Zofia Pawłowska prisoner nurse at the Majdanek concentration camp (KL Lublin) from February to 10 August 1943, author of Na krawędzi (At the edge), a book of memoirs published in 1946 containing detailed records of the functioning of the camp hospital and the work of prisoner doctors.
Excerpts from memoirs Na krawędzi (At the edge, 1946; Polish edition only).
The third barrack on the right, counting from the main gate, would have looked just like the rest of the buildings if it had not been for the Red Cross sign on the front. The hospital, dubbed rewir1 in the camp jargon, was a little paradise for many weak, emaciated women prisoners, a safe haven for those of them who fell ill.2
Every morning, following the roll call, a queue formed along the barrack wall as nurses from the medical unit were bringing in more and more sick women. Those who ran a temperature of 39oC [102.2oF] or more could be admitted, others were sent back to their living quarters, and consequently had to report at roll calls and continue working, pretending to be fine. It was up to the good will or civil courage of the block functionary to give her tacit consent to the sick prisoner having a period of respite from work, which she spent hidden away from the prying eyes of the SS Aufseherin.3
Internees could always rely on the compassion of Dr Perzanowska,4 the hospital supervisor, who wanted to help as many of the afflicted as possible. Many prisoners were grateful to her for circumventing the regulations and taking them in, because they recuperated sooner and avoided more serious complications. Obviously Dr Perzanowska, who was a prisoner herself, was accountable to German physicians, Dr Rindfleisch5 and Oberarzt Blancke.6 Yet her determination and fellow feeling prevailed.
Alerted by her co-workers, who said, “Careful! Rindfleisch!” or “Blancke’s coming,” she would instantly give the right orders and cast meaningful glances at her team of doctors and nurses. The admission room immediately started to function by the rule book, as the hospital routine was meant to attract no attention from the German inspectors. Dr Perzanowska rushed out still in her medical coat, stood at attention at the entrance, and recited her report. Her mouth pronounced German words, but at the same time several questions flashed across her mind: “Did Malinka7 manage to position the oldest prisoners on the bunks and cover them up in an orderly manner so that Blancke should not come up with the idea of deadly phenol injections and the crematorium? Did Danusia8 hide the medication that was to be illicitly handed over to the men’s section? Is the entrance hall clean enough?”
She would bravely look the German straight in the eye, her arms by her side according to the book of rules. We had the impression that Oberarzt Blancke was wheedled by such discipline, and as he found the hospital in order, it must have been due to his own efforts, of course. Luckily, he was unable to read the minds of Dr Perzanowska and her personnel, and so he knew nothing about their many secrets.
He just “did his rounds,” which was a dreadful ordeal, stretching the nerves of the doctors, nurses, orderlies, and patients. Sometimes they received insults, sometimes threats. The prisoners were lying prostrate on their bunks, their blankets perfectly smooth, as every inmate had acquired the art of folding her gear without a single crease. Their fever‑fatigued eyes followed the stout figure of the German doctor, trying to guess at the sense of his gestures.
If no misfortune struck during the inspection and the door finally closed after the overseers were gone, the patients and the nurse on duty heaved a sigh of relief. But Dr Perzanowska had more to endure, as all the rooms were being inspected, medication inventoried, and the new washing room checked. So many problems had to be dealt with, while she had to emerge unscathed, just like her patients. Sometimes the German doctor just dropped in for a while, but on other occasions his visit was prolonged and tiresome. From time to time he was ominously accompanied by the drunken crematorium supervisor,9 whose glassy eyes and savage face scared everybody stiff.
Another auxiliary inspector was the terror‑inspiring Oberaufseherin10, who shouted and beat us with her bull whip. There was no knowing when she would rush in and what she would notice first, if she would disapprove of the number of inpatients and their looks, or perhaps of the caring attitude of the nurses. The hospital was also regularly patrolled by the SS men, which was a nuisance for both the sick women and the personnel.
