Józef Bellert, MD, 1887–1970, surgeon and Polish army officer in the rank of captain, soldier of the Polish Legions during World War I, combatant in the Polish defensive war of 1939 and in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Head of the insurgent hospital on Jaworzyńska 2 during the Warsaw Uprising, chief physician of the Polish Red Cross team handling the relief of Auschwitz survivors, organizer and head of the survivors’ hospital on the Auschwitz-Birkenau site after the camp’s liberation.
The idea to organize medical and nursing aid directly on the site after the liberation Auschwitz was put forward at one of confidential meetings of doctors who had participated in the Warsaw Uprising and stayed with the wounded evacuated from Warsaw on October 24, 1944 to St. Lazarus Hospital in Kraków.
After the Soviet Army entered Kraków on January 18, 1945 and the arrival of Polish Government representative, Deputy Minister Jan Karol Wende, as I was the man who had had the original idea for the project, I was invited to a conference organized in the Hotel Francuski. The conference was attended by Deputy Minister Wende; the Soviet Army delegate; Mr Plappert, President of the Kraków Division of the Polish Red Cross; Mr Trzebiński, the Polish Red Cross inspector; Dr Kostarczyk, head of the sanitary department of the Kraków Division of the Polish Red Cross; Dr Grabczyński, an Auschwitz survivor; and myself.
It was agreed that the Soviet authorities would provide food for the survivors, and the Polish Red Cross would dispense the medical aid with doctors and nurses working on a voluntary basis.
I did not want any money to organize the work and agreed to keep only 2,000 złoty for the Polish Red Cross’ administrative costs. The doctors and nurses would be taken to the site by a truck.
Within two days 38 volunteers had contacted me. The group of medical staff leaving for Oświęcim consisted of the following individuals:
1. Dr Józef Bellert, chief physician,
2. Dr Jan Jodłowski,
3. Dr Jadwiga Magnuszewska,
4. Dr Zdzisław Makomaski,
5. Dr Jan Perzyński,
6. Józef Grenda, a medical graduate,
7. Andrzej Zaorski, a medical graduate,
8. Henryk Kodż, administrative head.
1. Stefania Gołębiowska
2. Joanna Jakobi
3. Zofia Kurkowa
4. Aleksandra Leopoldowa
5. Weronika Niemiec
6. Ewa Nowosielska
7. Lidia Polońska
8. Genowefa Przybyszowa
9. Genowefa Ulmann
10. Ludmiła Urbanowicz
11. Krystyna Węglińska
12. Joanna Wekslowa
13. Janina Zawzlak
1. Wanda Andrzejewska
2. Zofia Bellert
3. M. Chroszowska
5. Jerzy Fędycy
6. Maria Gajda
7. Maria Geza
8. Henryk Godlewski
9. Jadwiga Golec
10. Stefan Jabłoński
11. Janusz Koziński
12. Olga Małodobra
13. Maria Perzyńska
14. Maria Rogosz
15. Janina Stankiewicz
16. Antonina Wójcik
17. Józef Wójcik
Secretary: Arkadiusz Zawadzki
Assistant: Marian Stępowski
Staff of the Polish Red Cross Hospital at the former Auschwitz I concentration camp. Henryk Kodż sitting in the front row, Matron Genowefa Przybysz second left in the back row, Józef Bellert third left in the back row, and Jan Jodłowski second right
Everybody turned up at the meeting point in front of the Hotel Francuski on February 5, 1945. We were given a truck which had seen better days and we all got on, some of us having to stand, and set off into the unknown. Dr Grabczyński, a survivor, was our guide.
The road to the concentration camp led us through Chrzanów and then through fields and a forest. We traveled between columns of Soviet troops heading west. On our way we encountered broken bridges, so at times we had to get out of the vehicle. The ditches were full of disk mines removed from the roads. Almost all of us had participated in the Warsaw Uprising, so we were emaciated, malnourished and poorly clad. The February hoarfrost made us chilly and the soil was frozen.
We finally reached our destination. Soviet troops had entered the concentration camp on January 27, 1945. Rifle shots could still be heard from afar and before the evening an aerial missile fell and went off in the area.
