Electric shock at Monowitz hospital

How to cite: Drohocki, Z. Electric shock at Monowitz hospital. Chłopicki, W., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. November 12, 2019. https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz. Originally published as “Wstrząsy elektryczne w rewirze monowickim.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1975: 162–166.

Author

Zenon Drohocki, MD, neurologist, prisoner doctor in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (prisoner No. 169779).

Twelve of my publications on electro-neurophysiology published between 1937–1940 in French and German scientific journals, and the schematic diagram of the apparatus I had designed for electric shock treatment were discovered in a backpack I tried to dispose of by chucking it into the barbed wire fencing as I was crossing the Swiss-French border. When I was leaving the Gestapo prison in Annemasse after a few weeks of uninterrupted interrogation, the head of that institution returned my publications to me, insisting to his subordinates that what with my qualifications, there were kolossale Möglichkeiten (colossal opportunities) waiting for me in the Third Reich.

Transporting the papers to Auschwitz III, i.e. to Monowitz, was not particularly difficult, although the change of my outfit in the Monowitz bath-house brought an end to the idea of private property as I had known it. The doctor-prisoner who came to meet us and addressed us in French, trying to sustain our weakening spirits, looked at me with pity when I asked him if he could keep my documents “for the time being.” I tried to explain to him what these papers contained. For a few seconds I saw my own madness in his eyes. Finally, shrugging his shoulders and with an expression that was to imitate compassion, he took my package.

Per aspera ad astra—my “colossal career” began just after two days of work in the Scheisskomando (shit commando), in which, being a doctor, I did this stinky job well; and then I continued through various types of digging jobs, only to suddenly become immobilised with sciatica. I entered the HKB (short for Häftlingskrankenbau, the camp hospital) virtually on one leg. Here, I did all I could to get to the HKB Lagerälteste (the head doctor in charge of the hospital), Stefan Budziaszek. Some prisoners had warned me about him, while others, mostly Poles, had praised him.1

Budziaszek had read medicine in Kraków, just as I had, so having no other arguments in his favour, I considered his connection with the city a good recommendation. After some time, I managed to convince him that I could be useful in the camp hospital, which did not have a neurologist. Still registered as a patient, I was put to work, first as a nurse, later unofficially as a physician, thereafter officially as a prisoner-doctor, and finally as the head physician of Block 15, Interne drei (Internal Medicine Ward Three).

Thanks to this job, I was able to deal with neuropsychiatric diagnoses even under the camp’s conditions, gradually leaving other areas of medicine to my fellow-prisoners. It soon turned out that since there was now a neurologist on duty, suddenly the need for his diagnoses, consultations, etc. rose. So besides the patients in my block, I had to deal with patients from other wards as well. In this way, slowly, a sort of separate neuropsychiatric unit was coming into being.

As a physician, I was still subject to the block leader and his rules regarding admitting, treating and discharging patients. He was a German with a green triangle badge (denoting a convicted criminal); I don’t remember his name but he was nicknamed Królik (Rabbit). He interfered with everything, constantly questioning the medical decisions my colleagues and I made. At the time, as a Zugang (new prisoner), I did not have any friends in the camp yet, so I had to overcome many persisting difficulties.

Under these conditions, Dr Antoni Makowski, the head doctor of Interna zwei and at the same time its block leader, was friendly and very kind to me, providing me with moral support and sometimes even serving as an antidote to the toxic environment of Monowitz. I availed myself of his unselfish services, his kindness, and the parcels which he generously shared with me. I admired his doctor-patient relationship and his uncompromising attitude in many difficult matters.

A little later, Dr. Czesław W. Jaworski, a colonel who was an army physician, was assigned to my unit as a Schreiber (clerk), and after some time I made him my deputy in charge of all medical matters apart from neuropsychiatry. Like Makowski, he was good, kind, and considerate in his attitude towards patients, and of course unquestionably honest—all extraordinary traits in those dark days and conditions.

