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Muselmann (pl. Muselmänner, from the German, of Persian origin, meaning Muslim) was a derogatory 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]

The following quotation[3] appears as a footnote in If This Is a Man, Primo Levi's autobiographical account of his time in Auschwitz, and it serves as the introduction to the word in that book. "Selection", in the context of the quotation, means selection for the gas chambers, i.e., death. In If This Is a Man Levi uses two variations of the spelling; Muselmann and Musselman, as well as the plural, Muselmänner.

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".

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 Mussulman (Muslim) during prayers.[4]

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").

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.[5]

See also

Further reading

  • 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. Levi, Primo. If this is a man, Everyman's Library (2000)
  2. Muselmann definition Johannes Kepler University of Linz, official website. Insitut für Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Retrieved November 30, 2010
  3. Levi, Primo. If This Is a Man / The Truce. Abacus (1987), ISBN 0349100136, p.94.
  4. Muselmann definition (PDF) Yad Vashem, official website. Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies. Retrieved November 30, 2010
  5. Adolf Gawalewicz, Refleksje z poczekalni do gazu: ze wspomnień muzułmana, Cracow, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1968. 165 pp.