After reporting our arrival to the camp commander (I cannot recall his name), we were allocated a typhus barrack and spent our first night in the camp there. Mr Kodż and I were fluent in Russian, which made communication with the Soviet authorities in the camp much easier. Our help was warmly welcomed, since the situation in the camp was really desperate and severely ill survivors had been left with no medical aid.
The Germans had incompletely evacuated the camp in a piecemeal fashion and the last big group of prisoners were led out of the camp on January 21, 1945. The survivors still in the camp were severely ill and incapable of walking very far, there were approximately 4,800 of them.
After surveying the situation, we made a record of the following data:
Birkenau—about 2,200 persons
Auschwitz—about 1,800 persons
Monowitz—about 800 persons
as well as 2018 survivors of undetermined nationality.
The figures given above are not completely accurate, as the camp was full of people on the move.
I divided our panel into 3 teams: a group of nurses and I were sent to Birkenau, the second group under Dr Perzyński stayed in Auschwitz, and the rest of the staff set off for Monowitz. The work was divided in a following way: the Soviet authorities provided meals for everybody, and we were put in charge of medical care.
The situation was very hard. The camp stretched over a distance of 8 km, and we had no means of transport. Every day we had to walk long distances.
The situation in Birkenau
The camp had been designed to hold approximately 200,000 prisoners in wooden barracks equipped with two-level bunks, each bunk meant for 6 people. Each of the barracks had a heater running along the center. The bunks were occupied by severely ill prisoners, next to the dead and the moribund, lying in their excrement which was trickling down to the lower bunks.
There was no light or running water, and in front of the barracks there were about 300 frozen corpses. The surroundings were contaminated with waste and human excrement. Barrack Nos. 20–35 accommodated 20 mental patients, 6 of them in a state of raving agitation. The situation was desperate.
The Brzeszcze Division of the Polish Red Cross was a tremendous help. Even before our arrival they were taking care of 24 nursing mothers with babies aged from 9 days to 6 weeks. The organizers of the aid were Dr Sierankiewicz, Father Stanisław Szlachta, Mr Mleko and others. Also, on the initiative of Dr Zieliński, director of the Board of the Polish Red Cross, and Secretary Triko, as well as of a few other members, a hospital was set up for 24 mothers and their children (from Poland, Russia, and Yugoslavia). Two of these children died. Meals for the mothers were organized thanks to collections and donations from private persons.
The mothers were incapable of producing breast milk due to malnourishment. The Brzeszcze Division of the Polish Red Cross provided 13 members of their own personnel to help with the heavy work of cleaning up the site, transporting the dead, bringing water and food, heating the premises, etc.
2 km from the sub-camp in Rajsko the Germans had set up their laboratory with various strains of contagious diseases, apparently including bubonic plague and cholera, which they had wanted for experiments on prisoners. The lab had been looted and we were notified of the danger of disease and epidemics spreading.
The food for survivors was very primitive, consisting of dried potato flakes for soup, peas pudding, soup with groats and sometimes meat, coffee made of cereal grains, and bread.
Diseases we encountered in the camp1. In general, all the survivors had been malnourished; they were just ashen skin and bone. The adults weighed 25 to 35 kg (55 to 77 lb.) and had late-stage body swelling covered with suppurating fistulas;
2. Suppurating wounds, bed sores, frostbite on hands and feet with gangrene and bones showing through the wounds;
3. Pulmonary tuberculosis;
4. 63 individuals were diagnosed with typhoid fever.
These were the main diseases in the camp.
Dr Jan Jodłowski, currently assistant professor of the Third Department of Internal Diseases at Wrocław Medical Academy, is writing a paper on this subject. Dr Jodłowski was one of the doctors who worked at the camp hospital from beginning to end, i.e. from February to September 1945.
Apart from adult survivors, in the camp we found 80 children of different nationalities aged from 2 to 14. I decided to take these children away from the camp and to do so I turned to the Katowice division of the Red Cross. On consulting with the Katowice Division of Caritas, they got special rooms for the children in pretty barracks. After inspecting the premises, on March 17 and 18 I brought 56 children and entrusted them to the care of Caritas.
The children were given a warm welcome, there were even various toys ready for them. The list of children was drawn up on the spot—it was difficult to determine their surnames accurately, because of their different nationalities (e.g. Hungarian, Romanian, Czechoslovakian, Italian, German etc.). I sent all my reports to the Polish Red Cross.