During this time, my relationship with Budziaszek intensified. He was much younger than I, but had more camp experience. Lively, open-minded, and always on the lookout for useful knowledge, he was full of initiative and completely devoid of the inhibitions and reservations which often characterize unproductive intellectuals; his excellent management qualities and sense of diplomacy made him the best qualified of all of us for the job of HKB Lagerälteste.

Thanks to these traits, and despite the extreme differences in our views, when it came to work, we concurred with each other instinctively, virtually automatically, and always for the best interests of our patients. This was very important to me, because I often encountered reluctant passivity, if not outright hostility, from some other colleagues in my attempts to introduce my new psychiatric therapy. This was partly due to undeniable and mutual personal antipathy, but the main reason was the peculiar setup of relations between the various political, national, and racial groups, each of which wanted to predominate. Our hospital played a specific role in this struggle.

There was a resistance movement in the camp hospital. You could call it constructive resistance, and it was practised by Polish fellow-prisoners, not necessarily and not only doctors, but Budziaszek was one of its pioneers. Constant attempts to improve material conditions for both patients and hospital employees, the introduction of new hygienic devices, the installation of a central heating system, the search for new methods and means of treatment—described in detail by Makowski, Jaworski, and Niedojadło—all of these efforts contributed to an improvement in the quality of life the hospital could offer and the chances of survival for its patients and live-in healthy associates, the doctors, nurses and administrative staff.

Absorbed in my work and learning about the secrets and what went on backstage in camp politics, I forgot about my publications. One day, however, Poldek Wassermann, a young and likeable Häftling (prisoner) whose acquaintance I had made in passing, turned up and told me that my scientific work had been moved to different hideouts several times, but now the colleague who had kept it last could no longer “secure” it. If finding my publications in our conditions bordered on a miracle, the rediscovery of my forgotten plans to construct an apparatus to administer electric shock therapy was simply a revelation. The idea of building this apparatus and treating patients with it was like a flash of lightning; in the twinkling of an eye in my imagination, I saw the countless practical opportunities and horizons that this device would open up.

At first, I thought designing it would be simple. In fact, over the years of my scientific research I often had to make my instruments myself, either due to the lack of credit to buy them, or usually because the instruments I needed did not exist at all yet. In the camp my first notion failed because of the lack of components, lamps, capacitors, resistors, and because I didn’t have the time to obtain them.

Here, too, chance came to my aid. One of the patients in my ward was Serge Kaplan, a Philips engineer from the Netherlands who worked in the electricians’ Kommando. I familiarized him with my plans, including the design of the apparatus which I had prepared and in return for his cooperation, I offered to keep him in the hospital, which, of course, he was glad to accept. Retaining him in the hospital for a longer time required Budziaszek’s approval, but this did not meet with any objections; of course, I showed him my work and the schematic diagram for the apparatus. I also presented my projects to him and the splendour that would come to his hospital. I needn’t have: Budziaszek cottoned on to everything immediately and enthusiastically adopted the project. He helped me a lot with all the work, using his influence with the SS authorities, that is with Lagerartz Fischer, Standortartz Wirths, and our SDG (SS paramedic) Neubert, whose unofficial consent was necessary, too.

Work began quickly. The first thing to be done was to “organize” components from outside the camp. This was done, with the help of Budziaszek and Kaplan, by our fellow-prisoners working in the Buna plant. This immediately expanded the size of the venture, involving a number of people who benefitted from cooperating, both in kind and by improving their situation. Some, like Kaplan, could stay on the HKB patients’ register, and with time I managed to acquire a small workshop for them.

So naturally these prisoners wanted the construction work to go on for as long as possible. Of course, once I had started I had to show Budziaszek and the SS that we were making progress, not wait for them to get tired of fruitless expectations. Obviously, my co-workers were reluctant to take this into account, and I had to invent various pretexts not to let them down. Luckily, there were plenty of real pretexts. For example, the radio lamps, which were an essential component, turned out to be unsuitable. The ones that we needed could only be found on British aircraft that had been shot down. However, it just so happened that for a long time there was a cold streak in this respect.

