The punch-card system

Veils of smoke hung above Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Many prisoners slumped lifelessly, waiting for death.

Plainly visible at the rear of the camp, a round-topped furnace squatted in the mud. Black and elongated, it resembled a railway engine, but with two heavy kiln doors at the front. A metal stretcher used to slide emaciated corpses into the flames was always nearby. Here was the crematorium.

Belsen had originally been a transit camp. But in late 1944, as Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz were liberated by the allies, Belsen became a nightmare receiving transports from other sites.

In December a Dutch-Jewish prisoner, Rudolf Cheim, was assigned to the office of the Arbeitsdienstführer, the labour service leader, a few yards away from the crematorium, down a muddy path. Cheim was often beaten by the SS men in the labour service, but he knew that having a job meant staying alive.

He noticed that they were engaged in some sort of work involving punch cards. He unobtrusively watched them and quickly learnt their system. At first glance they seemed to be handling simple rectangular cards divided into numbered columns with holes punched in various rows. But Cheim began to understand the truth. The labour service office held the power of life or death over prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of human beings were being identified, sorted, assigned and transported by means of the card system.

Every day, transports of slave labourers were received at the camp. Prisoners were identified by cards, each with columns and punched holes detailing nationality, date of birth, marital status, number of children, reason for incarceration, physical characteristics and work skills. Sixteen categories of prisoners were listed in columns 3 and 4, depending upon the hole. Hole 3 signified homosexual, hole 9 for antisocial, hole 12 for gypsy, hole 8 for Jew. Column 34 was labelled "reason for departure". Code 2 meant transferred to another camp. Natural death was coded 3. Execution was 4. Suicide was coded 5. Code 6 designated "special handling", the term commonly understood as extermination, either in a gas chamber, by hanging or by gunshot. On arrival, each prisoner's punch card was fed into a mechanical sorter. The dials were adjusted to isolate the skills, age groups or language abilities needed for particular work battalions.

The process was monitored by Office D II of the SS economics office, which administered all the camps under General Oswald Pohl, the creator of the "Extermination by Labour" programme. The general argued that expeditiously gassing Jews deprived the Reich of an important resource; he preferred working them to death. As the trains and trucks full of prisoners rolled into Belsen from Belgium, France and Holland, thousands of punch cards were processed and the information fed back to the SS department of statistics. How many died was just a statistic to note. That December, some 20,000 prisoners were registered: 50 deaths per day, on average, were recorded on the punch cards. By spring 1945, more than 40,000 were imprisoned under indescribable conditions - starved, randomly tortured and worked to death. The monthly death toll rose to nearly 20,000 in March.

Cheim never understood where the punch card system came from, but after the war - having survived Belsen - he saw a punch card in a shop and felt the need to write a record of what he had witnessed in the camp. This ended up in a Dutch archive in Amsterdam and was quietly forgotten.

Many years later, in 1993, I went with my parents to the new Holocaust museum in Washington. There, in the very first exhibit, was a gleaming black, beige and silver machine. The label said it was an IBM Hollerith D-11 card-sorting machine.

Source : IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black, Little, Brown, 2001.

Photos : (en haut, à gauche) Une carte perforée pour IBM Hollerith D-11 ; (en bas, à droite) une machine à cartes perforées IBM Hollerith D-11.

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