The first period in the work of the Infectious Diseases Ward at Auschwitz

How to cite: Szweda, K. The first period in the work of the Infectious Diseases Ward at Auschwitz. Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, T., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. December 2, 2019. https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz. Originally published as “Pierwszy okres oddziału chorób zakaźnych w obozie oświęcimskim.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1972: 95–101.

Author

Konrad Szweda, 1912–1988, Catholic priest, during the 2nd World War engaged in the Polish anti-Nazi resistance movement. Interned for his conspiratory activities, he survived the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.

As we know, the further back we go into the history of Auschwitz, the fewer source materials we have at our disposal. One of the Auschwitz issues which requires closer scrutiny is the department for infectious diseases, especially during the first years of its activities, 1940–1941, which is the subject of this article.

I arrived at Auschwitz on 18 December 1940 in a transport of prisoners from Silesia. Thanks to a recommendation from prisoner Czajor of Chorzów, who was the No. 2 Arbeitsdienst (Otto Küsel was No. 1), I was put into the Schonungsblock (convalescence; Block No. 15, later No. 20), and given a job as a Hilfspfleger (paramedic). Czajor and his younger brother were executed by a rifle squad at the Death Wall in 1942. He was the only one of the prisoners due to be executed that day to say something before he died. Apparently he said, “We are dying today, tomorrow it will be your turn to die!”1

An indoor job in a concentration camp, without the need to attend roll-calls standing outdoors in the freezing cold and rain, was a godsend. I was only worried if I could manage to carry out the duties of a paramedic or nurse, since apart from having completed an air defence course and occasionally administering first aid, I had neither the training nor any practical experience for the job. I passed the preliminary test I was given by Peter Welsch (No. 3207), who was the deputy of the hospital kapo Hans Bock (No. 5). Others who had apparently been approved for this job were Krzysztof Hofman, Zdzisław Gutowski from Płock, Julian Kiwała, Marian Wesołowski, and for some time, Leon Pietrzykowski (No. 413) from Zduńska Wola, who was an assistant of Prof. Stanisław Pigoń, a Sachsenhausen survivor who wrote a memoir entitled Wspominki z obozu w Sachsenhausen [Memories of the Sachsenhausen camp—Website Editor’s note].

The block senior of No. 15 was Hans Biedermann, a green triangle (denoting a convicted criminal), and the clerk was Emil de Martini, who exhibited a friendly attitude towards Polish prisoners. Edward Kulik, a teacher from Świętochłowice, a man of impeccable manners and profound moral qualities, was the block senior’s deputy. He never did any harm to anyone and would have preferred to take a flogging himself than hit anyone else. He held each and every prisoner in respect and did his best to help those in need, even if it meant risking his own life.

Dr Rogacki was the physician for internal medicine and also worked as the diagnostician examining new arrivals to the camp. I remember how, when I complained of heart trouble, Dr Rogacki quipped, “We’ll cure you of everything here.” Dr Rogacki died soon afterwards; all sorts of stories went round the camp about the circumstances of his death, but discussing them are beyond the scope of this article. Dr Kentzer was the surgeon; the only facility he could use to treat surgical patients was the Waschraum (washroom). It was in such deplorable conditions that he and the nurses assisting him changed dressings, and cut abscesses, phlegmons, and necrotic tissues, etc.2 in this non-sterile space.

Soon I met other physicians working in the Krankenbau (hospital), Drs Leon Głogowski, Suliborski, Diem, Fejkiel, and Dering, and the pflegers (nurses) Gabryszewski from outpatients, and Szymankiewicz from the Block 20 kitchen, and the clerk Wojciech Barcz, whose real name was Peters.3 I have to say that this team really wanted to help prisoners and did all they could to save the lives of people meant to die.

The sanitary conditions in the convalescents’ ward were appalling. Patients lay closely packed on the floor, on thin mattresses soaked through with urine and with pus exuding from their wounds. In the summer, there were worms under the mattresses, and the blankets were full of fleas and lice. In the middle of the room there were excrement buckets, with black swarms of flies and insects hovering over them. The contents were poured down the toilet, and when a bucket was put back in its place it would be covered with a wooden or paper lid. The air in the room was full of the unmistakeable smell of durchfall (diarrhoea), which the SS-men and camp bigwigs avoided like the plague. For a long time I couldn’t stand the smell, I was sick and there were moments when I was so weak that I had to hold onto the wall so as not to collapse onto the floor.

