Prisoners’ improvements to the hospital facilities in the Monowitz camp

How to cite: Makowski, A. Prisoners’ improvements to the hospital facilities in the Monowitz camp. Kantor, M., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. November 18, 2019. https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz. Originally published as “Niektóre osiągnięcia organizacyjne szpitala obozowego w Monowicach.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1970: 165–168.

Author

Antoni Makowski, MD, prisoner doctor in Buna-Monowitz subcamp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (prisoner No. 131791), Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor.

In the spring of 1941, the Germans began employing the prisoners of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to construct the Buna industrial complex belonging to the German chemical company I.G. Farben. Initially the prisoners were transported to work by rail, but in October 1942, the Buna-Monowitz satellite camp (also known as Auschwitz III) was set up. The prisoners of Nazi German concentration camps had to live in terrible conditions (hunger, miserable clothing, poor housing, submitting to the peculiar, sadistic conduct of the camp personnel), and were also forced to toil for long hours of extremely hard labour. All these factors quickly depleted their vital force; many of them became sick and died. I. G. Farben profited from the use of slave labour and only tolerated healthy prisoners who were fit for physically strenuous work.

From the outset, the satellite camp had a hospital that initially treated prisoners who were incapable of working. Those seriously ill were sent to the main camp. However, the persistent overcrowding and organisational problems must have made it necessary to modify the original plans, as Auschwitz survivor E. Niedojadło from Tarnów writes in his letter of 3 June 1969 to Dr S. Kłodzin´ski. The hospital’s activities evolved as the number of prisoners increased. The prisoner-doctors assigned to work in the hospital (Häftlingskrankenbau; infirmary for inmates—HKB, KB) tried to do their best to provide help and proper treatment for patients as well as maintain relatively good living conditions for them.1

Usually their efforts involved concerted organisation and grave personal risk. Prisoner-doctors often broke the camp regulations and could be severely punished by the SS management. Many times it was pure chance or a fortunate coincidence that the hospital avoided serious repercussions.

In the winter of 1942/43, on the initiative of Camp Senior (KB Lagerälteste) Ludwig Wörl, a special disinfection facility was built to prevent the spread of a typhus epidemic. The camp authorities gradually equipped the hospital and dispensary room with facilities for the patients’ needs.

In the spring of 1943, the hospital boasted another achievement. A group of nurses and other workers supervised by the German political prisoner Georg Lay, and Neubert, an SS man, installed an additional steam generator to support the disinfection room and central heating. Although this might seem a simple matter, it was not an easy logistical operation at all. The steam machine was cunningly stolen from the construction site of the Buna works. Then it was dragged about a kilometre and a half and brought to the hospital through the gate manned by SS guards. The hospital staff risked severe penalties in the event of failure, hoping that once the steam engine was in the camp, the SS men would be pleased with an extra free property and accept this fait accompli. Indeed, all the interventions by the owners of the stolen machine were ineffective; the steam boiler remained in the hospital until the end.

Most of the attempts and actions by the hospital personnel were undertaken with the tacit consent of the camp authorities, who must have noticed the changes in the evidently expanding hospital barracks and the better treatment conditions. All the necessary materials to improve treatment in the hospital were simply “gathered” by the prisoners on the construction site and smuggled into the camp in an ingenious way. This was the paradox of camp life. Any prisoner who found a swede or some potatoes on his way from the factory to the camp was severely punished; naturally, the same punishment would be meted out to any prisoner discovered with paint or electrical equipment or anything else on him during the search at the camp gate. On the other hand, nobody asked where the paint to renovate a hospital or residential block had come from, or how porcelain sinks and toilet bowls had been smuggled into the hospital. Most were brought inside empty soup kettles transported on motor vehicles. Since the redevelopment of the hospital was credited to the SS authorities—who could later boast of this accomplishment and who certainly regarded all the facilities as their property (especially when gained without incurring any costs)—they turned a blind eye to certain actions.

