Recollecting the women’s hospital at Birkenau

How to cite: Grunt-Włodarska, H. Recollecting the women’s hospital at Birkenau. Kantor, M., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. November 25, 2019. https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz. Originally published as “Ze szpitala kobiecego obozu w Brzezince.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1970: 213–216.

Author

Helena Grunt-Włodarska, born 1904, Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner (prisoner No. 37625), after the war awarded with the Order of Polonia Restituta for her merits in the underground resistance movement and civil work. Arrested and interned in Auschwitz in 1943, in January 1945 she escaped from a camp evacuation transport.

Although there was a lot of clandestine talk in occupied Poland about Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, nobody could have imagined what was going on behind the barbed wire and what ordeals prisoners had to undergo there. What people remember was the constant fear, the mass arrests, and families making arrangements for the return of the ashes of their relatives murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Their funerals were the silent protests of people outraged by the cruelty of the Nazi German occupying forces; many of the silent protesters were in the resistance movement. My husband was one of them; he joined an underground unit in Dąbrowa Górnicza. I feared for his life all the time, especially when he was to carry out an order.

At 3 o’clock in the morning on 12 February 1943, the Gestapo turned up at our house and arrested my husband, our two young children, and me. My husband and I were transported to Auschwitz, and the children were taken to Beneshau and Katscher Polenlager (labour camps for Poles). My first experience of camp terror was in quarantine in Block 2. The barrack, originally intended for horses and not for people, was cluttered up with what looked like large rabbit cages, covered by plenty of dirty rags full of lice and bedbugs. Female prisoners used these cages as beds, which were called koje—“berths”—in the camp jargon. The floor space of each of these “berths” was 1.5 square metres, and supposed to accommodate ten women, so most of us slept on the clayey ground, huddling up to one another because of the cold. There was no proper floor in the barrack. This unsewered area had no running water or toilets; the only latrine was located a fairly long distance away. So for the call of nature we had two iron wheelbarrows (like those used on construction sites) in front of the barrack. Inmates had to wade knee-deep across muddy, stinking waste, which was especially hard during the spring thaw.

During the month I was in the quarantine block, to which a large group of women had been transported from Auschwitz I1 at the beginning of March 1943, we did not go to work, but we were hustled out of doors into the wiza,2 where we had to stay the whole day. Wiza was an empty space covered with a thick layer of dirt or mud depending on the weather. Our torturers “played games” there: they would set their dogs on us and we would be bitten. We could quench our thirst with the stinking water from the nearby ditch. Drinking that dirty water caused many diseases, but we didn’t care, we just wanted to wet our parched lips. From a distance we watched prisoners returning from work. They marched in columns, some of them carrying their weak or dead companions. At first, we were extremely shocked by the sight; there was such a lot of chaos in our heads that we could not produce even a glimmer of self-defence to keep our spirits up.

After the quarantine, I was moved to the Budy sub-camp where the living conditions were as bad as in Birkenau. The extremely hard labour building a river dike or dredging fish ponds as well as poor clothes, heavy rain and snowfall in April 1943 made very many female prisoners fall sick. They got extensive oedemas on their face, on their arms right down to the wrists, and on their legs right up to their knees. Almost all the inmates suffered from Durchfall (diarrhoea). As there was no doctor in the subcamp, the block senior Sonia, a German inmate with a black triangle badge (denoting an asocial person), decided whether a given prisoner should be left to die in the sub-camp, or be sent to the prisoners’ hospital in Birkenau.

After a short stay in Budy I was completely exhausted. I had severe diarrhoea and looked very unwell, I was beginning to turn into a Muselmann.3 I wanted to get out of the place and, like other inmates, I wanted to be sent to the camp hospital, where I felt I would receive proper care and avoid death. I was lucky to be sent to Block 23 (the hospital) in Birkenau. I felt safer and was not exposed to harassment there; neither did I have to stand out of doors for hours in the roll calls. After a few days I developed a high fever and a tormenting cough. I was vomiting and suffering from severe diarrhoea, headaches as well as back and stomach pain. With these symptoms, I was transported to Block 24 (infectious diseases) where I was diagnosed with typhoid, pneumonia, and diarrhoea; then I contracted malaria. From the very outset in the camp we were not allowed to send any letters to our families. Not knowing what had happened to my husband and children, I broke down: I was on the verge of complete exhaustion and went through some of the worst days of my imprisonment.

