The ‘Visible’ and the ‘Invisible’ Jews

A Comparative View on the Treatment of Palestinian Prisoners of War, Jewish Penitentiary Prisoners, and Inmates of the Forced Labour Camp for Jews/Auschwitz Sub-Camp in Blechhammer, 1941–1945

  • Susanne Barth
Keywords: Nazi camp system, Jewish inmates, Blechhammer, POWs, invisibility, survival


This paper highlights two groups of Jews, Palestinian prisoners of war and Jewish penitentiary prisoners, who remained largely ‘invisible’ within the Nazi camp system as, unlike Jewish camp inmates, they were not visibly marked by the yellow star and German authorities kept their Jewish identities secret. In the industrial camp complex of Blechhammer in Upper Silesia, Palestinian POWs, Jewish penitentiary prisoners and inmates of the forced labour camp for Jews coexisted for over a year, while three different sets of legal frameworks determined their status and respective treatment: the Geneva Conventions, the Prison Regulations for Poles and Jews and Nazi anti-Jewish legislation. Compared to the ‘visible’ inmates, the two ‘invisible’ groups had significantly higher survival rates, partly the result of their (temporary) protection from the regime’s annihilationist policy. While the workforce of all three was exhaustively exploited and food was limited, POWs and penitentiary prisoners received better medical attention and, most importantly, did not fall victim to selections for the Auschwitz death camp. However, it also became evident that their ‘invisibility’, the fact that they could not be distinguished from non-Jews, contributed to their survival.