Some patients arrived in the block with scabies. Their skin was all red, covered in blisters and boils. The contagion spread to other patients when they scratched or happened to knock against or bump into others in the congested rooms. I smeared them with either black tar ointment or yellow sulphate ointment. There was no water to wash their dirty skin, nor any clean underwear to change them into, so it was difficult to control the epidemic of scabies (Kłodziński, 1970: 30). There was a shortage of disinfectants such as chlorine, cresol, or Lysol, which would have stopped pathogenic germs from spreading. There was no such process as disinfection the way it is practised in modern medicine. The doctor on the first floor of Block 16 was helpless when confronted with the stinking phlegmons and necrotic wounds; cases of infection which covered a patient’s entire body and the mysterious “selections”, the purpose of which we did not know at the time, made him cry like a baby. Later we learned that those who were selected were sent to their deaths.

Durchfall was a blanket term for the most dangerous infectious diseases, such as dysentery, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, or erysipelas. The patients in Block 15 were not segregated into separate rooms for these different diseases; there were not enough beds in the various wards of the hospital to send them there. Block 15 was a refuge for those known as Muselmänner, who were suffering from allgemeine Körperschwäche (general exhaustion) as well as prisoners with diarrhoea. Prisoners who had been beaten up during work in their commandos, or those punished by flogging, or those strung up on the post, or locked up in the bunker, and prisoners with bullet wounds were also cared for in Block 15). Patients with diarrhoea could not take any food because their body could not digest it, and they were soiling themselves all the time with excrement and blood, and exuding unbearably foul-smelling, putrescent fluids. Some conditions were so bad that the patient was stunned and overwhelmed by a kind of numbness which paralysed his apperception of sensory impulses. The patients’ loss of immunity due to inanition, their spiritual apathy, and their failure to respond to diagnostic recommendations made treatment extremely hard. The situation of the doctors and nurses was difficult and called for boundless dedication and self-sacrifice. In such dire conditions they observed the principle that medicine helps people to live, not to die.

There were no medications, no antibiotics, no dietary meals, no injections. Patients got the same meals as healthy prisoners—concentration camp bread, soup made from turnips or potatoes garnished with a goodly dose of saltpetre (potassium nitrate) which eroded the inner walls of the stomach and intestines and ruptured the blood vessels. The entire body was gradually poisoned with toxins. The consequences were painful cramps, shivering, severe headaches and a high temperature leading to utter ruin and death. Some patients also developed meningitis and myelitis, which led to insanity and death.

I remember how one night a patient with a high temperature was returning from the toilet and opened the wrong door, the one to the block senior’s room. The block senior thought it was a thief, jumped out of bed, grabbed hold of his throat with both hands and started to strangle him. The poor unfortunate called his friend N. to help him. The block senior went into a frenzy, ran into the prisoners’ room and brought out prisoner N., who was completely innocent. He then took both prisoners to the washroom and had them whipped on their bare backs, 25 strokes each. He then plunged their heads in a trough of water and held them in the water until they died. Then he returned to his room, pleased with himself and convinced he had proved his physical strength and superiority over the ignorant crowd of slaves. In the morning we saw the two dead men lying on the cold concrete of the washroom floor. Their bodies were covered with purple welts.

Another time a piece of bread went missing from under a patient’s pillow. Biedermann accused his neighbour and threatened to report him. Before the block senior came back from the camp office, the accused, innocent man hanged himself in the toilet. The camp’s authorities were notified and after a while a team of SS-men arrived with cameras, turning the unfortunate incident into a big sensation.4 That evening we had a discussion with the nurses and paramedics on what a human life is worth. Some were of the opinion that inordinate suffering paralyses the mind, and that sort of death cannot be regarded as a suicide.

I know of a prisoner, a driving instructor, who had been harassed; he raised his hands up to heaven, said the Lord’s Prayer aloud, and went onto the live wire. Another harassed prisoner thrust a knife into his chest. It went into his lung instead of his heart. Blood was trickling down his side, but he still went to the roll call. Leon, the block senior of Block 4,5 told him how to do it and he showed him, “You have to press the handle of the knife hard against the wall and stick the blade deep into yourself.” The suicide just nodded; he had other plans. The next morning we saw him on the wire right next to our block.

Durchfall was relentlessly spreading havoc and ruin in the camp. I carried out 6–7 corpses a night and put them on a pile in the corridor. Other nurses did the same from other rooms. The sight of corpses reminded me of Juliusz Słowacki’s Ojciec zadżumionych.6 In the morning the dead were taken to the mortuary in Block 20, and from there the leichenträgers (corpse-carriers) Teofil Banasiuk and Eugeniusz Obojski took them in wooden chests to the crematorium. Later they used a Rollwagen cart for the job. As a priest, I granted absolution7 to many of the dying, preparing them for death and praying with them. Many were saved from spiritual prostration and some managed to stand up on their own two feet again. From November 1941 to May 1942, I said Mass in absolute secrecy in the cellar of the block which was being built, and brought Holy Communion8 to the patients in the hospital (for more on this, see three of my articles published in 1946). I administered Holy Communion to Józef Stemler, president of Polska Macierz Szkolna (the Polish Educational Society); Father Podkul, a Salesian; Father Smoroński of Warsaw, editor of Homo Dei; and many others.


