Five Chimneys (Souvenirs De L'au-Delá)

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FIVE CHIMNEYS (Souvenirs de l'au-delá)

Memoir by Olga Lengyel, 1946

Olga Lengyel's memoir Five Chimneys tells the story of her survival in Auschwitz and on the frantic death march after the camp was abandoned. Written just after the war and published in English in 1947, this account spares nothing. It is on a par with the best Holocaust narratives.

Lengyel's harrowing narrative begins with her charge against herself that she was "in part responsible for the destruction of my own parents and of my two sons." She was a surgical assistant (to her husband) in Cluj in Transylvania (Klausenburg in German, also known as Kolozsvar). In 1944 she and her family were deported to Auschwitz. A trained medical assistant, she was ordered to work in the infirmary. There she is contacted by the underground and volunteers to act spreading news as a "post office," passing on messages and parcels and observing events: her contact says to her, "We must observe everything that goes on here. When the war is over the world must know about this. It must know the truth." Her role in the underground gives her fresh reason to live, and she makes detailed observations about the camp.

As with many accounts of Auschwitz, after the initial arrival the strict chronology breaks down and the account describes key incidents that highlight life in Auschwitz. These are discussed in other accounts: for example, the liquidation of the Czech camp and their failed rebellion (discussed in Rudolf Vrba 's memoir), the escape and recapture of Maya the translator, and the rebellion by the Sonderkommando. Aspects of camp life—organization and the multitude of languages, for example—are discussed. The book also describes, at some length, Irma Griese, the Angel of Auschwitz (who "inspired in me the most violent hatred I ever experienced") and Dr. Josef Mengele (she writes that one "could have called him handsome were it not for the expression of cruelty in his features").

Lengyel also discusses more intimate parts of camp life, inaccessible to some other inmates. For example, she has a chapter that explains how the infirmary staff would kill newborn babies. The Germans would send newborn and their mothers to the gas chambers, so, in order to save the mothers, the staff—after long debate—would kill the babies and say that they were stillborn. "Without our intervention they would have endured worse sufferings, for they would have been thrown into the crematory ovens while still alive. Yet I try in vain to make my conscience acquit me. I still see the infants issuing from their mothers. I can still feel their warm little bodies as I held them. I marvel to what depths these Germans made us descend!" She also discusses sex: the lesbian activity in the camp, the odd, broken love affairs, the bestialities of the SS, the inmates who preyed on the starving women who sold their bodies for food. Like Primo Levi , however, she is aware of the "gray zone": it "would be heartless to condemn the women who had to sink so low for half a crust of bread. The responsibility for the degradation of the internees rested with the camp administration."

The book is bleak and unsparing ("At Birkenau rats were feeding on the children of Europe"), full of detail and information, told in a clear, unaffected style. Lengyel declares finally that those who were not degraded morally by the Nazis means that "there is hope indeed. It is that hope which keeps me alive."

—Robert Eaglestone

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Five Chimneys (Souvenirs De L'au-Delá)

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