Jan Stanisław Olbrycht, MD, PhD, 1886–1968, forensic pathologist, Jagiellonian University professor, survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau (prisoner no. 46688) and of Mauthausen (no. 118152). See the Wikipedia article in English.
Professor Józef Bogusz,1 Chairman of the Kraków branch of the Polish Medical Society, has embarked on an undertaking of immense social importance, to publish a special edition every year of the Society’s journal, Przegląd Lekarski, to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. These special issues are to present medical questions pertaining to the period of Poland’s wartime occupation by Nazi Germany. Seven such volumes have been published already, and have been highly acknowledged. Recently Professor Bogusz has asked me to write a contribution for the eighth volume, presenting my personal recollections as a forensic scientist of the period under Nazi German occupation and following liberation, as the testimony I delivered as an expert to the Polish Supreme National Tribunal was not based on my personal observations, but on fully objective grounds of primary importance, that is on the original records and materials abandoned by the Nazi Germans. I did so to eliminate any emotional or subjective premises from my testimony. Yet on the other hand the publication of my private observations, not merely delivered orally (for verba volant, scripta manent),2 will also constitute a documentary record in a way, since we do not have a surfeit of materials of this kind, and with the passage of time there are fewer and fewer surviving witnesses, the material evidence is dwindling, survivors’ memories are failing them, and we should be saving what can still be saved of their recollections, especially as West German revisionist milieus are trying in various ways to obfuscate the Nazi German crimes.
I believe it is the social and national duty of the survivors who are still alive to give witness to the truth, so I shall meet this requirement, although I know very well that my story will present only a small fraction of the concentration camp reality, and of the judicial system which operated under Nazi German occupation, and that had I written earlier than a quarter of a century after the events, my account would have been more detailed.
When the Second World War broke out—in the morning hours of 1 September 1939 the first victims of the German air raid on ulica Warszawska were brought to the hospital—followed by the occupation of Kraków by German troops, and subsequently after my return home from my eventful “military expedition”3 from the environs of Zbaraż via Tarnopol, Lwów, Przemyśl, and Jarosław,4 the Jagiellonian University’s Department of Forensic Medicine continued to work normally. It was not until 6 November 1939, when I was attending the infamous lecture5 delivered by Obersturmbannführer Müller in Room 66 of the Collegium Novum Building in connection with the notorious Sonderaktion Krakau and the arrest and deportation of the professors to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, that Müller ordered me to report immediately to Sicherheitsdienst (the German secret police headquarters), at No. 1 on ulica Grottgera. When I arrived for the interview, which (as I later learned) was secretly monitored, I was told that henceforth judicial proceedings involving forensic medical work carried out by my Department would be conducted either by a German Sondergericht (special court), or by a Polish court. The decision as to which court was to handle a particular case would be made by the Gestapo, and the Department was to notify the Gestapo whenever it received a body or material evidence for examination. I was ordered to perform the duties of forensic medical expert both for the Polish courts as well as for the special court, and I was given a permit allowing me to visit the prison in the event of a need to carry out a psychiatric examination of any of the prisoners. In this way I was able to see for myself how the Nazi German judicial system worked in occupied Poland.
The two foundations of the German judicial system were the prison on ulica Montelupich and the prison known as “St. Michael’s”6 on ulica Senacka.
The Montelupich jail was overcrowded. Its inmates included not only anti-Nazi activists and members of underground resistance organisations; volunteers who wanted to join the Polish army in France and who were caught on the Polish-Slovak border with their guides; people suspected of sabotage, hostages sent in from the prisons in Myślenice, Czarny Dunajec, Nowy Sącz, and Tarnów; and people arrested for, or suspected of possessing radio sets. There were also people rounded up in mass arrests in the streets, Jews, and arrestees who never learned what they were accused of. They were people of various ages, from adolescents to the very old, from all the social classes, professions, and walks of life.
Usually they did not stay in prison for very long. The special court made short shrift of sentencing them, either to death or to a concentration camp. Very few were acquitted. Unfortunately, the records drawn up in the Montelupich prison and the Kraków office of the Gestapo and special court have not come down to us; nonetheless we have objective data available on the conditions in the Montelupich jail and the way its prisoners were killed at Krzesławice.7 We know this on the basis of statements made by those who were released, secret messages smuggled out of the prison to inmates’ families or brought into the jail in food and clothes parcels, notes and letters found on the bodies of exhumed victims, and information obtained from some of the prison guards.
The notorious Nazi German prison regime was rigorously applied in the Montelupich jail, along with the ill-famed Gestapo methods of interrogation. Prisoners who were interrogated were gagged with a mask to muffle their yells and horsewhipped all over their body, especially on their feet, until they lost consciousness. Then they were brought round with water and beaten again. Prisoners put in, or transferred to Cell No. 87 or No. 94 knew they were due to die, so these cells were known as the death cells.
We also know that prisoners who were taken from Montelupich jail to Krzesławice in tarpaulin-covered lorries to dig ditches would be taken there again in the early hours on the next day, shot, and buried in the ditches they had dug the day before. People would find notes dropped by prisoners on the road from Montelupich to Krzesławice, informing their families that they were being taken to dig their graves and to die.
As I have already said, the second foundation of the German judicial system in occupied Kraków was St. Michael’s prison on ulica Senacka. Its inmates were prisoners who had been jailed before the War and offenders held on remand by the Polish prosecutor’s office. The warden at the time was the Pole who had held the job before; later he was succeeded by a Volksdeutsche,8 while the rest of the guards were Poles. This prison was under the supervision of the head of the German prosecutor’s office in Kraków, and the warden did not have the power to send arrestees to the German police unless authorised by the German prosecutor, yet that is precisely what he did on many occasions. He would then make an entry in the records that such prisoners had been sent to Montelupich or to a concentration camp, or sent to be executed. Moreover, there were instances when prisoners were shot in St. Michael’s prison on ulica Senacka, and their bodies were removed in ambulances belonging to the municipal sanitary company.
