The prisoner functionaries system
The SS employed so-called “Funktionshäftlinge” or prisoner functionaries to implement and enforce their power over the camp’s population. Such individuals, employed in the administration and as overseers, were accountable to their superiors within the prisoner functionaries hierarchy as well as to a corresponding agency within the SS administration.
Each of the three Gusen camps, as well as the separate Soviet POW camp, had its own organisation. The prisoner hierarchy was headed by a camp elder (“Lagerältester”) subordinate to him were the block elders (“Blockältester”), room elders (“Stubenältester”), and barracks men (“Stubendienst”).
The camp scribe and his subordinate block scribes were accountable to the SS “Rapportführer”. They maintained the prisoner records, prepared the daily roll calls, and documented the inmate movements within their respective area of responsibility.
So-called chief- and subordinate “Kapos” oversaw the various prisoner work columns and were accountable to the Płaszów “Arbeitskommandoführer”, the head of the labour command.
At Gusen the higher ranks were usually filled with German BV prisoners. Over time, lower positions, such as block scribe, barracks men, or kapo of certain work details, were also assigned to other nationalities, in particular Polish, Spanish, and Soviet inmates.
The prisoner functionaries were caught between the fronts: on the one hand, their position significantly increased their chances of survival. On the other hand, this often exposed them to the hatred of the majority of less privileged inmates. They had to a large extent influence over the everyday living conditions of the general population of prisoners. They faced the choice of either using their position to protect their fellow inmates or abusing it for their own self-interest and for the benefit of their favourites.
Generally speaking, the reports of survivors do not present many of Gusen’s prisoner functionaries in a very favourable light. Out of a succession of five camp elders at Gusen I only one, Karl Rohrbacher, is reported to have acted in favour of his fellow inmates. Some of the others, such as the first camp elder of Gusen I, Hans Kammerer, or the camp elder of Gusen II, Hans van Loosen, were personally involved in the mass murders of prisoners.
In the period between the withdrawal of the SS forces and the installation of the US military administration, many of the former prisoners in the liberated camp saw the opportunity to settle their score with the prisoner functionaries. On the 5th and 6th May the desire for revenge exploded in the killing of many of the prisoner functionaries by an enraged mob – though not all of its victims were actually guilty of crimes against their fellow inmates.