The chief initiator of the redevelopment and improvement of the hospital was the “hospital elder” Dr Stefan Budziaszek, who held this office from June 1943. He managed to build up a considerable margin of independence from the SS authorities by winning the favour of the SS sanitary non-commissioned officer Neubert—undoubtedly offering him certain “gifts.”

In the summer of 1943, a kitchen was set up in the hospital so that coffee could be made on site. This significantly reduced the organisational problem of bringing large quantities of coffee from the central camp kitchen twice a day to the hospital.

At that time, the working arrangements in the surgical outpatient clinic were significantly improved. Dozens of prisoners had their dressings changed in the evenings, while in winter, hundreds of prisoners came in for treatment. It was very important to treat them quickly and efficiently to avoid losing the small amount of free time the prisoners had. The small, but essential equipment as well as the organisation of work, such as separate rooms for dressings, efficient patient movement inside this clinic, and mobilizing a large number of prisoner-doctors and nurses, helped to make the clinic work smoothly.


Gathering the corpses. Marian Kołodziej

The ordinary barracks where the hospital rooms were located did not have a water and sewerage system; the washing and bathing facilities as well as the latrines in the camp were in separate barracks. What was still relatively bearable for healthy prisoners was a torment for those who were sick. The large buckets of urine and faeces which had to be carried out from the barracks to the camp latrines worsened the already uninviting conditions of hospitalization. The efforts to construct a water and sewerage system in the barracks were treated as milestones towards improving the hospital conditions. New washing and toilet facilities were built in Block 20 (for diarrhoea patients), Block 15 (II, later III, internal medicine) and Block 16 (surgery). At the same time, shower rooms, washing and toilet facilities were built at the back of the outpatient clinic barrack, and connected with the clothing disinfection section. These facilities were used by the patients of Ward One (internal medicine, Block 19), and above all by those admitted to the hospital in a sort of admissions room. All these facilities were effectively completed by the autumn of 1943. The work was done by the hospital personnel and other prisoners who volunteered to work in their free time after returning from the factory (in exchange for extra food rations). But in fact, most of these prisoners were secretly registered as patients.

On the initiative of Dr Budziaszek, a special surgery room was built in the autumn of 1943 (earlier, the “clean,” i.e. aseptic operations used to be performed in a small room in Block 18, the outpatient clinic). The new surgery room was extremely modern considering the camp conditions. It had a smooth concrete floor which could be easily washed with water; all the hospital staff had taken part in the work to polish it; its walls were oil-painted; there was a separate preparation room and wash basins with running water as well as a special surgical light over the operating table. Hence the aseptic surgical treatment given to patients in such facilities could boast considerable achievements and relatively rare postoperative complications. At the same time, as an extension of the operating room, a recovery room for patients who had undergone “proper” operations was installed in Block 19. This room was the apple of Dr Budziaszek’s eye, as his surgical ambitions could be met there. A ceiling, namely a special layer of insulation beneath the roof of the barrack, was constructed; there were single beds provided with clean sheets that were often changed. Dr Budziaszek managed to supply the room with surgical instruments. He brought sets of instruments from the main camp (mainly from the Canada2 depots) and consequently, the “operating theatre” was quite well-equipped.

In the summer and autumn of 1943, equipment, mostly from the Canada depots, was brought to the physiotherapy room. It included Sollux lamps, galvanizing apparatuses, a quartz lamp that was also used to disinfect the operating room, and boxes fitted out with light bulbs.3 In the late autumn of that year, the laboratory was expanded and equipped with basic instruments, also from Canada as well as from the Buna laboratory. Due to a shortage of medicaments, the hospital personnel (chemists and physicians, but especially the medical student Herbert Mohl and the chemist Georges Wellers) began making ointments and external dermatological medicaments. They also managed to make a solution of glucose and calcium chloride for injections. The production of these medicaments gradually increased, and in fact met the needs of the hospital; to a large extent, its quality was quite satisfactory. The raw materials, both for the laboratory and for the preparation of medicaments, were smuggled into the camp from the factory premises.