I was sent back to Block 24 covered only with a blanket, which was immediately taken away. I sat on the long brick heater running along the middle of the barrack, waiting to get some underwear and a place on a bunk. What I saw seemed like a terrible nightmare, not reality; I was about to lose consciousness. On each bunk there were two or three sick inmates in dirty shirts and covered with filthy, frayed blankets. These female skeletons with shaven heads looked like ghosts. They stretched their arms out and their feverish lips begged for water. I thought I was losing my mind or having hallucinations due to fever.

I was put in the third room, on a lower bunk, together with another inmate. It was very cramped, but we did not feel the penetrating cold so much when we clung to one other. I asked the other women why there was no doctor in the block and why we were not being given any medications. They said that there were no medications at all in the camp, and that Block 23 was a place you were sent to die. Although I had been seriously ill for over three months, I tried to observe all that was going on around me. The sanitary conditions were dreadful. No water, no underwear, not enough blankets and the place was teeming with lice, bugs, and rats as big as cats – all of that tormented and plagued the severely ill. In 1943 these conditions led to the outbreak of typhoid, epidemic typhus, pemphigus vulgaris, scabies, and other diseases which were rare outside the camp.

Block 24 was most frequently visited by SS-Untersturmführer Dr Werner Rohde (a German doctor sentenced to death in France in 1946)4 accompanied by Dr Ena Stern, a Slovak Jewish prisoner. She did her best to save Jewish inmates, at least for some time, from selection and “going up the chimney.” The other Nazi doctors who turned up occasionally were SS-Untersturmführer Fritz Klein (sentenced to death in 1945), Hans Wilhelm König, and the infamous criminal Dr Joseph Mengele. The Polish inmate Dr Irena Białówna from Białystok performed the duties of block doctor. I remember her thin figure in striped prisoner uniform and her charming smile that made us feel confident. She had practically no medications to dispense, yet she strenuously climbed up to the upper bunks and patiently listened to our moans and complaints. Her very presence, help, words of comfort, and compassionate attitude were soothing. The other medical assistant was Janina Komenda, widow of the district doctor from Kielce. As she was elderly, we called her Mama. Having recovered from a serious illness but still weak and exhausted, Mama helped inmates write letters in German to their families. And when she felt a little better, she diligently assisted Dr Białówna. For us the activities of these courageous inmates and their way of enduring hardship were examples to follow and kindled hope that we too would manage to survive this hellish camp. Our Mama, whom we will never forget, passed away on 1 May 1967.

Very slowly I started to recover, but I was continually haunted by the thought that any time I could be sent to hard labour, and then my life would be doomed. I used to observe the inmates who were employed in the hospital and also those from the labour blocks who secretly visited us. I tried to strike up a conversation with them; I learnt that they too had been seriously ill and suffered from the hard conditions of the camp but did not break down. Of those I met, I would like to mention Zofia Palowa from Zawiercie and Zofia Szukalska from Łódź, who had been in the camp since 1942. They somehow managed to smuggle underwear, clothes, food, and from time to time even medications, into our block and distributed them to inmates. Seeing their generosity, I decided to follow them. First of all, I wanted to learn how they managed to do all this. Kind words and even the smallest material help worked wonders for those who were condemned to death. After I had recovered, I adopted a positive attitude to life and endeavoured to survive right to liberation, despite the severest oppression.

One day, wanting to see how strong I was, I went out of my block to see the surroundings. Yet my knees were giving way, I was sweating and so exhausted that I managed to cover a distance of only about a dozen metres. Having in mind what I had already experienced and being aware of the persecution and harassment, I was astonished to observe that inmates did not yield to the terror of the German oppressors, but showed remarkable fortitude. I saw groups of women standing between the blocks; each of them was holding something they had “managed” to get. They were bartering these things, in spite of the immense risk. Whenever they saw an SS-man approaching, they would immediately disperse and were gone in no time.

I received a letter from my parents informing me that the children were alive and in a labour camp in Moravia. And that my husband sent me greetings. Despite that I felt deep in my heart that my husband had been killed. Cherishing the hope that my children would return home, I knew that I had to survive and create a home for them. It was Dr Białówna who contributed to the fulfilment of my deepest hopes. She employed me in the hospital and consequently I avoided being sent to work in a labour commando, where the long hours of standing in roll calls, hard labour out of doors rain or shine, experiencing violence, constant fear, and hunger finished off even the strongest women.

