An account by a nurse imprisoned in Birkenau

How to cite: Adam, M. An account by a nurse imprisoned in Birkenau. Kapera, M., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. October 23, 2019. https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz. Originally published as “Relacja pielęgniarki uwięzionej w Brzezince.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1970: 168–169.

Author

Marianna Adam, nurse, Birkenau survivor (prisoner no. A-17169)

This text was originally written in German as “Krätzefrage im Frauenlager Birkenau.” The English translation is based on the authorized Polish version by Stanisław Kłodziński. Marianna Adam was imprisoned in Birkenau as a Hungarian Jew. When the article was published in Przegląd Lekarski in 1970, she was living in Oradea, Romania.

I arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau on 9 June 1944, having been deported with my mother and father from Rakosliget near Budapest.1 Like other prisoners from the transport, we got off at the Birkenau ramp. There I was separated from my parents and taken to the sector that was nicknamed Meksyk (“Mexico”),2 where I had to stay for a week or two. Then I was transported to the Plaszow camp, near Kraków, where I was imprisoned for about 5-6 weeks. It is very difficult for me now to give the exact number of days I spent there. From Plaszow, I was transferred back to Birkenau, to the sector that was dubbed the “Czech camp.”3 Only then, on 10 August 1944,4 was my prisoner number, A-17169, tattooed on my left forearm. I was sent to work in a block whose residents were women prisoners suffering from scabies. It was Block 28, I think. Having been trained as a nurse, I was employed there for a few weeks as an orderly. In late September 1944, when the evacuation of Birkenau began,5 I managed to join one of the transports, so as not to be killed with those prisoners who were left behind. After the torment of several death marches and imprisonment in as many as six concentration camps or labour camps, on 8 May 1945 I was liberated by the Soviet Army from a sub-camp of Theresienstadt in the Sudetes.

In the “scabies block” in Birkenau there were five orderlies altogether, and I was the only qualified nurse among them. Three women had no formal nursing training, and one was a medical student when the war broke out. Our barrack looked just like any other residential block in Birkenau. It had three-tier bunks and was heated by a long, low stove running lengthwise in the middle of the block. Our Blockälteste (block elder) claimed to be a former medical student, but she showed no concern either for the sick prisoners, or for the hygiene and the orderlies’ work.

Prisoners with scabies hardly ever reported to our block of their own accord. Usually they were forced to transfer amid much yelling and physical violence. As their skin showed signs of infection, they had to be removed from the blocks housing work commandos.6 In the “scabies block,” as in other barracks of the camp, there were usually 8?12 patients to a three-tier bunk, and of course no blankets were dispensed to them. The food rations and the daily routine were no different from what other blocks had. The block was permanently overcrowded, as many transports arrived in that period, bringing in women deportees from the Polish city of Łódź and the Greek island of Rhodes. Almost all our patients suffered not only from scabies but also from other, secondary infections, such as pyoderma. As even those women who had large abscesses had to crowd together with those who just had scabies, the infections spread all too easily. The patients did not receive any medications for days on end, and actually there was no doctor to treat them.

The main responsibility of the Blockälteste was to drive the sick women out at 4 o’clock in the morning to take part in the roll call. There was no surgery in the block, and a serious problem was the lack of dressings, surgical instruments, and disinfectants. It was only three weeks after I had started working as an orderly that we received the long-awaited scabicide: the ointment filled two huge basins. All the prisoners, stripped naked, had to line up on either side of the long stove. At last, we could provide them with some proper treatment. Having no gloves to put on, with our bare hands we rubbed the ointment onto the skin of all the infected women, no matter whether they had only scabies or abscesses too. Some women also had deep, suppurating wounds. Our attempts to use one basin only for those who had secondary infections proved futile.

The women were given this treatment for three or four days, in the presence of swearing and yelling SS men, who herded them up and beat them with wooden clubs. After that period, the prisoners were given a cold shower, with no soap, and got back their dirty rags. Several patients recovered, and we later saw them in the working-prisoners’ blocks. Some of them told us selections occurred in the washroom, and many women were thus sent to the gas chamber. Now and again, an entire group of discharged patients was killed. In the meantime, the “scabies block” had to take in new arrivals, and the whole process was repeated. It was a travesty of scabies treatment, a Nazi-style perversity.

The situation of the patients was aggravated by the terrible conditions of the Birkenau camp, which have been described by many other survivors: the detainees starved and were constantly beaten, there was no drinking water and no proper clothing, the barracks were overcrowded and full of vermin, people had to share blankets, mattresses, and towels, etc. Those women who had been imprisoned in the camp for a long time would frequently draw my attention to the fact that in the past, on numerous occasions all the residents of the “scabies block,” that is both the patients and the orderlies, had been forced to board trucks and were sent to the gas chambers. So, when in late September 1944 the evacuation of the camp began, I remembered their words of warning and decided, as I have said before, to join one of the outgoing transports. This is how I left the Auschwitz?Birkenau extermination camp and survived.

Translated from original article: Marianna Adam, “Relacja pielęgniarki uwięzionej w Brzezince.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1970.

Notes
1. Now a district of the citya
2. In this part of Birkenau naked prisoners had to wait for their turn to be killed in the gas chambers. “Mexico” had no prisoners’ residential barracks or latrines.b
3. This sector of Birkenau was called “the Czech camp” because for a time it held Jewish prisoners from Theresienstadt in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.b
4. This date of the RSHA transport from Hungary is confirmed by the archives of the State Auschwitz?Birkenau Museum.b
5. When the Red Army was less than 200 km from Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944, the Germans decided to evacuate the camp. There were several evacuations in the late summer and autumn of 1944, prior to the final one in January 1945. http://www.auschwitz.org/historia/ewakuacja/ (Accessed 12 Oct. 2019)c
6. More information is to be found in an article by Stanisław Kłodziński, entitled “Świerzb i ropowice w obozie Oświęcim?Brzezinka,” published in the medical section [of Przegląd Lekarski, 1970 (11)].b
a—Translator’s notes; b—Editor’s notes translated from the original; c—Expert Consultants’ notes.

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