Lengyel, Olga

views updated


Nationality: American (originally Romanian; immigrated to the United States after World War II). Born: Transylvania. Education: Studied medicine in Transylvania. Family: Married Miklos Lengyel (deceased); two sons (deceased). Career: Worked as a surgical assistant in Cluj, Transylvania, before World War II; founder and director of an organization in New York that educates about the Holocaust.



Souvenirs de l'au-delá. 1946; as Five Chimneys, 1947.

* * *

Olga Lengyel, a university educated medical assistant from Cluj in Transylvania, was deported in 1944. She survived Auschwitz and a death march. Her narrative, first published in English in 1947, is a frank and terrible account of the death camp.

Perhaps the most significant theme in Lengyel's memoir is the way in which the Nazis "wanted to infect us with their own Nazi morals. In most cases, they succeeded." "Perhaps," she says, "the greatest crime these 'supermen' committed against us was their campaign, often successful, to turn us into monstrous beasts ourselves." The memoir reveals moments where inmates have either refused to be degraded morally or have been degraded by the camp experience. In a way that parallels Primo Levi 's celebrated discussion of the "gray zone," Lengyel is forgiving of some behavior because of the circumstances and lays the blame solidly with the captors.

One of the reasons that her memoir has attracted attention is that, like Charlotte Delbo 's account, it offers a female perspective on the Holocaust. Scholars have discussed the particular horrors that women faced in the Holocaust: in her study Myrna Goldenberg suggests that women showed a strong concern for each other, depended on each other, and were able to adapt what she names "homemaking skills" into coping skills. She also stresses, however, the vulnerability of women, especially to rape and the fear of rape. Lengyel's account is a good example of this. In addition to these issues, Lengyel also discusses the way women acted with babies in the camp and how sex became a commodity to trade and organize in Auschwitz. She also relates the way the SS, especially Irma Griese, degraded the prisoners sexually and in other ways. To limit this testimony to a woman's view, however, would be wrong. Instead, it is clear that this woman's testimony reveals things about Auschwitz that a male testimony cannot, just as a male testimony reveals parts of the experience unavailable to woman survivors: to read Levi, for example, after reading Lengyel, is to be aware that you are reading a testimony from a male perspective. In agreement with Lawrence Langer's discussion of this issue, this is not to set up a "hierarchy of suffering" but to say, after Goldenberg, that women suffered "different horrors within the same hell."

Unlike some memoirs published soon after the war, Lengyel's has no political ax to wield: she writes that she is "neither a political scientist nor an economist. I am a woman who suffered, lost her husband, parents, children and friends. I know the world must share the guilt collectively." Because of the few who resisted and did not become beasts, she writes that she has "not entirely lost her faith in mankind." Her memoir, however, is candid, bleak, and unsparing. Albert Einstein wrote to Lengyel to commend her: "Thank you for your very frank, very well written book. You have done a real service by letting the ones who are now silent and most forgotten speak."

—Robert Eaglestone

See the essay on Five Chimneys.