In the late autumn of 1943, Dr Budziaszek, who had received an X-ray lamp from Canada, decided to construct a complete X-ray apparatus, which the hospital did not have and patients requiring an X-ray had to be transported to the main camp, which was very complicated in the camp conditions. In practice, X-ray examinations were not performed. Great technical difficulties had to be overcome to achieve this project. Once again it was necessary to “organise” many electrical parts and design a conceptual plan because there were no schematic diagrams or documents; the hospital staff could rely only on their experience and previously acquired knowledge. The task was fulfilled by an X-ray technician, a Polish prisoner (I have forgotten his name and have not managed to identify him), who spent many hours, days and weeks over this arduous undertaking. The device was finally completed in the spring of 1944. Unfortunately, although X-ray images could be taken, the apparatus was hardly ever used because there was no film for it (an inaccurate account in Niedojadło 1965: 121).

In the summer of 1944, on the initiative of Dr Budziaszek and the orthopaedic surgeon (I do not recollect his surname), a whole set of surgical tools for the treatment of limb fractures was assembled. An electric drill was adapted for this purpose; chromium-plated stainless steel bars and a pulley system were made in the hospital workshop. These devices helped several prisoners recover from traumatic leg bone fractures.

In the autumn of 1944, a group of French doctors headed by Robert Waitz treated a selected group of 30 prisoners who were emaciated and suffering from hunger oedema with a special vitamin paste made from yeast and onions (Jaworski, 268). They did this under the guise of a six-week medical experiment. Each of these prisoners also received an additional litre of soup mixed with the paste. The aim of the experiment was to determine the causes of oedema, which was not achieved, but at least it allowed those prisoners to live in relatively better conditions for several weeks.

An impressive improvement in the camp conditions was achieved through the construction of an apparatus generating electric shocks, the idea being initiated by Dr Zenon Drohocki.4 At that time, it was a relatively new method of treating mental illnesses. It was commonly known that prisoners who manifested psychological disorders were doomed to die and their treatment was very difficult or even impossible in the camp conditions. Dr Drohocki, a neurophysiologist from Kraków, who was a pioneer in electroencephalography and had gained experience in electrotherapy, proceeded to design this apparatus. He was supported by Dr Budziaszek, who helped him obtain the necessary electrical equipment. Collaborating with the engineer S. Kaplan, once a Phillips employee in the Netherlands, Dr Drohocki spent a lot of time in the evenings working on the construction of this device, which was ready by the summer of 1944. The mentally ill, mainly schizophrenics, were treated in the Monowitz hospital by Dr Drohocki, who operated this device. After several treatment sessions, he managed to catch the interest of the SS physician Fischer, who permitted Dr Drohocki to apply the electroshock therapy in the treatment of the mentally ill prisoners from the other sub-camps of Auschwitz III as well as those from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, including women. This treatment gradually expanded and in a short time included groups of patients who were brought to Monowitz from other camps and taken back as soon as they had had their treatment.

Obviously, it was necessary to obtain the support and consent of the SS chief physician to expand the electroshock therapy. At the request of Fischer, Dr Drohocki wrote a scientific paper based on the materials he already knew from specialist literature and on the results of the treatments in the camp. Fischer delivered this paper during the opening of the SS hospital in Auschwitz, allegedly giving the name of the real author of the paper (here I rely on the information obtained from Dr Drohocki).

The technical design of the apparatus itself was an unquestionable success. It was based on Dr Drohocki’s original concept and skills, requiring the mobilization of technical resources and the resolution of numerous difficulties. Another challenge was to create the proper atmosphere that allowed the mentally ill to be treated effectively and long enough to improve their health. Previously, the camp authorities ruthlessly had such patients killed. So the introduction of this method and ascribing a certain element of “mysticism” to it, which always fascinated the SS men, made it possible to treat a relatively large number of prisoners and keep them alive, at least temporarily, because their fate, like the fate of all the prisoners, was very uncertain.

