What is it about?

We study the Holocaust survival of 30 thousand prisoners on transports from the Theresienstadt ghetto to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and show that having more potential friends on a transport, i.e., a larger number of prisoners with pre-existing social ties, increases Holocaust survival chances. Our analysis, which suggests stronger effects of social ties among women, is based on multiple types of pre-existing social networks, and leverages varying social-linkage composition of transports to the camp. Our evidence corroborates (fundamentally selective) survival testimonies of Holocaust survivors that highlight the importance of forming small 'communes' of close friends who helped each other in the constant struggle for survival.

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Why is it important?

It has been shown that social ties formed among soldiers in a war are helpful in deadly internment. Our analysis shows that even residential and administrative pre-existing social ties in a civilian population can significantly support survival in extremity. These findings imply that humans cooperate when facing extremely low survival chances, and that social linkages generated in normal social environments are transferable to the truly extreme conditions of Nazi concentration camps. Our research relies on a unique database of prisoners of the Theresienstadt ghetto, which was compiled by an association of former prisoners of the ghetto to commemorate victims and to promote research of the Holocaust. Our analysis helps to demonstrate the opportunity to improve our understanding of history that such data offer through statistical analysis. Since deportation and internment of civilians continues throughout the world today, investigating the social structure of internment camps is also relevant not only as a study of history.


The grandparents of Tomáš Jelínek, one of the co-authors on this study, were Holocaust survivors, and so Tomáš has heard depictions of the suffering in concentration camps from them and their friends his whole life. Their testimonies, as well as those captured in the Holocaust literature, suggested that bonds among prisoners were relevant for survival. At the same time, we were repeatedly confronted by other Holocaust survivors who refused this possibility and insisted that survival was a matter of pure luck. Our analysis brings evidence that human mutual support could make a difference, whenever there was at least a slight chance of survival (6% on average across the transports we study). This is why this research has a strong moral message for us.

Stepan Jurajda

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Preexisting social ties among Auschwitz prisoners support Holocaust survival, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2221654120.
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