Standing bunkers. Marian Kołodziej
At one time Father Antonin Bajewski of Niepokalanów9 was dispensing a Samaritan’s services, washing faeces off patients, taking excrement buckets out of the room, delousing patients and cleaning their undergarments, and feeding those whose hands were palsied. He heard the confessions of those due to be sent to “Abraham’s bed,”10 absolved them, and commended them to God. He attended Durchfall patients with self-sacrificing dedication, offering up his health, his vigour, and finally his life for them. His death is something that has stuck in my memory. When he was on his deathbed all the patients were reciting the Lord’s Prayer, with tears running down their cheeks. They bade him farewell, saying, “Good-bye, Dear Father and Dearest Friend.”

Leon Pietrzykowski, No. 413, an assistant of Professor Stanisław Pigoń of the Jagiellonian University, was another person who dispensed the lowliest services for the sick. He washed the soiled and lice-ridden underwear of Durchfall patients (he only had cold water for the job), peeled the scabs off their skin, and picked the worms off their bodies and bedding, trying to bring them some relief in their miserable, degrading predicament. In the evenings he entertained them reciting passages he knew by heart from Polish literature, whole episodes from the works of Adam Mickiewicz,11 as well as passages from his tutor’s autobiography, Z Komborni w świat.12 Patients were inspired by his goodness and readiness to help, which the deprivation that raged in the camp could not extinguish. He was able to take prisoners out of the nightmare of their dreadful reality and transport them to another world, the world of spiritual values. That’s how he saved many patients’ lives. He survived Auschwitz, but drowned while bathing in the Vistula River during a stay at the house of the playwright Jerzy Szaniawski. He is buried in the Zduńska Wola cemetery.

Father Norbert Pellowski, a Pallottine, shared a hospital bunk with Kamala, who had been the governor of Bereza Kartuska.13 Father Pellowski was suffering from severe typhoid fever, withering like a wilting plant. He was more like a skeleton than a human being. During spells of remission he came to the assistance of other patients, washing their bowls, helping to control the plague of worms, and even writing poetry and reading his poems to fellow-prisoners. Some of his poems have been preserved; here is one about a certain paramedic:

You’re working hard, God’s field you attend,
Assisting the sick even when betrayed,
Always ready good advice to commend,
Spryly, gladly you come to their aid.

A sudden haemorrhage overwhelmed his body and dealt the death blow, engrossing the entire ward in deep sorrow and grief.

Stanisław Gutowski from Płock, who worked as a nurse, was one of the radiant personalities in No. 15. One day block senior Biedermann noticed a bowl on turnips in the washroom. He was furious and called all the staff and ordered the culprit to own up. “You’ll die, all of you! I’ll show you that I’ve got power!” he shouted vehemently. “Half squats, hands behind your necks, now jump, squat and run!” Penal exercises went on for half an hour. Every sinew in our bodies was quivering with pain, our eyes were popping out, our lips were distorted in a spasm of suffering. After some time, the paramedic Staszek Gutowski came in. “Help, save us, friend. Take all the blame yourself,” we begged him with tears in our eyes. He boldly went up to the block senior and said, “I was the one who hid the bowl.” The furious tyrant dismissed us, took Staszek into his room, and administered 25 lashes on his bare back. After this flogging the innocent Staszek, whacked black and blue, could not return to the patients’ room on his own. For several days we brought him bread and margarine to help him get over it. He recovered and survived the camp. We admired him for his quiet heroism. There were lots of courageous people in the Auschwitz hospital. We cannot let them be forgotten, they should be presented to the world and honoured. We must tell the world that in all of these dreadful, macabre ordeals, the victims proved their spiritual greatness.

One day in early July 1941,14 Block 15 was de-loused. I can no longer describe the full details of the Entläusung, a most peculiar “project” which cost many lives. All the patients were taken outside, regardless of how bad their condition was; those who were too debilitated or had a fever were brought out on stretchers. All the mattresses, blankets, bandages, handkerchiefs, rags etc. were left inside. The cracks in the windows were sealed up with sticky paper, the doors were shut tight, and gas was sent in to kill the lice.

The patients were ordered to strip, take the bandages off their wounds, roll up their things into a bundle and hand them in for treatment with the gas. They were made to stand naked in a queue between two blocks. In the middle there was a tub of water with cresol or some other liquid, and patients were immersed in it. The nurses disinfected the shaven parts of their bodies using spray guns. On being taken out of the water, severely ill patients were laid out on the ground; those who were in a better condition stood huddled together in groups, waiting for their clothes to return from disinfection. Their bodies were deformed, their skin was covered with scabs or purulent patches of scabies, with pus issuing from their open wounds. Patients running a fever caught pneumonia and started shivering, some even lost their lives.