A collateral success of this treatment was the opportunity to establish prohibited inter-camp communication through the sanitary personnel accompanying the transported patients, including contacts with the women’s camp; this allowed different prisoners to settle various matters in Monowitz.

Along with electric shock treatment, Drohocki began working on electronarcosis. Because of the shortage of anaesthetics, the medical personnel often had to perform surgeries (e.g. for abscesses or phlegmons) without anaesthesia. Knowing that electric current used during the shocks caused a dream-like state after the convulsive phase, Drohocki decided to construct a device with a minimum flow of electric current, not leading to convulsions but inducing sleep. In a word, he wanted to replace pharmacological anaesthesia (ether or ethyl chloride) with electronarcosis. He thought that patients might benefit from electronarcosis during surgery if traditional anaesthetics were unavailable. He worked on this form of electrotherapy for several months, controlling the current parameters and trying to enhance the apparatus. Finally, in November 1944, he applied electronarcosis for short-term general anaesthesia. The patient fell asleep and did not feel the pain of surgical suturing. After waking up he did not remember what had happened. However, the electroshocks caused muscle contractions (Jaworski 1962: 267).

Drohocki continued working on improving the electronarcosis apparatus until the closure of the Monowitz camp in mid-January 1945. He conducted experiments with volunteers, rewarding them with bonuses such as additional soup or bread rations; he wanted to define current parameters which would not cause any side effects. His results seemed encouraging. However, due to the specific interest in those bonuses, Drohocki could not fully trust the positive results reported by his patients. The electronarcosis apparatus did not progress out of the trial phase and was not used to treat patients in the Monowitz camp on a regular basis. Through my post-war contacts with Dr Drohocki, I learnt he did not continue his work on this therapy.

Analysing Dr Drohocki’s activities in retrospect, and especially his great personal involvement, I have come to the conclusion that his objective to develop this device was twofold: firstly, his desire was to help patients in the field of his specialisation, and secondly, by engaging himself in such an intensely absorbing and at the same time useful activity he could temporarily forget about the horrors of the camp. He could have had another, very private (subconscious) motive: to become so indispensable and important in the camp that nobody would dare to get rid of him. Presumably he achieved these goals.

The survivors of the Monowitz camp, the ordinary Häftlinge (inmates) as well as the hospital personnel who managed to survive the hell of the Nazi camps, and those I talked to after the War, had a good opinion of the camp hospital. They remembered it as a place where they could get reliable and efficient medical help and moral support, which allowed many to survive those difficult times.5

Notes

1. Dr Makowski is writing a detailed description of the HKB activities in the Monowitz camp in a separate publication.a
2. Canada—the name prisoners gave to the warehouses in which the belongings of new arrivals to the camp were stored.b
3. Phototherapy (also known as light therapy and heliotherapy) is used for treating various conditions by exposing the patient to natural or artificial light.b
4. Drohocki’s own account of his electric shock experimentation at the camp can be read here.c
5. When this issue of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim was being printed, a note appeared in the press on 27 October 1969 that Dr Antoni Makowski’s text had won second prize (tying with another text) in the Memoir Competition of the Auschwitz State Museum; the first prize was not awarded.a

a—Original Editor’s notes; b—Head Translator’s notes; c—Website Editor’s notes;

References

1. Jaworski, C.W. Wspomnienia z Oświęcimia [Auschwitz memories]. In Apel skazanych. Warszawa: Pax; 1962.
2. Niedojadło, E. Szpital obozowy w Bunie [The Buna-Monowitz camp hospital]. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1965: 121–122.
3. Niedojadło, E. Letter of 3 June 1969 to Dr S. Kłodziński.

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