World War Two: Standing Cells by JJ Toner

Posted by on Feb 10, 2014 in Historical Tidbits, World War Two | Comments Off on World War Two: Standing Cells by JJ Toner

auschwitz2History has some pretty chilling records of uncomfortable conditions used to house prisoners and special punishments for breaches of prison rules. Isolation, or so called “solitary confinement,” was a standard punishment procedure, and is still used even today. Many prisoners have acknowledged the profound effect of this singular punishment on the mind. Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe is a classic examination of the perils of isolation, as is the film Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks.

No man is an island, as the saying goes, but many philosophers down the ages have noted the essential fact that each of us lives his/her mental life in isolation. At the level of the conscious mind each of us is very much an island.

Locating prisons on islands has obvious security advantages, but is also a subtle extension of the idea of isolation. There are and have been many island prisons over the years: Alcatraz, Riker and McNeill in the US, the Chateau d’If, where Alexandre Dumas’ hero, the Count of Monte Christo was imprisoned. Devil’s Island, originally a leper colony, held another miserable prison administered by the French from 1852 to 1953. The film Papillon was set there. We’re No Angels, that wonderful 1955 comedy, starring Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov, was set there too. Robben Island is another island prison made famous by its most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela. And of course we mustn’t forget the largest island prison of them all – Australia.

We’ve all heard of the miserable conditions endured by those incarcerated in Newgate prison and the Tower of London. And many a medieval castle incorporated an oubliette where unwelcome visitors could be left to rot. Going back to ancient Rome, we had the notorious carcer, as described here by Martha Marks.

But, of course the Nazis were unmatched when it came to cruel punishments. Apart from the concentration camps, where living conditions were almost unimaginably horrific, they built “standing cells”. These isolation cells were so small that the occupant could not sit and had to spend long periods (usually 24-48 hours) in a standing position. In absolute isolation and complete darkness, and without the benefit of food, water or toilet breaks, it’s not difficult to imagine what hell these prisoners must have suffered.

I discovered these standing cells while doing research for The Wings of the Eagle, the sequel to my first WW2 spy story, The Black Orchestra. In a pivotal scene in The Wings of the Eagle, our hero spends some time in one of these cells, coming close to losing his mind.

JJ Toner, February 10, 2014