In the evening, the paramedics entered the block wearing gasmasks and opened the doors and windows to ventilate it. We could smell the gas from afar. We noticed that not all the nits and lice had been killed, even though they were lying motionless on their backs. They warmed up and revived, swamped the bunks and infested people, injecting typhus bacteria into their blood. Later a de-lousing facility called an Entwesungskammer was built on the Industriehof (industrial estate). It was a gas chamber used to kill the insects that infested our clothes and underwear. Soviet POWs had to strip in front of this facility on arrival in the camp, which they then entered naked.

Patients developed phlegmons and furuncles when they had been punished by being flogged, beaten up at work, or had cuts on their skin etc. Twenty-five strokes with a birch baton or the stick of a shovel left swollen purple marks on the victim’s buttocks. Sometimes the swollen areas bled and led to a deep-seated process of decay and long-term necrosis. Generalized infection, including sepsis, ensued owing to the lack of antiseptics. Paper dressings were applied and soon soaked right through. They were changed twice a week or even once a fortnight, depending on how big the hospital’s supply happened to be. No wonder that patients’ blankets stank of the putrescent fluids they exuded, and worms teemed in their wounds. I had never known before that a human being could have so many worms in his wounds and still live.

I remember one Nowak, a policeman from Warsaw, who had phlegmons on his buttocks. He was literally lying in his excrement, and instead of a backside he just had two protruding bones full of worms. He was in terrible pain and yelled and banged his head against the wall. I used to take him in my arms and carry him to the washroom, change his paper dressing and take him back to the same sodden shakedown. It took him a fortnight to die of utter exhaustion and in a state of frenzy. The SS Lagerarzt (SS chief physician) saw this case and it dissuaded him from frequent rounds of our convalescent ward.15

The doctor responsible for the room where I worked as a paramedic was Dr Edward Nowak from Warsaw (No. 447), who was later sent to Majdanek. Dr Nowak performed a thoracentesis on Willibald Koloch of Lipiny, a prisoner who arrived in the camp with me, and drew off a litre of fluid that had collected in the pleural cavity. This brought the patient some relief and hope of survival, however, sepsis set in and claimed yet another victim. Dr Nowak was saddened by the situation his patients were in, and every time there was a selection or prisoners were deported he was deeply distressed; he intuitively felt they were not being taken to a sanatorium, but to the crematorium. He was a bright ray of hope in the darkness of Auschwitz, a man of principle in a place where human dignity was being dehumanised. He treated medical practice not as a profession but as a sacred mission in the service of other people.

I carried patients suffering from serious phlegmons and necrosis on my back to the surgical dispensary room in Block 16. Dr Władysław Dering from Warsaw was the surgeon who operated in the aseptic operating theatre on the ground floor. I remember watching him clean a wound on the right wrist of Gutt, a fellow-prisoner from Nowy Bytom. There was a large outflow of blood and pus, you could see the patient’s tendons and bones. Despite the treatment, Gutt died. On another occasion I saw Dr Dering sewing up a wound on a patient’s thigh. He was tired and sweating, but he wanted to save this victim’s life. He also performed gallbladder surgery, set broken bones, and even performed trepanations.

Dr Türschmid looked after phlegmon patients on the first floor of Block 16. He also treated traumatic wounds, acute soft tissue inflammation, frostbite, etc. He was executed at the Death Wall in June 1942 (Kłodziński, 1970, and Paczuła, 1970). He saved many patients from selection for death, because he had the skill of presenting a wonderful account of their illness to the SS doctors.

Dr Stanisław Suliborski worked with meningitis patients, invalids, and patients with infectious diseases. In the summer of 1941 his ward was moved to the newly built first floor of Block 15, which was renamed Block 20.

The physician on duty in the typhus ward was Dr Władysław Fejkiel, an intelligent and charming man, full of a spirit of service to his fellow-prisoners. He attended his patients with a smile on his face, trying to relieve their suffering and save their lives. He’d be able to say something more on subjects like the mentality of the foremost Muselmänner, on intelligent patients licking up the remains of food from the food drums used in the camp, or on how patients running a fever were made to stand outside for a day or two and were doused with cold water. We often had to stand by and watch situations which offered no hope, in which any treatment or advice we could give would have been futile. We were heartbroken because we had no fever-reducing drugs, and no pain killers were available.

One of the patients I have pleasant memories of was Włodzimierz Giżycki, an assistant in the Faculty of Law at Warsaw University; another was Jerzy Stos, a talented poet who composed some poems entitled “Numery” (Numbers) and “Modlitwa” (A prayer) before he was executed at the Death Wall. A third was Tadeusz Paczuła, a medical student who is now a doctor in Świętochłowice. A large and unbearably painful ulcer developed on the shinbone of his right leg. For Tadeusz life meant service for others; he had a good sense of humour and cracked jokes to cheer up those who were downhearted and in despair. We admired him for his phenomenal memory, his literary talent, and above all for his ability to create a good relationship with absolutely everyone.