However, the waiting time turned out to be useful; it allowed us to inundate Neubert with questions about English air raids, aircraft and the possibility of getting those lamps as soon as possible. In this way, Neubert was drawn into the circle of our real and contrived interests, which of course had its good side for us and for our work. From time to time he or a colleague of his would bring a radio receiver to be repaired in our workshop. Of course the radio always required a very thorough inspection, so we kept the receiver for a few days.

Finally, the apparatus was ready and I immediately started treating a couple of psychiatric cases. There were no problems with this. As with almost everything that concerned electro-neurophysiology, I was familiar with the theory and practice of this new and as yet little-used method. An epileptic attack caused by an appropriate dose of electric current flowing through the brain is a brutal intervention, but administered by “a skilled hand, so to say,” it is more of a shock to bystanders than to the patient.

Today electroconvulsive therapy has spread and is commonplace. In Monowitz electric shock was applied twice a week to each patient and the typical period of treatment was five weeks, and with the time the patient spent under observation before and after treatment required a total time commitment of about two months. So during that time, every patient was effectively out of reach. If his treatment was successful, his period of survival could last much longer, that is until death of other causes, or in some cases, even until liberation. By fortunate coincidence, most of the patients were suffering from depression, which, as we know, generally responds well to this therapy. There was a high percentage of cures or remissions, which made my work a great deal easier.

Electric shock therapy very quickly became an attraction, drawing spectators from other hospital wards, the camp elite, SS men, etc. I was inundated with questions, everyone commented on these convulsions in their own way. Everyone had their theory, their explanation; it was suggested I should conduct certain projects involving the removal of inconvenient individuals. Incidentally, these proposals were put forward by some prisoners, above all by block leaders.

Rabbit, my block leader, considered it all an attempt to diminish his own prestige. From the very outset he treated me the way criminals treat educated persons, as “good for nothings,” only he was good at everything. As time went on and after a few showdowns that I survived unscathed, he began to get interested in what I was doing, still insisting that it was all humbug or pretence, and all done to avoid work. He was especially irritated by the idea of forgetfulness (amnesia), but at the same time it excited him and made him curious.

One day Rabbit suggested I should perform the experiment on him, because until he experienced it himself, he would not believe the lies and would not be fooled. Since it was an unbelievably lucky streak, I gladly accepted this proposal in order to demonstrate the intellectual’s “superiority” over a Green Triangle.

I pulled my apparatus into his small room, as none of his subordinates should have seen him while he was in my hands. I applied the electrodes, at my request Rabbit noted down the time in his own handwriting, and I performed the procedure. After the convulsive attack, Rabbit fell into a deep sleep, from which he awoke after twenty minutes. He sat up on the bed and asked in a threatening voice, “Sag mir, doch wie lange soll ich noch warten?” (Tell me, how long do I still have to wait?). He wanted to get his electroshock. It was not until he checked the time on his watch that he understood it was over and he did not show his usual haughtiness; soon he was transferred to another camp and I became block leader.

This episode clearly testifies to the sensational aura this method of treatment, now widespread, stirred up in the concentration camp. The tests were observed with interest. Lagerarzt Fischer, and later Standortarzt Wirths, supported this practice and asked various questions for information on its progress, and thanks to that they could personally and independently evaluate the effectiveness of the therapy. This normal, in a way professional curiosity was soon enhanced by a distinct element of mystical admiration, which again created an excellent atmosphere for work and new opportunities both for the patients and my co-workers.

That’s how it was possible to introduce electric shock treatment in the Monowitz camp hospital. However, it was not an easy undertaking. I could say a lot on the harassment and the difficulties that the opponents of Budziaszek and his innovations created for us, as well as on how we overcame this adversity. But we did it. Describing these matters would require an in-depth discussion of the intricacies of camp life. So let’s focus on the therapy itself, which saved the lives of many prisoners.

