Muselmann in Nazi Concentration Camps

Male prisoners at Auschwitz.

Photo from Yad Vashem, courtesy the USHMM Photo Archive

During the Holocaust, "Muselmann," sometimes called “Moslem,” was a slang term that referred to a prisoner or kapo in a Nazi concentration camp that was in poor physical condition and had given up the will to live. A Muselmann was seen as the “walking dead” or a “wandering corpse” whose remaining time on Earth was very short. 

How a Prisoner Became a Muselmann

It was not difficult for concentration camp prisoners to slip into this condition. Rations in even the harshest labor camps were very limited and clothing did not adequately protect prisoners from the elements.

These poor conditions plus long hours of forced labor caused prisoners to burn essential calories just to regulate body temperature. Weight loss occurred rapidly and the metabolic systems of many prisoners were not strong enough to sustain a body on such limited caloric intake. 

Additionally, daily humiliations and torture transformed even the banalest tasks into difficult chores. Shaving had to be done with a piece of glass. Shoelaces broke and were not replaced. A lack of toilet paper, no winter clothes to wear in the snow, and no water to clean oneself were just a few of the everyday hygiene problems suffered by camp inmates.

Just as important as these harsh conditions was the lack of hope. Concentration camp prisoners had no idea how long their ordeal would last. Since each day felt like a week, the years felt like decades. For many, the lack of hope destroyed their will to live.

It was when a prisoner was ill, starving, and without hope that they would fall into the Muselmann state. This condition was both physical and psychological, making a Muselmann lose all desire to live. Survivors speak of a strong desire to avoid slipping into this category, as chances of survival once one reached that point were almost non-existent. 

Once one became a Muselmann, one simply died shortly thereafter. Sometimes they died during the daily routine or the prisoner might be placed in the camp hospital to silently expire.

Since a Muselmann was lethargic and could no longer work, the Nazis found them unuseful. Thus, especially at some of the larger camps, a Muselmann would be chosen during a Selektion to be gassed, even if gassing was not part of the primary purpose of the camp establishment.

Where the Muselmann Term Came From

The term “Muselmann” is a frequently occurring word in Holocaust testimony, but it is one whose origins are highly unclear. The German and Yiddish translations of the term “Muselmann” corresponds with the term “Muslim.” Several pieces of survivor literature, including that of Primo Levi, also relay this translation. 

The word is also commonly misspelled as Musselman, Musselmann, or Muselman. Some believe that the term originated from the crouched, almost prayer-like stance that individuals in this condition took on; thus bringing forth the image of a Muslim in prayer. 

The term spread throughout the Nazi camp system and is found in survivor reflections of experiences in a large number of camps throughout occupied Europe.

Although the use of the term was widespread, the largest numbers of known recollections that use the term include a stop in Auschwitz. Since the Auschwitz complex often acted as a clearinghouse for laborers to other camps, it is not unthinkable that it the term originated there. 

A Muselmann Song

Muselmänner (the plural of “Muselmann”) were prisoners that were both pitied and avoided. In the dark humor of the camps, some prisoners even parodied them.

For instance, in Sachsenhausen, the term inspired a song among Polish inmates, with credit for the composition going to a political prisoner named Aleksander Kulisiewicz. 

Kulisiewicz is said to have created the song (and a subsequent dance) after his own experience with a Muselmann in his barracks in July 1940. In 1943, finding a further audience in newly-arrived Italian prisoners, he added additional lyrics and gestures.

In the song, Kulisiewicz sings about the horrible conditions within the camp. All of this takes its toll on a prisoner, singing, “I’m so light, so slight, so empty-headed…” Then the prisoner loses his grip on reality, contrasting a strange giddiness with his poor state of health, singing, “Yippee! Yahoo! Look, I’m dancing! / I’m retching warm blood.” The song ends with the Muselmann singing, “Mama, my mama, let me gently die.”

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Goss, Jennifer L. "Muselmann in Nazi Concentration Camps." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Goss, Jennifer L. (2020, August 26). Muselmann in Nazi Concentration Camps. Retrieved from Goss, Jennifer L. "Muselmann in Nazi Concentration Camps." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 22, 2021).