After the turbulent morning, the hospital grew quieter, and it became (or at least seemed to become) completely peaceful after the evening roll call. In summer, the rooms were extremely stuffy, as the windows had to be covered with blankets, which served as blackout curtains. If the guards noticed the weakest gleam of light, they immediately shot at the building from the watchtowers. Yet it was impossible to tend to the most seriously ill in complete darkness. One evening a ray of light happened to get outside. Instantly, a shot was fired and one of the patients was wounded in the abdomen. Two days later she died.11
The nurses were very kind, which helped the sick women hold out the most difficult time. The gentleness and benevolence of Irena, Malinka, Wanda, Marychna, Danusia, Haneczka, and many other ladies, whose names and nicknames have slipped my memory, will always be gratefully remembered by the survivors who were once their patients.12
The medical unit worked not only in the hospital, but also in the living barracks and the washing room in the women’s section of the camp. The unit’s staff had to make sure that prisoners were clean. They tended to minor medical problems on the spot, for instance they dressed wounds or ulcerated skin, and escorted detainees to hospital for an examination or tests. Medication was dispensed after the morning roll call. That was followed by the everyday chores, which lasted until after the evening roll call.
Dr Ada Brudkowska13 was a person who you could turn to trustfully. She was calm, composed, and full of inner peace. She arrived at the camp in April 1943 and immediately won the affection of the women who lived in the same barrack. When she started working on the ward, she showed her competence and sense of duty, and was always ready to help out and ease the patients’ suffering.
Pain and suffering were ubiquitous in the hospital. There were accidents at work, some prisoners had bullet wounds, some were frostbitten and their wounds festered for months on end. In the summer Jewish women from the [Warsaw] ghetto arrived, and vast numbers of them had burns on their legs or pus‑filled abscesses. There were hundreds of cases of malignant erysipelas. Following mass deportations from the region of Zamość, new arrivals brought whooping cough, smallpox, and pneumonia; I remember those children were so pretty, with blue eyes and flaxen hair.14 I was so saddened to see them perching on a bench in the admission room; they looked like helpless chicks out of their nests, gulping for air with their cracked lips.
The hospital had two inpatients who struggled to survive after they had been punished for illegal goods trading15 and persistent refusal to answer their interrogators’ questions. Their respective sentences were one week and three weeks of standing between the two lines of live‑wire fencing. Every morning they had to appear at a designated spot and had to stay there all day long. They were only allowed to use the nearby toilet and had to go there supervised.
If it had not been for the support of their fellow prisoners, they would never have managed to tough it out. In the toilet, they found food that had been left there for them, they wolfed it down to come back quickly and serve the rest of their sentence. The mornings were chilly, and the sunny days hot, and sometimes we had prolonged spells of rain; not only the weather but first of all the protracted time up on their feet was killing them. But both women survived. The one who had served a week’s sentence got pneumonia and inflammation of the joints; she spent a long period in hospital. The other one was a resilient Silesian missus and staved off all the disease with her willpower. Only her face turned into a grey mask, her skin became leathery, her sun‑bleached hair grew sandy. But her stubborn eyes kept following the cruel Germans and challenging them as before: “And yet you strain in vain, bastards!”
Majdanek got enveloped by the night. There is no more talking in the hospital rooms. The women nestle their heads against the straw mattresses. Sometimes the silence is broken by soft, brief words of prayer, a groan of pain or a pitiful moan, or words uttered in sleep. The door opens a crack and a bluish chink of light enters from the narrow corridor. In the room you can make out the bunks and the dark shapes of the women lying on them. Those corners that cannot be reached by the light remain black and mysterious. My mind is slowly filled with the memories of those who left this place—to go to their living barracks or to the crematorium. All of them wanted to live on, to hoodwink death. All of them suffered here, physically and mentally.
Translated from original article: Pawłowska, Z. W rewirze na Majdanku. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1968.
1. Rewir (German Krankenrevier)—the name of a set of barracks at the Majdanek concentration camp designated for the prisoners who were ill or temporarily unable to work. Apart from the word rewir, prisoners called this place a “camp hospital” as well.a
2. The women’s camp hospital at the Majdanek concentration camp operated since late February or early March in Field No. 5 of the women’s camp. In September 1943 all prisoners, including the patients of the hospital and the medical staff, were transferred to Field No. 1. The patients and 50 persons from the staff of the women’s hospital were evacuated to Auschwitz in April 1944.a
3. Aufseherin—an SS woman whose function was supervising women prisoners.a
4. Stefania Perzanowska, MD, was transferred to Majdanek with the first transport of political prisoners from the Radom prison (January 1943) as a punishment for her participation in the resistance movement. She founded the medical ward in the Majdanek concentration camp and was its chief phyisician until the evacuation to KL Auschwitz in April 1944.