Twice a week, sometimes more often, groups of male and female patients were brought from other camps for electroconvulsive therapy. They were accompanied by nurses, doctors, and of course SS men. Thanks to this, women prisoners were seen in the Monowitz camp for the first time. After each treatment, patients were left in peace until they woke up and had fully recovered. All this took several hours, during which prisoners from various sub-camps could make contact for the first time, find out about their loved ones, etc.

With time, prisoners managed to arrange meetings; in this way, for the first time in years, and sometimes for the last time, some people met their wives, husbands, and members of their family. Of course, in such cases it was not the patients who had such meetings arranged, but the nurses who escorted them, or even people who could pass as nurses for the duration of the trip, thanks to certain ruses in their sub-camps. Olga Lengyel recalls one of these meetings, though not entirely true to fact. All that was left for those who did not find an excuse to escort patients was writing letters.

Remarkably and oddly enough, the electric shock business slowly spread to new and unpredictable areas of our camp lives, perhaps less in the lives of patients than of the healthy, creating opportunities that would have been unlikely had it not been for the electric shock apparatus. We should take a closer look at this side of the project, I think, which in principle had nothing to do with medical treatment.

But that wasn’t all. I recalled reading an article on the effective treatment of asthma by electric shock a few months before my imprisonment, and I treated four asthma patients with this therapy, as the usual treatment was not available. Their bouts of asthma diminished and did not occur so frequently, but did not disappear completely. In any case, there was a distinct improvement.

One day I found myself having to open a phlegmon with no anaesthetics. Almost by routine, I put the electrodes in place, and after the convulsive attack stopped but before the patient regained consciousness, I opened the extensive abscess without causing pain. I repeated the procedure a few times, always with a good effect. In this way, and completely unexpectedly for myself, I suddenly found myself tackling the problem of electronarcosis,2 by means of which I wanted to compensate for the lack of anaesthetic drugs. Fischer and Wirths were so impressed by these results that they allowed me to continue research on this matter.

So I had to construct and test new devices, carry out new calculations, and increase staff numbers, in a word the institution that grew up spontaneously from the idea of electric shocks turned into an enterprise. The hunt for shot down English planes was on again, along with the pursuit of Neubert, who was to guarantee us priority in the division of the spoils, which too many interested parties wanted to lay their hands on. On top of this, other much simpler devices were being constructed, ones which were necessary for the accurate diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders. At one time I had a set of state-of-the-art instruments and devices for neuropsychiatry.

As Jaworski writes, research on electronarcosis was much more difficult and required a huge amount of work, despite the fact that the results were fairly encouraging. We could not have stormed our way into that hitherto forbidden field, not even if we had worked round the clock on it. This research was not completed prior to the camp’s evacuation, however its legend grew and this worked to our benefit. One of the consequences of this state of affairs was the almost mystical and religious interest Fischer, and even more importantly, Wirths entertained in the project. All I now had to do to keep anyone, no matter whether sick or healthy, for a longer stay in the hospital, was to lie and say that I was conducting or wanted to conduct experiments on them.

My opponents, prisoners working in the Schreibstube (records office), who wanted to monopolise the disbursement of camp humanitarianism, didn’t like the look of this. They clearly did not fancy having competition from a specific operation that brought very limited, very relative, but undeniable aid and relief to both healthy and sick prisoners. At this time Fischer asked me to write a paper for him on electric shock in general, and about the Monowitz research in particular. He wanted to deliver it during the opening ceremony for a new SS hospital.

This task did not present any difficulties. The paper was ready within three days, and I sent it to the Schreibstube to be “officially” typed out, because my handwriting is illegible. There was no news for several days, but suddenly one day Neubert ran up to me shouting that they liked the paper and were very interested. Neubert was in a flurry of enthusiastic excitement, and in his view the lion’s share of all the honours fell to him alone, which was not altogether an exaggeration.

