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Not to be confused with Mussulman.

Muselmann (pl. Muselmänner, the German version of Musulman, meaning Muslim) was a slang term used among captives of World War II Nazi concentration camps to refer to those suffering from a combination of starvation (known also as "hunger disease") and exhaustion and who were resigned to their impending death.[1] The Muselmann prisoners exhibited severe emaciation and physical weakness, an apathetic listlessness regarding their own fate, and unresponsiveness to their surroundings.[2]

Some scholars argue that the term possibly comes from the Muselmann's inability to stand for any time due to the loss of leg muscle, thus spending much of the time in a prone position, recalling the position of the Musulman (Muslim) during prayers.[3]

Usage of the term in literature[edit]

Primo Levi tried to explain the term (he also uses Musselman), in a footnote of If This Is a Man, his autobiographical account of his time in Auschwitz:[1]

This word ‘Muselmann’, I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection.

— Primo Levi, If This Is a Man, chapter: "The Drowned and the Saved".

The psychologist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, in his book Man's Search for Meaning, provides the example of a prisoner who decides to use up his last cigarettes (used as currency in the concentration camps) in the evening because he is convinced he won't survive the Appell (roll call assembly) the next morning; his fellow captives derided him as a Muselmann. Frankl compares this to the dehumanized behavior and attitudes of the kapos.

The testimonial of the Polish witness, Adolf Gawalewicz, Refleksje z poczekalni do gazu: ze wspomnień muzułmana ("Reflec­tions in the Gas Chamber's Waiting Room: From the Memoirs of a Muselmann"), published in 1968, incorporates the term in the title of the work.[4]

Origin and alternative slang terms[edit]

Buchenwald inmates, 16 April 1945 when camp was liberated

The term spread from Auschwitz-Birkenau to other concentration camps. Its equivalent in the Majdanek concentration camp was Gamel (derived from German gammeln - colloquial for "rotting") and in the Stutthof concentration camp, Krypel (derived from German Krüppel, "cripple"). When prisoners reached this emaciated condition, they were selected by camp doctors and murdered by gas, bullet or various other methods.

Action 14f13[edit]

The gas chamber at Bernburg Euthanasia Centre, designed by Erwin Lambert

The first victims were gassed by carbon monoxide poisoning in the Action 14f13. The first known selection took place in April 1941 at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. By summer, at least 400 prisoners from Sachsenhausen were "retired". During the same period, 450 prisoners from Buchenwald and 575 prisoners from Auschwitz were gassed at the Nazi Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centre. 1,000 prisoners from Mauthausen concentration camp were killed at Hartheim Castle. Between September and November 1941, 3,000 prisoners from Dachau, as well as several thousand from Mauthausen and neighboring Gusen concentration camp, were gassed at Hartheim Castle. Prisoners from Flossenbürg, Neuengamme and Ravensbrück concentration camps were also selected and killed. In the ensuing period, another 1,000 prisoners from Buchenwald, 850 from Ravensbrück and 214 from Groß-Rosen concentration camps were gassed at Sonnenstein Castle and Bernburg. In March–April 1942, some 1,600 women were selected at Ravensbrück and gassed at Bernburg. The scheme operated under the Concentration Camps Inspector and the Reichsführer-SS under the name "Sonderbehandlung 14f13". The combination of numbers and letters was derived from the SS record-keeping system and consists of the number "14" for the Concentration Camps Inspector, the letter "f" for the German word "deaths" (Todesfälle) and the number "13" for the means of killing, in this case, for gassing in the T4 killing centers. Natural deaths were recorded with the code number "14f1", suicide or death by accident with "14f2", "14f3" meant shot while trying to escape. The execution of Soviet prisoners of war in concentration camps were recorded as "14f14" and the forced sterilization of prisoners was recorded as "14h7".

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Israel Gutman, Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan (1990), vol. 3. p. 677 (Hebrew)
  • Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1999), pp. 25, 199-205.
  • Giorgio Agamben, The Witness and the Archive, book.


  1. ^ a b Levi, Primo. If This Is a Man / The Truce. Abacus (1987), ISBN 0349100136, p.94.
  2. ^ Muselmann definition Johannes Kepler University of Linz, official website. Insitut für Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Retrieved November 30, 2010
  3. ^ Muselmann definition (PDF) Yad Vashem, official website. Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies. Retrieved November 30, 2010
  4. ^ Adolf Gawalewicz, Refleksje z poczekalni do gazu: ze wspomnień muzułmana, Cracow, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1968. 165 pp.