5. Heinrich Rindfleisch was an SS physician in the rank of Obersturmführer and worked in a number of concentration camps. He was transferred to Majdanek from Ravensbrück in March 1943. Rindfleish performed the function of the camp’s chief physician from 20 January to 21 July 1944. Later he was transferred to KL Plaszow and KL Gross-Rosen. When in Majdanek, Rindfleisch carried out experiments concerning typhus fever. After the war he worked as the chief surgeon in the hospital in Rheinhausen until his death.
6. Oberarzt—chief SS physician at the camp.b Max Blancke—doctor of medical sciences in the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer. He was an SS camp physician in a number of German concentration camps, including Dachau, Buchenwald, Oranienburg, Ravensbrück, and Natzweiler. He was the chief camp physician in KL Lublin from April 1943 to January 1944. Later he was transferred to KL Plaszow where he worked as an SS physician until August 1944.a
7. Maria Bielicka-Szczepańska (1909–1989), known as Malina (“Malinka”) Bielicka, Polish theatre actor, singer, and pedagogist. Member of the troupe at the Municipal Theatre (now Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet) in Lwów (Lviv) in 1937–1938. Arrested by the Nazis in 1942, she was then interned in the notorious Pawiak prison, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe.a
8. The majority of the names of Dr Perzanowska’s co‑workers are diminutive forms of Polish first names. This grammatical feature is very meaningful in the Polish original article, indirectly suggesting emotional attachment and affectionate relations between the medical prisoner workers at the camp.b
9. Erich Mußfeldt, a baker by profession, was an SS man in the rank of SS-Oberscharführer and a member of the concentration camp staff in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Flossenbürg. When in Majdanek (November 1941–May 1944) he worked as the supervisor of the crematorium and the commando burning the corpses of the murdered prisoners and Soviet POWs. According to eye witnesses and testimonies, he was an exceptionally sadistic person. He participated in selections for gas chambers and executions. Sentenced to death, he was executed on 24 January 1948 in Kraków.
10. Else Ehrich was an overseer in a number of concentration camps, in the rank of Oberaufseherin during her time at KL Lublin. While the women’s section of the camp still existed, she enjoyed the ultimate power over the other Aufseherinnen (overseers). She answered only to the camp commandant and partly to the political department. She was remembered as one of the cruellest overseers in the camp. She participated in the selections of the Jewish women for the gas chambers. In 1948 the court in Lublin passed a death sentence on her for war crimes. The execution took place in October 1948.
11. In all probability the prisoner in question was Janina Modrzewska. She was transferred to Majdanek from the Pawiak prison in January 1943. On 7 May 1943 a German guard accidentally shot her in the abdomen through the barrack wall. After the camp authorities refused to let her be operated on in the men’s section of the camp, she died after a week due to peritonitis. Her letter written to her family right before death reads: “Dear Muncia and Myszko, I am dying, 5 May 34 [probably a slip, 43 was meant] accidentally shot in the abdomen and wounded. Kisses, I love you. Janka” (translated from Polish).
12. More information about the camp hospital staff is available here (site in English).
13. Actually Aglajda Brudkowska née Rzeszowska was a medical studies graduate, interned for anti-German conspiratory activity. She was interrogated by the Gestapo in Lublin in the Under the Clock Nazi torture centre and then imprisoned in the prison in the Lublin Royal Castle. From May 1943 to April 1944 she was imprisoned in Majdanek and worked as a prisoner doctor at the medical ward. Later Brudkowska was transferred to KL Auschwitz and died in a death march.
14. After the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whole Jewish families amounting to about 20,000 people were interned in Majdanek from late April to May 1943. The sick and the weak, including pregnant women and small children, were more often than not murdered in gas chambers upon arrival at the camp. Another large group of detained were the families forcibly displaced from the Zamość region, about 8,600 people interned in Majdanek in the summer of 1943. There were many small children among them. The majority of the displaced were sent to the Reich to perform forced labour, with about 2,100 people released from the camp.
15. Even though obtaining additional food supplies was indispensable for survival in German concentration camps, trading of any kind was strictly prohibited and prisoners caught selling or bartering were severely punished.
a—notes by Marta Grudzińska, Expert Consultant for the Medical Review Auschwitz project; b—Website Editor’s note; c—Translator’s note.