Recently I was asked how Fischer managed to get my scientific paper off me, which he was to present as his own. Frankly—with no difficulty. On the contrary, I was pleased and eager to accept his offer, considering it yet another proof of recognition, extremely useful to all of us. Besides, I suddenly found myself in my element, in my usual conditions: scientific research culminating in the announcement of results. Indeed, writing scientific papers was a logical and necessary consequence of my research. The publication of the scientific work done in the camp was a kind of sensation; all of my other papers were published when I was a free man. It never occurred to me that I could put my name to this paper. I emphasize this because lately some people have found it surprising that my name doesn’t appear next to the title of the paper. It was obvious from the very outset that Fischer would sign my work, but under the conditions of the time, I didn’t care at all. The practice of signing the work of others, which is well-known and widespread in conditions of freedom, did not bother me at all in the concentration camp. However, Fischer did not make a secret of who the real author of the paper was.3

Without going into the moral motives for this behaviour, I think I discovered a solution to this riddle on another occasion: when I rebuked one of my Monowitz colleagues for his ruthless and brutal attitude to the prisoners in his charge. Having exhausted all the arguments, I found this one: “after all, some time in the future when we are free it will all come out, don’t you reckon with this?” I got this answer: “You are funny, none of them will ever leave this place!” Of course, in these conditions you could afford the luxury of living without hypocrisy and complexes. Was this the motive for Fischer’s behaviour in this matter as well?

At a time when the death toll due to gassing, hunger, ultimate exhaustion and infectious diseases was expressed rather nonchalantly in well-nigh astronomical figures, and at a time when the whole National Socialist system was near the bitter end of its vain hopes—organizing large-scale, state-of-the-art treatment of mental illness in a German concentration camp was a senseless luxury. Indeed, in comparison with the numbers who died of other causes, the number of mentally ill who died was a negligible item on the death toll. Of course, insanity inevitably led to the gas chamber, but recovery offered no protection against this predicament. So how did it happen—by what coincidence (not to say by what miracle)—that the German authorities consented to, and even actively assisted in the implementation of this project?

To understand the meaning of this inanity, you have to realise what the electric shock business meant to the SS, and especially to Fischer and Wirths. They were driven mainly by a disinterested curiosity triggered by its attractive novelty and quality of theatrical entertainment. With time it became fodder for their mystical delusions, which were inseparable from the German biophilosophy. Perhaps the possibility of using this method for purposes other than healing sometimes flashed through their minds. As time went on, and along with the developments on the Eastern Front, occasional bouts of fear disturbed their smokescreen of seeming serenity. It was not always a conscious fear, but the fear that lurked cunningly in the backdrop of all reactions was the fear of selection. Of course, not the type of selection they had been exercising on us for years, but the one that their threatened country was now preparing for them, in order to send all those who were not needed at home to the front. The problem of “becoming indispensable” suddenly manifested itself in all its cruel materiality. Just as we had tried, especially at the beginning, to show that we were bringing something new, original and very useful into the camp, so for the very same reasons, they too were now trying to impress the authorities with their achievements. Under their supervision and in their hospitals, they were enhancing the spectrum of therapy with the latest methods. By raising the publicity value of their operations, they created and pioneered a Musterbeispiel, a model for others to imitate.

Indeed, many times I had to demonstrate the electroconvulsive apparatus and explain its physical and physiological effects to various dignitaries, whom Fischer and Wirths brought over to our electrotherapeutic sanctuary during camp inspections. A few times Wirths, seeing the satisfaction of his distinguished guest, addressed him with a wink and a smile and patted me on the back, informing him with genuine pride that it had all been built with stolen components, which impressed the big shot even more. I don’t think any of us could have forgotten how the theft of German property was punished in the camp. Now impending punishment was well-nigh turning into a reward.

It was obvious that Wirths was doing all he could to draw the attention of the authorities to his management and scientific skills as well as to his initiative, hoping that in this way he would avoid being sent to the front. His speculation was right, and soon another event confirmed the correctness of my interpretation, too. In fact, after the evacuation of Auschwitz and Monowitz, everything went into disarray, we all lost sight of each other, though eventually some of us ended up in Buchenwald. I can no longer recall how long I spent in that notorious “small camp,” closer and closer to inexorable doom.