These young people adopted and followed a straightforward rule: “We must survive, because our mother, our school, our country is waiting for us.” Włodzimierz Giżycki once said, “You know that desertion is a great disgrace. Well, here we’re at an important section of the frontline. We must not break down or surrender.” And indeed, their spirit was invincible, even though they had to submit to physical violence. Jerzy Stos walked up to the Death Wall bravely and resolutely. Before he died he said, “Thank my mother on my behalf for everything she did for me, and tell her that I died here.” Another prisoner called Jaszczuk developed a phlegmon due to vitamin deficiency. A huge abscess penetrated down to the bone attacking his right leg, turning it into a yellow bag full of pus. A fever ravaged him, reducing him to a poor imitation of a human being. He was extinguished like a candle before our very eyes, making us weep tears of helplessness. The idealist Giżycki, whose titanic spirit seemed to be unconquerable, contracted typhus and nothing could save him.

They died unvanquished in spirit. I could reiterate the words of Professor Michalski about them: “In the concentration camp the hammer clashed against the anvil. The torturer was the hammer, and the prisoners were the anvil. The blows were violent and right on target. Often all the molecules in the anvil would vibrate, but they had to stay together and build up a stronger and stronger bond with each other, holding out against all the blows and not disintegrate.” The young companions I have mentioned above were such an anvil. They were stronger than their adversaries, superior to them by their love of their neighbour and respect for their fellow man, who was not just a number for them, but a rational human being with a will of his own. We owe them a tribute and our heartfelt gratitude. Poland, do you know what kind of sons you had? Are you aware of the sacrifices they made of their blood for the love they bore you? Remember that there they rest, faithful to your laws.

In 1940 there were no selections for the gas chambers and no lethal phenol injections. The idea to turn Auschwitz into a gigantic death factory came somewhat later. The first trial runs of killing prisoners with phenol jabs or in the gas chambers took place in 1941.

I remember taking two Jewish prisoners to the hospital dispensary room to have their abscesses cut open and drained. Alfred Stössel (No. 435), who was on duty there, told me to take them to the washroom and come back for them later. I did not suspect anything, and when I returned a short time later I found them sitting on the bench. They were leaning against the wall, in exactly the same position I had left them in. They were dead. Human rights violations of this kind occurred more and more often. Regularly once, or even twice week patients were shortlisted for a “jabbing,” death by being injected with phenol, petrol, an intravenous dose of air, or even straight into the heart. The selection was performed by the SS doctors or by the SDG (Sanitätsgehilfe; SS paramedics), and the injections were administered by various individuals (Paczuła, 1962, 61). The victims were carried out to the washroom and thrown onto a pile of bodies there.

Not much later the camp went through an even more ominous event. In July 1941 a special committee arrived to carry out a review of the patients. A list was made of all the invalids with artificial limbs, those with chronic conditions, and all the tuberculosis patients from the TB ward. Word went round that they were being taken to a sanatorium near Dresden. In the evening they were loaded up onto train carriages waiting on the Industriehof II siding. Those who were not so badly ill from the working prisoners’ blocks walked in fives, and the bedridden and severely ill were carried on stretchers or transported by car. One of the deportees was Lucjan Dudek, a friend of mine I used to go to school with in Rybnik. He had contracted TB in the camp and was put on the transport along with all the others from the TB ward. He never returned home to his mother, who was looking forward to her only child’s return. P. Greiner, the manager of the canteen in the Silesia coal mine at Rybnik Paruszowiec, was also put on this transport. He had lost his right leg and had an artificial limb. He had spent a fairly long spell on the hospital’s first floor. I often used to visit him for a friendly chat about our situation in the camp and the hunger we were all suffering from. That evening I helped him board the train and asked him to write a letter to my mother from the sanatorium.

At the last moment two functionaries, Johann Siegruth, oberkapo of the Industriehof, who had an artificial arm, and Ernst Krankemann, the strong and healthy block senior of the penal commando, were put on this train apparently bound for Dresden, but in reality it was for the euthanasia centre (Kłodziński, 1970: 99). Various rumours went round the camp about their deportation, even that they were lynched during the train journey. When Krankemann was block senior of Block 4 he took a prisoner he found inconvenient to the toilet and killed him there. He also made many other prisoners stay outside after the evening roll-call in a half-squatting position with a stool on their shoulders until they passed out. When he was kapo of the Sonderkommando road roller, which was pulled by a team of Jews and priests harnessed up to it, he finished off several Catholic priests, including Father Cyrek, a Jesuit from Kraków; Father Marian Morawski, who was a professor of theology at the Jagiellonian University; Father Łętkowski, and other clergymen (Szweda 1959). As head of the death block, he spread terror and ruin. But he also had lucid intervals when he managed to come up with a humanitarian impulse. He gave a piece of bread to Father Franciszek Blachnicki (now a professor of the Catholic University of Lublin) when he was starving, after surviving incarceration in the dungeon of the bunker and served half a year in the penal commando;16 and during a very cold spell, he gave a sweater to Father Antoni Kresa from Okrzeja.

