Nyiszli, Miklos

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Nationality: Romanian. Born: 1901. Education: University of Breslau, Germany. Family: Married (died); one daughter (deceased). Career: Physician, Oradea-Naeyvaad; prisoner and physician, Auschwitz, 1944-45. Died: 1956.



Dr. Mengele boncolóorvosa voltam az auschwitzi krematóriumban. 1947; as Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. 1960.

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Romanian physician Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz prisoner A 8450, completed his memoir of Auschwitz soon after the war. Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, the only work he published about his experiences, provides extraordinary insight into daily life within the deepest circle of hell, the gas chambers and crematoriums of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Upon his arrival in Auschwitz in May 1944, Nyiszli responded to the Nazi call for physicians who were trained in Germany and skilled in forensic pathology. Forced to prove his credentials, Nyiszli succeeded in pleasing his Nazi boss, Josef Mengele, an accomplishment that allowed him to live under far better conditions than most prisoners but that tried him in different ways. Nyiszli's memoir is an objective account of months spent laboring in the service of Mengele, as well as caring for the Sonderkommando workers of the crematoriums.

Nyiszli's dispassionate descriptions only serve to amplify the horror. In one heart-wrenching episode Nyiszli tells how he lied to a father and son as he examined them, comforting them rather than telling them that they would soon be sent to the gas chamber. The next time he sees them they are dead, and he must cook their bodies so that their skeletons can be sent as research specimens to Berlin.

A less expert physician might not have met the demands that Mengele put upon him, but Nyiszli had been exceptionally well trained, including a period of study at the German University of Breslau. His professional credentials, his ability to perform what was required of him, and his knowledge of German, sometimes exceeding in fluency that of his captors, seems to have earned their grudging respect, or so Nyiszli convinced himself. It is on this point that Bruno Bettelheim challenged Nyiszli in the preface to the 1960 edition of his book, suggesting that he chose preservation of life over preservation of his soul, fooling himself into believing he was still a physician when he was merely a tool in the hands of the criminal doctors of Auschwitz.

Yet, within the limited means available to him, Nyiszli tried to do what he could, first to save his own wife and daughter, then to help other inmates. His access to a pharmacy that equaled the "best stocked drugstore in Berlin" enabled him to give medicines and vitamins to needy prisoners. The tasks he performed seared his soul, and he sought refuge each night in sleeping pills. He was haunted by his choices, such as his refusal to give poison to Sonderkommando members who wished to commit suicide.

Nyiszli's book is especially important for its description of the revolt by the 12th Sonderkommando. Most of the men died, and only Nyiszli and his medical colleagues were spared. But the men succeeded in destroying one crematorium and damaging another, halting at least briefly the assembly line of death.

In January 1945 Nyiszli was sent to Mauthausen, then to Melk on the Danube, and finally to Ebensee, where he was liberated on 5 May 1945. Some weeks later he was reunited with his wife and daughter who had survived Bergen-Belsen. Nyiszli's knowledge of the inner workings of the Birkenau factory of death made him a crucial witness in the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, at which he testified in October 1947.

In the closing words of his memoir, Nyiszli vowed that he would never hold a scalpel again. It was the Nazis who forced him to turn an instrument of healing into a tool of death.

—Marilyn J. Harran

See the essay on Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account.