One morning I heard the loudspeaker roaring out my number, calling me “ans Thor und an die Schreibstube” (to the gate and office). I feared the worst, but learned that Wirths had been telegraphing all the camps to find me and bring me over to Dora, where he was again serving as an SS doctor. After a day of waiting in front of the gate, I was collected by an SS man who took me on a “wonderful journey” on a passenger train, which caused a sensation among the German “civilians” to see an individual concentration camp prisoner travelling with them. Upon arriving at Dora, I learned that I was to continue my electronarcosis research. The next day I was summoned by Wirths, who received me very courteously, as usual, and said that I would now be able to continue the Monowitz work which had been interrupted. However, seeing the condition I was in, he realised that he would have to wait, so turning to the HKB Lagerälteste who was escorting me, a Pole whose name I don’t remember, said: “legen Sie ihn ins Bett und geben Sie ihm viel zu essen” (put him to bed and give him plenty to eat).

So once again the “moral” influence of the apparatus saved me from Buchenwald, allowed me to rest in Dora before the final evacuation, and after a month of tramping across the German wilderness let me return to France. Wirths committed suicide in prison.

On my way home, I took all the publications that I had once brought to the camp, including the schematic diagram of the apparatus, plus the work I had written in the camp. Today I still have these documents all under the same roof, and I still think this was the highlight of my complicated journey.

What would be the honest answer today to the question whether our goal was to save ourselves or save others, or perhaps both? Did our activity have clearly defined aims and motives, or did it occasionally and by chance bring outcomes which were good for us and for others but unpremeditated and unforeseen? But maybe contrary to the accepted custom, the answers to these questions are irrelevant. Perhaps the only important criterion for the evaluation of an operation is its pragmatic effectiveness, regardless of the original intentions?

The painters in the concentration camps painted pictures whenever they got the chance to do so; the musicians played at every opportunity; and for others life and death in the camp were arranged in the rhythm of poetry. Under these conditions, does the behaviour of the medical scientist require any further justifications other than those that result simply from the blind biogenetic imperatives, the ones that make birds locked up in cages and people in captivity keep singing?

Notes
1. An assessment of the complex and controversial deeds of Stefan Budziaszek as a prisoner doctor was attempted by Bogdan Musiał during the Medical Review – Auschwitz conference in 2019. A presentation of his research is available online: Moral and ethical dilemmas faced by physicians who were Auschwitz prisoners: Stefan Budziaszek, Krankenbauältester of Buna-Monowitz prisoners’ hospital.a
2. This technique was later determined to be less effective than electroconvulsive therapy and was associated with more side effects.b
3. This apparently self-contradictory behaviour was typical for some individuals exercising authority in a totalitarian regime and their uninhibited hypocrisy.c
a—Website Editor’s note; b—notes courtesy of Prof. Susan Miller; c—notes courtesy of Teresa Wontor-Cichy.

References

1. Jaworski, C.W. Wspomnienia z Oświęcimia [Auschwitz memories]. In Apel skazanych. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax; 1962.
2. Lengyel, O. Souvenirs de l’au dela: Traduction hongroise adaptée par Ladislas Gara. Hymne pour le retour des captifs, par Pierre Emmanuel. Paris: Edition du Bateau Ivre; 1946.
3. Makowski, A. 1970. Niektóre osiągnięcia organizacyjne szpitala obozowego w Monowicach. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1970: 165–168. English translation, “Prisoners’ improvements to the hospital facilities in the Monowitz camp,” forthcoming online at https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz/translations/english.html
4. Makowski, A. Wspomnienia lekarza z obozów koncentracyjnych w Monowicach, Buchenwaldzie i Zwieberge-Langensteinie [A doctor’s recollections of the Monowitz, Buchenwald, and Zwieberge–Langenstein concentration camps]. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1967: 212–222.
5. Niedojadło, E. Szpital obozowy w Bunie [Camp hospital in Buna-Monowitz]. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1965: 120–122.

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