According to the stories brought back by the SS-men who had escorted them, all the prisoners on the train were gassed by carbon monoxide fed into a bathroom through the shower heads, at Sonnensteim near Dresden. This news, which arrived in Auschwitz along with the victims’ clothes, spread terror among the inmates and cast us into profound grief.

The next gassing of patients and Soviet POWs took place in early September in the bunkers of the death block. Bedridden and severely ill patients were laid out one on top of another in piles on the cold concrete floor of the bunker; the walking patients were crammed into the cells like sardines in a tin. Buried alive, they were in dreadful pain, scratched the walls, bit their fingers, and screamed. It wasn’t until one o’clock at night, when the Soviet POWs were crammed into the cells, that Prussian gas17 was released. After three days, the paramedics removed the bodies and transported them on carts to the crematorium. Large pieces of skin was peeling off the corpses as they were being taken out of the bunker. I was an eye-witness and have given a full account elsewhere of this shocking incident (Szweda 1970; Kłodziński, 1972: 80–94). Subsequently the procedure was upgraded and prisoners were gassed in the mortuary of the crematorium, which they entered naked, and the gas was delivered through apertures in the ceiling. Rudolf Höss wrote a description of this manner of killing (Höss 1960: 146–147). Later on prisoners were gassed in the crematoria of Birkenau.

Another noteworthy event was the memorable Auschwitz winter of 1942 and the patients’ march from Auschwitz to Birkenau.18 Some were transported in the Fleischwagen (meat vehicle); others had to walk. It was a cold and frosty day and many froze to death. They lay in the snow by the roadside along the three-kilometre stretch of road, screaming with pain and calling out for help. Each had his number written on his chest with a copying pencil, and those whose number had faded or rubbed off were brought into the hospital washroom and paramedics were called in to identify the bodies. Only a few were successfully identified before they were sent to the crematorium. Father Piotr Dańkowski19 from Zakopane was put in the Birkenau horse stables. He literally went through a Way of the Cross before he died on Good Friday 1942. He was made to carry a wooden beam on his shoulders and was trampled into the mud, mocked, and spat on.

The killing of patients by rifle squad comprises a separate chapter. Father Kresa, a Sonderkommando prisoner I have already mentioned, was in Block 15 with a bad phlegmon on his right leg. Next he developed pneumonia and was moved to the internal medicine ward in Block 28. His critical condition abated, and there was a chance that he would survive. Then news came from the camp’s main office that he and Canon Konstanty Pabisiewicz from Adamów, along with a few patients from the convalescents’ ward, were to be released. An SS doctor examined them and declared they were fit enough to travel, and they left the hospital.

Alas, their hopes of liberation were short-lived. After the evening roll-call, we saw them in a group of 80 half-naked Polish prisoners being led by a squad of SS-men, headed by Palitzsch, out of the yard of the penal block to the pits beyond the kitchen. They were calm and cheerful as they slowly marched. They did not look like defenceless prisoners being taken to their deaths, but like victors on their triumphal march, their last in this world. They seemed to be walking like workmen after a hard day’s work, sure of a just reward and a well-earned rest. Today who knows of their attitude and their quiet heroism? After a while the volley of shots fired by the execution squad reached our ears. Those who were still groaning were finished off with a revolver. Paramedics carried the still warm bodies to the crematorium, which had smoke rising over it day and night.

I remember Rapportfüher Palitzsch one day leading a group of about 250 prisoners into the yard of the death block, and shooting them with his revolver in the back of the head. The blood flowed out through the iron gate into the camp street. One of the victims was a Polish officer, who courageously said, “Please shoot me in the face, like a soldier is shot, not in a cowardly way in the back of the head.” He deserves a tribute for his valour. His request was fulfilled. Reimund Schnabel’s words were confirmed: “In the camp alongside the atrocity there was also fraternity; alongside sadists there were also heroes and saints.”

I never knew that you were allowed to execute sick prisoners and incinerate them in the crematoria when they were not yet dead. It was a terrible shock for us and this has left an indelible memory that will last to the end of our lives.