Apparently the Kraków Division of the Polish Red Cross then sent all my reports to Central Archives of the Polish Red Cross in Warsaw.
One child, Wróblewska, who had been abducted by the Germans, was found in the neighborhood of Pszczyna and sent back to her parents near Warsaw.
Keeping records of survivors was not easy. There were not many of us and we had no typewriter. While making the records, we found over a dozen doctors among the survivors. We invited them to work with us. Not all of them were fit enough and willing to work, but they were helpful assisting patients and drawing up the records. The camp was administered by Soviet authorities, or more precisely by a field hospital in transit. We did not work very closely with the first and second flied hospital, but they provided meals for the patients.
Whenever we had the chance we obtained medicines for the patients from the Kraków Red Cross. The first days of work until February 24 were very hard.
The number of doctors and assisting personnel was insufficient. We could barely administer the most urgent medical aid, clean up the blocks a bit, bury over 300 people who had died before our arrival and dispose of the corpses the Germans had not managed to burn, as well as the arms and legs lying around near the ditches in which the Germans had been burning the bodies of those they had killed and those who had died. By that time the crematoria had been demolished. All that was left were piles of ashes which the Germans failed to dispose of in the Soła River.
As soon as we arrived we started to make a list of all the survivors. It was a difficult task, as we could never collect all the residents of a barrack at the same time or communicate with all of them. The camp was full of different nationalities speaking different languages.
We gave all of them Red Cross postcards, so they could contact their families, and also compiled identification cards, which we handed to those leaving the camp. Many people arrived and began to wander about in search of relatives and loved ones. Only after the arrival of the Second Soviet field hospital under the command of Dr Milay did conditions change for the better. In the meantime, I asked Prof. Kostrzewski, director of St. Lazarus’ Hospital in Kraków, to send more assistants to help out. The following medical practitioners arrived: Drs Okoński, Kędracki, Gorajski, Ziemiański, Lamy Pierre, Wilkoń, Pawlak, Urbański, and Kozaczkiewicz, as well as a few nurses.
All the patients and survivors were moved from the Birkenau and Monowitz sites to the main camp and put up in brick barracks. Around 100 people died. Patients were put in separate premises and those with tuberculosis required additional isolation. Each barrack was given a full team of medical and nursing staff. Each patient had a medical record kept and updated every day. There was a clinician called Dr Polyakov in Dr Milay’s team. Our clinicians established friendly and cordial relations with them. Our medical professionals delivered scientific lectures followed by discussions with the Soviet doctors on particular cases. We also performed autopsies.
10 of the doctors who were survivors were invited to work with us and were given salaries by the Polish Red Cross. In May the following survivors started work:
Dr Samuel Steinberg (France),
Dr Arkady Mostowoj (Belgium),
Dr Lejzor Epstein (Poland),
Dr Jakób Wollmann (Czechoslovakia),
Dr Alfred Galewski (Austria),
Dr Sari Marinette (France),
Dr Ewald Alschoff (Austria),
Dr Barbara Katz (Poland),
Dr Adolf Metz (France),
Dr Jakób Gordon (Poland),
Dr Konieczna (Poland).
The following auxiliary medical personnel was also recruited from among the survivors:
Sabina Zadermann, nurse,
Zenajda Nunberg, nurse,
Japue Freidyner, medical orderly,
Zofia Klimkiewicz, nurse,
Herman Kugelmann, medical orderly.
Altogether, the Polish Red Cross staff consisted of 63 persons. The hospital was called Szpital Obozowy PCK w Oświęcimiu (The Polish Red Cross Camp Hospital at Oświęcim).
We had very cordial and good working relations with the commander of the field hospital, Dr Milay, and several doctors from his staff.
The families of our doctors sent food parcels from Kraków, some of which we shared with patients who needed extra protein.
We sent serious cases to St. Lazarus’ Hospital or municipal sanitary institutions, where Prof. Kostrzewski and Dr Lutyński, the hospital’s directors, generously provided them with medical care.
One of the first groups of patients I sent to Kraków were the mentally ill, who were transported in a special car to the psychiatric clinic.
