Auschwitz: a Doctor's Eyewitness Account (Dr. Mengele Boncolóorvosa Voltam Az Auschwitzi Krematóriumban)

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AUSCHWITZ: A DOCTOR'S EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT (Dr. Mengele boncolóorvosa voltam az auschwitzi krematóriumban)

Memoir by Miklos Nyiszli, 1947

Miklos Nyiszli wrote only one book about the Holocaust, but that book, based on his experiences in Auschwitz, opens a door into the nethermost regions of the Auschwitz death camp. Few people survived to tell of life in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the special group assigned to transport the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoriums, stoke the fires, and turn the bodies into ash. To save his life, Nyiszli became the chief physician of the Auschwitz crematoria and the personal research pathologist of Dr. Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death."

Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, published in English translation in 1960, is composed of 38 brief chapters and an epilogue. The chapters, organized chronologically, begin in May 1944, following the Nazi invasion of Hungary.

Nyiszli's descent into the abyss begins with a four-day journey, accompanied by his wife and daughter, in a sealed cattle car from their Hungarian home to the concentration and death camp of Auschwitz, in Poland. Immediately upon arrival, on 29 May 1944, he is separated from his family and thrust into a life and death decision. He obeys the command for all physicians to step forward. He then must decide if he will respond to Mengele's call for specialists trained in German universities and skilled in forensic medicine. Nyiszli chooses to do so, hoping that his decision will save his life and perhaps protect his wife and daughter.

His expertise is tested immediately in a macabre examination. Mengele and other senior SS officers sit in attendance while Nyiszli performs two autopsies. He passes the test and becomes Mengele's personal research pathologist, with additional duties as the physician to the 860 members of the Sonderkommando who routinely at four-month intervals are sent to their deaths.

Nyiszli tells his story in straightforward, objective language. At times his tone is eerily dispassionate. In a foreword to the 1960 edition of the book, Bruno Bettelheim criticizes Nyiszli for deluding himself into thinking that he was still functioning as a physician. There are instances that lend support to Bettelheim's judgment. Nyiszli reports that on one occasion he held forth with Mengele as if he were a colleague at a medical conference, engaging him so totally that Mengele offered him a cigarette. It is a measure of Nazi evil that Nyiszli could speak of such an offer with seeming pride.

Along with Filip Müller 's book, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, Nyiszli's memoir tells of life in the innermost circle of hell. He recounts moments of almost unbelievable inhumanity, as in the story of a 16-year-old girl who survives the gas chamber and is nursed back to life by the Sonderkommando, only to be shot by the SS. Toward the end of his Auschwitz imprisonment, he sees the horribly scarred bodies of the 13th Sonderkommando, burned to death by flamethrowers.

With adequate food and housing, even alcohol and drugs, the men of the Sonderkommando earn a privileged life with their gruesome labor, but they work with a death sentence hanging over them. Only the men of the 12th Sonderkommando choose to rebel against this sentence. Nyiszli offers a firsthand account of their revolt, in which nearly all die, but not without first killing 70 SS members, destroying one crematorium, and damaging another. Nyiszli and a few of his coworkers are spared a sentence of death only because they are still useful to Mengele.

Nyiszli was confronted daily by cruel ethical dilemmas, set in a world in which canisters of Zyklon-B gas are delivered in Red Cross vans. Soon after his arrival, Nyiszli saves an inmate from dying from an overdose of sleeping pills. Later he questions whether his decision was humane. He refuses to give poison to Sonderkommando members but regrets that decision when he learns they died a horrible death. Whenever possible, he steals medicine, vitamins, and bandages to give to inmates. His privileged position enables him to help his wife and daughter, supplying them with food and medicine and even arranging for them to be assigned to a labor camp in Germany, although they are ultimately sent to Bergen-Belsen.

Nyiszli's book leaves one with much to ponder. It offers a glimpse into another part of the universe of Nazi evil, disguised as the pursuit of science. It is a world in which to save his life a doctor cooperates in the worst abuses of medicine.

—Marilyn J. Harran

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Auschwitz: a Doctor's Eyewitness Account (Dr. Mengele Boncolóorvosa Voltam Az Auschwitzi Krematóriumban)

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