On orders from Alfred Stössel, Revierältester Bock sent me and paramedic Gliński, who is now a doctor in Kraków, to the Russian POW camp, which was being set up in a segregated area of the concentration camp. Naked POWs lived in these blocks, and that’s how they did their outdoor physical exercises in sub-zero temperatures. They never washed and were constantly hungry, beaten and endlessly maltreated. No wonder death decimated their ranks. We paramedics had to carry those who had been clubbed to death with sticks or an iron crowbar to the crematorium.

We were permitted by the Sanitätsdienstgehilfe to get healthy POWs to help us with the transportation of the corpses. One afternoon a group pf them and I were carrying the dead to the crematorium. The POWs noticed the heap of bones of their cremated brethren lying on the other side of the fence. Suddenly commander Karl Fritzsch came up to us from the opposite side of the camp. When he saw POWs near the heap of burnt bones he started shouting angrily, hit me in the face and told me to write a penal report with a transfer order for hard labour in the Buna industrial plant. That same evening Gliński and I found ourselves in the Aussenkommando20 block. We bade our last farewells to the hospital. Next morning we were on a cattle train bound for our new workplace, convinced that the kapos there would soon finish us off.

Another episode I remember from my time in the convalescents’ block occurred one Sunday afternoon when the paramedics were taken to the penal block to dress the wounds of all the sick, except for the Jews. The sight was terrible. It looked like the waiting room for death. Some of the Jews had had their eyes put out, their teeth and noses broken, or their ears cut off. Their faces were white as a sheet, their bodies covered in long, black bruises, and their legs were swollen. We applied ointment to these patients’ wounds as well, but no paper dressings on them, otherwise they would have “fallen foul” of their guards. We were looking at the epilogue to the words of welcome every new inmate heard on arriving in Auschwitz: “Jews have a right to live for a fortnight, priests can live for a month, and everyone else for three months.”

As you can see, infectious diseases spread quickly throughout the camp and claimed a lot of victims. The doctors and nursing staff were full of dedication and did all they could to save prisoners’ lives. But they could not have guessed that the makers of Auschwitz wanted it to be a death factory, the venue for the extermination of millions. If it had not been for the self-sacrificing care provided by the prisoner-doctors working in the camp hospitals, the death toll of sick prisoners would have been much higher. Even when imprisoned behind the barbed wire, the medical staff were true to the promise they had made to treat and save the lives of all human beings in need, regardless of race or nationality. By adopting this attitude they put themselves at risk of retribution from the authorities of a regime which wanted its concentration camps to be a place of genocide. That is why in the concentration camps you could see extreme opposites close to each other—meanness next to greatness, bestiality side by side with heroism. The way sick prisoners behaved during their illness and at the moment of death, even the sacrifice of their own life for another prisoner, as in the case of Father Kolbe, left a deep impression on us. Such events gave us a moral jolt which restored our strength, woke us up from our apathy and torpor, and revitalised our will to live. Those prisoners were able to counteract the enormity of hatred with their attitude of love, and defy the contempt of mankind with their profound respect for human dignity. That put us back on our feet, kept us from losing hope, and helped us survive the camp.

For this they must be paid a tribute of gratitude. Thankfulness is also due to all who “organised” medications, antiseptics and painkillers, hid them in their shoes or in the lining of their clothes and brought them into the camp when returning from outside commandos. All those who got sick prisoners out of the penal company, saved prisoners from selection risking their own lives to get them into the camp hospital, and all those who were good to patients and helped them deserve acknowledgement. They proved that evil could not kill the good that was in them; and for those they saved, they were proof of the victory of love over hatred.

Translated from original article: Szweda, Konrad, “ierwszy okres oddziału chorób zakaźnych w obozie oświęcimskim.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1972.