In the August of 1943, I was employed in Block 24 as a Torwache (door-keeper). I had to stand on duty in front of the block, report the approach of officials to the block senior, and inform her when inmates were sent to fetch food from the kitchen. This job was not difficult but it was very stressful. What I witnessed left such a profound impression on me I will never forget it. Even now I tremble to think about it. The German block senior of Block 24 was a black-triangle prisoner called Schwester Klara,5 a midwife who delivered births in the camp (this fact has been reported by other survivors). Pregnant women deported to the camp gave birth in this block. They went into labour on the brick stove running along the middle of the block, in front of all the patients. The midwife immediately took away the newborn child, and drowned it in a bucket in the entrance porch, by submerging the child’s head in the water and holding it upside down until the baby gave no sign of life. Most of these babies were Jewish. I cannot find words to describe what I felt when I saw those helpless little beings shaking in the murderer’s hands. I thought I would go mad and run to kill myself on the barbed wire.

At the beginning of 1944 I was replaced by another inmate and assigned to work as a Nachtwache (night watchman) on the women’s hospital block and take the latrine buckets out. Two women did this job in the block. At first, I was hoping that the night shifts would bring me moral relief and that I would be able to help others as best I could. Unfortunately, pretty soon my hopes were dashed. At the turn of 1943–44 there was an epidemic of infectious diseases and the death toll ran into thousands of women. The corpses were placed outside the blocks and transported to the crematoria. The rat population had a lot to eat and proliferated rapidly. The dead prisoners’ bodies were bitten right down to the bones. An order was given for the disposal of the bodies, and it was the macabre duty of the Nachtwache to take them to the Leichenhalle (mortuary), which was some distance away.

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I remember the first time I had to carry a corpse to the morgue. I was on the job with another prisoner. I saw a horrific sight and thought I would not come back alive. The morgue barrack had no furnishings at all. A very bright outdoor lamp illuminated the interior. Inside there was a pile of stiff corpses, skeletons scattered in a disorderly manner. We were horrified by the gaping mouths and wide-open eyes of the entangled bodies. We had to make several rounds a night to this place, otherwise we’d be carried there ourselves.

I also witnessed the death of Dr Maria Werkenthin, whose biography by Prof. Janina Kowalczykowa was published in the first issue of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. Here are some details. Dr Werkenthin had a high fever and was put in Block 24, in Halina Skonieczna’s room. Halina was the secretary of Block 24. Dr Białówna looked after Maria and was very caring. She ordered the staff to make sure Maria did not leave the barrack. However, Maria ran out of the room sort of in a frenzy and out of the block. Not far away there was a deep ditch and high voltage wire; behind the ditch there was a guard tower with an armed SS-man. Dr Werkenthin fell into the ditch and started to climb up its steep slope. The guard saw her and fired; the poor victim fell back into the ditch. Despite the immediate help provided by the other medical doctors, Dr Werkenthin did not recover consciousness, as she had been hit right in the heart.

During the first half of 1944, I was discharged from the hospital and sent to sort clothes in the Bekleidungskammer (clothing warehouse). Here I “organised”6 whatever I could and brought clothes to the needy in the hospital block. After a few months, I was felt very sick again, suffering from headaches and dizziness as well as diarrhoea. I was vomiting too. So I was sent to the dispensary and from there to the hospital block, the place I had worked in under the supervision of Dr Białówna, who had done so much for me. Now I owed my admission to the hospital to Jadwiga Hewelke, a young Polish doctor employed in the dispensary she did her best to save women from being sent away for hard labour. I also remember Monika Galicyna from Poznań, who was a real angel looking after sick inmates. She tried to get medications and also made hot drinks, herbal brew and chicory coffee for them. And if she did not have any of these, she brought them hot water. Early in the morning or late in the evening after the roll call she brought jugs of restorative beverages that helped patients recover. As there have been numerous publications concerning the hospital blocks in Birkenau and Auschwitz, I need not say that Polish women doctors worked in other blocks, too. They sacrificed their lives to save as many women as possible from hard labour and death. The Polish women doctors I knew included Dr Łaniewska, Dr Węgierska, Dr Kościuszkowa, Dr Hewelke and Dr Irena Białówna, who was generous and devoted to patients; it was thanks to her that I survived the camp. Wherever Polish women were working in the camp, there were always some who shared things with their fellow-prisoners. It was our steadfast resolution and mutual assistance that helped us survive.

