life was like in a stehbunker, as well as the exact sizes of the cells and how you entered and exited the device. It is possible to visit both Auschwitz and Dachau and witness for yourself the sheer depravity of these ‘cells’; on first seeing them it is without question the size of them that is most difficult to comprehend. The length of stay in confinement varied in the cells. It was left to the Nazi Commander’s discretion, as well as what indiscretion the prisoner had committed. Some POW were placed in a stehbunker for asking for a second portion of food, others for picking an apple from a tree without permission. There are document cases from at minimum three days in confinement to a six-week duration.

The number of prisoners in Dachau concentration camp increased dramatically in the last years of the Second World War. The concentration camp was overcrowded. In late 1944, the camp command erected standing cells. There was a small hatch on top for air, and a narrow door with an iron bar bolted to the cell. The intensified punitive measure saved room and reinforced the punitive agony. There were two separate types of standing cell. The cell favoured at Dachau was the singular cell that housed one prisoner. The size of this cell measures in at 29.5 x 31.5 inches, which is almost the exact dimensions of a chimney chute. Max Hoffmann a POW in Dachau spent days in the standing cell. Hoffmann described his experience as such:

“It was a terrible state, as I thought that it was over for me, everything was so callous and distant for me. I couldn’t lie down, couldn’t crouch, the best was to stand, stand, six days and six nights long…You touch the walls on both sides with your elbows, your back touches the wall behind you, your knees the wall in front of you…This is no punishment or pre-trial detention – it is torture, straight forward, Middle Ages torture. I had bloodshot eyes, numb from bad air, I was just waiting for the end.”

At Dachau the entrance to the cells was by way of crawling. The door to the cell was generally 2ft squared and made of timber. Behind the door were metal bars. The prisoner had to get on his/her hands and knees and crawl into the stehbunker and the stand up. Once standing there was literally no room to manoeuvre. The prisoners back would touch the wall. Their knees would touch the wall on front of them and their elbows would touch the walls to their left and right. They would then be kept in this position usually for 72hrs. Within the 72-hour period the POW would have to sleep standing up if they slept and, if they were fed, they were given a ration of simple bread and water.

The standing cells also doubled up as starvation cells. Depending on the ‘crime’ of the POW or, at the discretion of the Nazi officer in charge, many prisoners that were sent into a stehbunker never came out alive. They would be left without food or water and allowed to die from dehydration or starve whilst standing up for however long it took. Other prisoners were placed on a shift pattern in the stehbunker meaning they would be put in the cell at night to sleep and woken up, if they had slept, every morning to do a 10-hour work day. It was a way for the Nazi’s to prolong the torture of the POW and serve as a deterrent to other prisoners in the concentration camp to keep them in line and bring down cases of disobedience.

Some other prisoners were put on a continuous loop of 72-hour stays in the cell. POW’s such as Johannes Neuhäusler Johannes, an inmate in the standing cell, received a single piece of bread in three days. On the fourth day, the prisoner was removed from the standing cell, given a normal camp meal ration and allowed to sleep on a wooden cot. On the next day, the three-day confinement in the standing cell began anew. In other cases, they prisoner would be kept in the cell for stays of up to six weeks being fed sporadically throughout this time and only ever enough to keep them alive again to prolong their suffering.

At Auschwitz they preferred to use a one-yard square cell; in this they would house four prisoners. Block 11 was the name of a brick building in Auschwitz, the Stammlager or main camp of the Auschwitz concentration camp network. Block 11 is one of the most infamous buildings in the entirety of the Nazi regime. The block was used for executions and torture. Between the tenth and eleventh block stood the death wall where thousands of prisoners were lined up for execution by firing squad. Block 11 contained special torture chambers in which various punishments were applied to prisoners. Some could include being locked in a dark chamber for several days or being forced to stand in one of four standing cells. Punishment in these special compartments (one square metre each, with a hole 5 x 5cm for ventilation), consisted of confining four prisoners, who were forced by the lack of space to remain standing all night for up to twenty nights, while still being forced to work during the day. It was at Block 11 that the first attempts to kill people with Zyklon B were implemented in September 1941. Zyklon B was the gas used in the gas chambers throughout the period of attempted extermination of the Jews at the Nazi concentration camps.

The standing cells/starvation cells are not a very commonly talked about part of Nazi Germany but they were very much a common occurrence in World War Two and played a large role in attempt by the Nazi’s to denigrate and break the will of their detainees. Obviously given the depths of depravity that occurred on the grounds of Auschwitz and Dachau it is sometimes hard to be shocked at what the Nazi regime was capable of but if you sit back and really take into the account the actual measurements of these stehbunker cells and the length of time people were forced to stay confined in them, it quickly becomes apparent that the stehbunker truly is one of the more inhumane and cruel elements of the Third Reich.

Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

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