Notes

1. The entry for the death of prisoner Alfons Czajor (No. 1193; date of birth 30 September 1911) is dated 13 June 1942; and the death of his brother Ryszard Czajor (date of birth 30 December 1913) is entered for 14 June 1942. Both brothers were shot on 12 June 1942.a
2. A list of the nursing staff and orderlies is available in 2 articles, “Szpital obozowy” by Dr Tadeusz Paczuła in Zeszyty Oświęcimskie 5, and “Organizacja i administracja szpitala obozowego“ in Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim (1962: 61).a
3. We went to Rybnik grammar school together, so I knew him well.a
4. This type of photography was done by SS-men from Erkennungsdienst (police records), a subordinate unit of the Political Department. In Auschwitz and other concentration camps whenever a prisoner committed suicide there would be a rigorous “inquiry.” This applied to suicides committed indoors in the prisoners’ quarters (often it was not suicide, but a killing committed by the block senior), suicide by the victim throwing himself on the high voltage wire, etc. A report would be drawn up on the incident, complete with photographs taken on the scene of the suicide. The Auschwitz Museum has one photograph of a prisoner on the live wire, and a set of photographs taken of incidents of this kind at Mauthausen.a
5. Not to be confused with the camp senior Leon Wietschorek.a
6. Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849), one of the chief Polish Romantic poets. His poem “Ojciec zadżumionych” (English translation “The father of the plague-stricken at El Arish,” by Marjorie Beatrice Peacock and George Rapall Noyes) tells the tragic story of a father who watches all the members of his family die of plague, until he is the only one left out of a family of nine.b
7. In the Roman Catholic Church the priest hearing a penitent’s confession grants absolution, absolving the penitent of his or her sins.b
8. Roman Catholic priests held as prisoners in Auschwitz were prohibited from saying Mass and administering the Sacraments, and could be severely punished for doing so. In fact religious practices of any kind whatsoever were strictly forbidden and punishable.b
9. Antonin Bajewski (born Jan Eugeniusz Bajewski, 1915-1941), close associate and deputy of St. Maximilian Kolbe; beatified in 1999 by Pope John Paul II. Niepokalanów is a Franciscan house in central Poland founded by Father Kolbe.b
10. A corner in the room where the dying were put.a
11. Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), the foremost Polish Romantic poet.b
12. In fact Professor Pigoń did not publish his autobiography until after the war (its first and second editions appeared in 1946).b
13. A prison in pre-war Poland for the government’s political opponents.b
14. It was on 10 July, the day I received a telegram that my father had died. He died in Rybnik on 9 July.a
15. More information on this issue would no doubt be available from Dr Leon Głogowski, who had to treat whole groups of new arrivals to the camp who had been beaten up by SS-men or Lagerältester Bruno Brodniewicz (No. 1) and Leo Wietschorek (No. 30). He applied a solution of sepso to their buttocks which had swollen and were jelly-like due to the beating.a
16. After the war Father Blachnicki founded a Catholic youth organisation called Światło—Życie [Light—Life] and was oppressed by the Communist regime of People’s Poland for his pastoral work with young people. He died in suspicious circumstances after a visit by two Communist secret agents in 1987. His beatification process started in the 1990s.b
17. Cyclone B (German name Zyklon B)b
18. It occurred on 1 March 1942, when the Soviet POW camp in Auschwitz was closed down. The 945 Soviet POWs still alive on that day and some of the sick prisoners were transferred to Section BIb (there are no records, so the exact number of them has not been established). Some of the functionary prisoners, mostly Germans, were moved with them to Birkenau.a
19. Beatified in 1999 by Pope John Paul II.b
20. Aussenkommando—the commando of prisoners working on sites beyond the enclosed area of the camp.b

a—notes translated from the original publication; b—Head Translator’s notes.

References

1. Höss, Rudolf. Wspomnienia Rudolfa Hoessa, komendanta obozu oświęcimskiego. Sehn, J., and Kocwa, E., trans. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Prawnicze; 1960.
2. Kłodziński, Stanisław. Dr Wilhelm Türschmid. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1970: 261.
3. Kłodziński, Stanisław. Pierwsza oświęcimska selekcja do gazu. Transport do „sanatorium Dresden.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1970: 39–50.
4. Kłodziński, Stanisław. Świerzb i ropowice w obozie Oświęcim-Brzezinka. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1970: 30–33.
5. Kłodziński, Stanisław. Pierwsze zagazowanie więźniów i jeńców w obozie oświęcimskim. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1972: 80–94.
5. Kozłowiecki, Adam. Ucisk i strapienie: pamiętnik więźnia 1939&ndasg;1945. Kraków: WAM; 1995.
6. Paczuła, Tadeusz. Szpital obozowy. Zeszyty Oświęcimskie. 1961; 5: no pagination given.
7. Paczuła, Tadeusz. Organizacja i administracja szpitala obozowego. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1962: 61–68.
8. Paczuła, Tadeusz. Letter quoted in Kłodziński, Stanisław. 1970. “Dr Wilhelm Türschmid.”
9. Pigoń, Stanisław. Z Komborni w świat. Kraków: Spółdzielnia Wydawnictw Wieś; 1946.
10. Pigoń, Stanisław. Wspominki z obozu w Sachsenhausen (1939–1940). Kraków: PIW; 1966. 11. Schnabel, Reimund. Die Frommen in der Hölle. Geistliche in Dachau, Frankfurt-am-Main. Ro¨derberg-Verlag; 1966.
12. Szweda, Konrad. Danina krwi kapłańskiej. (unpublished typescript).
13. Szweda, Konrad. “Wspomnijmy męczenników.” Gość Niedzielny. 1959; VIII–XI. No pagination given.
14. Szweda, Konrad. No title given. Gość Niedzielny. 1970. No pagination given.
15. Szweda, Konrad. Letter to Dr S. Kłodziński (no date given).

We use cookies to ensure you get the best browsing experience on our website. Refer to our Cookies Information and Privacy Policy for more details.