Towards the end of 1944 there were more and more air raid sirens. Good news was reaching the camp, not just hearsay, about the approaching front; and it spread like wildfire from block to block, making us optimistic and sure that the long-awaited liberation and freedom were close at hand.

On the night of 17-18 January 1945 the sirens were on for a long time. It was pitch dark in the camp; everybody was awake sort of waiting for something to happen. Around three a.m. during the alert, the female SS guards rushed into the block, ordering us to collect all the patients’ medical records and put them on the blankets. The records were put on lorries waiting in front of the barracks. The lorries drove away immediately. Another order was given for the evacuation of all the walking inmates. They were to be ready for evacuation at six o’clock. The bedridden inmates were confused; they began crying and lamenting. There was a general belief that the camp had been mined and in the event of defeat the Germans would blow it up. Having no coats, the bedridden patients covered themselves with scraps of blankets, so as not to be left in the camp. They wanted to leave with all the other inmates, for an unknown destination. It was bitterly cold. But the order to leave the camp was not given until six p.m. on 18 January 1945. The bedridden were left behind.

Columns of staggering women, surrounded by Germans with Alsatian dogs, moved like a funeral cortege. During the march we could hear shots: the Germans killed anyone who could not walk or was too slow. We marched all night and the next day till the evening, until we reached the village of Poręba near Pszczyna; here the Germans ordered a stopover for the night. Weary prisoners went to the houses and barns of the local people. The villagers offered us good care, giving us hot soup, coffee, tea and bread. Hungry and freezing, we ate greedily as if it were a feast with the best delicacies.

We were to move on the next morning. Then we got the idea of finding a hiding place for the night and waiting until the entire column had passed. At first, it seemed a crazy idea, and we all thought it would be too much of a risk. Nevertheless, having nothing to lose, it was a chance of survival, so Pola Kowacka from Zawiercie, a friend of mine, and I decided to escape. We said goodbye to our Mama and the other inmates from our group. We left our host’s house between 3 and 4 a.m. on 20 January, and headed for a small wood next to the farmstead. Luckily, we were wearing civilian clothes, since there was not enough striped uniforms for all the prisoners, and it was issued only to outside commandos.

As soon as the noise of the prisoners’ transport stopped, we left our hideout in the wood and reached the main road, where we asked passers-by the way to Katowice. Full of fear and uncertainty, we marched the whole day. In the evening, we found accommodation with some honest local people in Piotrowice. Naturally, we did not tell them who we were. The road to Katowice was blocked by heavy fighting and barbed wire. So we decided to go to Siemianowice. I knew this neighbourhood a bit, so we went on very cautiously and in the evening reached my parents’ house in Grodziec near Będzin. It was a memorable day – the Twenty-First of January 1945. I was so happy to see my family, but it was not the end of my ordeal. The Germans were still in the area, so Pola and I had to hide, so that nobody should learn we were there. Liberation was brought by the Soviet soldiers who chased the Germans out of the Dąbrowa Basin on 27 January 1945.

Translated from original article: Helena Grunt-Włodarska, “Ze szpitala kobiecego obozu w Brzezince.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1970.

Notes

1. To Birkenau.a
2. From German Wiese (meadow).a
3. In the camp jargon, this term denoted a prisoner extremely emaciated due to the hunger disease, in a death-like state of complete indifference to the camp reality, reacting only to the sight of food.a
4. Dr Rohde stood trial before the British military court in Wuppertal.b
5. In the Nazi German concentration camps prisoners regarded as “asocial or work-shy” had a black triangle. Schwester Klara was a midwife convicted for infanticide and sent to Auschwitz.b
6. In the camp jargon, “organising” something (e.g. food, clothes, medications) denoted obtaining the thing by illicit means, most often by stealing it from the camp magazines.a

a—Expert Consultant’s notes translated from Polish by the Website Editor; b—Head Translator’s notes.

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