Traveling to Kraków was not easy at all. The Soviet hospitals had no vehicles available, either. A journey to Kraków and back was possible only whenever an occasion arose, and sometimes half of the distance had to be made on foot. The Polish Red Cross granted us modest allowances, so we were able to set up a kitchen of our own with all of us contributing a share to its stock of food. Henryk Kodż, our administrative manager, turned out to be a tremendous help.
Various Polish and foreign delegations began to arrive at the camp. We had to provide them with information and show them evidence of the atrocities committed in Auschwitz. There were also missions from different countries arriving—two from Romania, one from Hungary, three from Czechoslovakia, and one from Belgium. They came to collect their citizens. The camp was also visited by a British mission. The number of patients in the hospital gradually decreased.
The camp was also visited by two commissions, a Soviet and a Polish one, for the investigation of German crimes. The Russian commission took the most interesting case histories with them.
Over 300 people more died while we were on the site, so we set up new cemeteries.
We found storerooms with the personal belongings of those who had been murdered. They were full of shoes, glasses, toothbrushes, combs, artificial limbs, and also with lots of human hair and huge amounts of other things. All these items were later put into the collections of the Auschwitz Museum.
After Dr Milay’s field hospital moved on to another front the administration of the Auschwitz site was taken over by a new field hospital run exclusively by women doctors, under the command of Dr Zhilinskaya, which stayed on the site until the camp hospital was closed down.
On August 1, 1945, I was appointed director of St. Lazarus Hospital. Dr Jan Jodłowski took over the management of the medical work on the site and remained until the camp hospital was closed down (October 1, 1945).
All survivors leaving the camp received Red Cross certificates stating the time of their period in the camp. These certificates were their only personal identification documents and gave survivors the right to travel by train free of charge. They also received a supply of dry rations for 3–5 days (bread, fat, sugar, and meat) and some of them even got a small sum of money. Survivors who worked with the Polish Red Cross unit—12 doctors, 6 nurses, and the orderlies—were given a small allowance. The doctors were paid a salary of 1,500 złoty and the nurses and orderlies were paid 450 złoty.
Since the camp hospital could not provide patients with a balanced diet (there was a shortage of fats, fresh vegetables, milk, flour, and sugar), these much needed products were financed from the private resources of the Red Cross doctors working in the camp, who bought eggs for the severely ill, and cheese, fruit, and sweets for other patients.
All the survivors leaving the camp for their homes were given clothes, underwear and shoes.
Some of the severely ill not fit enough to travel were sent to St. Lazarus Hospital or a municipal sanitary institution.
Between February 6 and October 1, 1945, over 7,000 letters were sent from patients to various countries in the world. In response, we received a few thousand replies. We also sent thousands of replies to families’ inquiries about survivors.
Thousands of people visited the hospital in search of members of their families and a hundreds of them were given a meal and provided the sleeping arrangements for the night in the camp hospital. Scores of telegrams were sent to patients’ families, and we had numerous telephone calls.
The operation to provide aid for the survivors in the camp hospital was financed by Mr Leszczyński, commissioner for the care of survivors, who sent the money we needed to the Polish Red Cross Division on my request. The Kraków Division supplemented funds and supplied the hospital with medicines, and also with part of the food, provided the hospital with additional medical and nursing personnel, and paid for the survivors’ correspondence.
The doctors and nurses worked on a voluntary basis and were committed to their mission in the camp hospital, putting all their professional skills, experience, and compassion for their patients into their work.
To conclude and complete the picture of the medical help and care we provided for the patients, I must mention a group of nuns who arrived at the camp as volunteers and offered their unstinting assistance, working for a few weeks with great devotion. Our clinicians, most of them assistants from St. Lazarus Hospital, applied their knowledge and offered their work with a lot of enthusiasm. I must also emphasize the work of our nurses, who apart from treating the patients, engaged out of their own initiative in activities such as bringing water, taking out waste buckets, cleaning the floors in the barracks, washing underwear, etc.
Today when we look back at the months we spent working on the site of that terror and hell, we realize that our presence there was very much needed.
Translated from original article: Józef Bellert, Praca polskich lekarzy i pielęgniarek w Szpitalu Obozowym PCK w Oświęcimiu po oswobodzeniu obozu. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1963
This article has been published in 1963. For newer research, providing the modern‑day perspective, see Aid dispensed to Auschwitz survivors by Polish doctors and medical staff in 1945 by Jacek Lachendro.