Putting it in a nutshell, the judicial system under German occupation was a parody of justice, because everything was in the hands of the Gestapo, which took all the decisions and operated like a state within a state.
On many occasion I was a witness of the Gestapo deporting detainees who had been released or acquitted either by a Polish court or by the special court to a concentration camp, usually to Auschwitz, where it would “finish them off.” When their families asked the prison for information, they were either given no information at all, or false information that the prisoner had died during the journey, or had been sent to Germany for slave labour, or to a concentration camp etc., or they were given bogus causes of death.
In my work under German occupation as an expert appearing in court in matters concerning the supreme human values such as honour, freedom, and life, I often experienced a tremendous inner conflict which elicited numerous deep emotions and reflections, whether to continue in my post as an expert, whose right, duty, and honour it is above all to seek and serve the truth, whereas oftentimes the parties to the proceedings were in the service of other masters. Soon I became convinced that this could only be done under a normal and honest legislative and judicial system, while the terrorist law of the Generalgouvernement prescribed the death sentence even for minor misdemeanours. Even the most lenient sentences handed down by the Polish courts for offences in many cases were effective death sentences, because the Germans deported arrestees to Auschwitz, where they perished.
As there are no extant records of the Kraków Sondergericht, the best I can do is to recall cases where the death sentence was handed down in cases such as that of an intelligent Polish woman for making a train journey in the Nur für Deutsche9 carriage. She tried to save herself by pleading insanity. Another case involved an old Jewish lady who was sentenced to death for taking just a few steps beyond the bounds of the ghetto to collect some sand from the street to mend her heating stove. I also have a very distinct memory, and can recall all the details, of a case which is interesting not only from the forensic pathologist’s point of view, but also from the legal and judicial aspect. There was no appeal against a Sondergericht verdict, yet in my capacity as a forensic expert I attended two separate proceedings, before both the Warsaw and the Kraków Sondergericht, for the same case. Moreover, Professor Specht, who now works in the West German courts, appeared in this case, and I conducted a dispute with him in the courtroom. Here is the story.
Shortly after the Germans occupied Kraków, three railwaymen, one of whom was a Volksdeutsche, indulged in a drinking spree of methylated spirits stolen from a railway tank wagon. A few days later the same three men visited Immerglück’s, a well-known bar in the Prądnik area of the city, for another binge of drinking. One of them developed severe visual dysfunction, a condition characteristic for methanol poisoning, and the Volksdeutsche died. The forensic examination and post-mortem carried out in the Department of Forensic Medicine gave a negative result. Although there was no doubt as to the cause of death, to confirm the diagnosis, in accordance with the legal requirements we extracted the internal organs from the body of the deceased to send them for chemical and toxicological tests. But the tests could not be conducted, owing to the incarceration of the chemist, Dr Robel,10 along with the other Jagiellonian University professors, in Sachsenhausen.
When Dr Werner Beck, an assistant from the Forensic Medicine Department at Breslau University, was appointed head of the Kraków Department of Forensic Medicine, he sent the deceased Volksdeutsche’s organs to the Breslau Department for chemical and toxicological tests. These analyses were carried out by Dozent Specht, and showed methyl alcohol in the deceased man’s organs. However, on the grounds of the result of the tests and the expert opinion issued by Dozent Specht, who attributed this result to the drinking spree at Immerglück’s bar, Immerglück was put on trial before the Kraków Sondergericht. In court my position was that the death and the other man’s impaired vision should be connected with the methanol stolen from the railway cistern, in view of the fact that no methanol was found in any of the drinks taken for tests from Immerglück’s bar, and that the railway methanol had been drunk a few days before the visit to Immerglück’s bar. I also referred to Strassmann’s research, which showed that tolerance to methanol intoxication, as well as the time lapse before symptoms appeared, including the onset of death, differed very considerably from individual to individual. Specht replied that he had never heard of Strassmann’s study and upheld his opinion. On hearing this, the judge presiding at the Sondergericht said to me, “Herr Professor, Sie haben recht, Strassmann führte Untersuchungen über Massenvergiftung mit Methylalkohol im Asyl für Obdachlose.”11 I was dumbfounded—a lawyer had a far better knowledge of the professional literature than Specht. So when the hearing was over, I took Beck and Specht to the Department of Forensic Medicine and had the pleasure of watching the look on their faces when I brought Volume 45 of the 1913 Supplement to the medical journal Vierteljahrsschrift für gerichtliche Medizin und öffentliches Sanitätswesen from the Department library and showed them Strassmann’s paper, “Die Begutachtung von Massenvergiftung mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Methylalkoholvergiftungen.”12
A few months later I was summoned to attend a trial before the Warsaw Sondergericht, which conducted a session in Kraków and acquitted Immerglück. However, the Gestapo deported him and the rest of his family to Auschwitz, where they died. That was just one example of the state within the state.
As I have already said, Dr Werner Beck became head of the Kraków Department of Forensic Medicine in April 1940. The Department’s name was changed to Das Institut für gerichtliche Medizin und naturwissenschaftliche Kriminalistik im Amt des Generalgouverneurs, and it was subject to the authority of the Generalgouvernement’s Health Department. Next Beck incorporated the Departments of Topographical Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology, and part of the Department of Pathological Anatomy, all of which were housed in the Medical College. Another entity he incorporated was the Department of Medical Chemistry, which was accommodated at No. 7 on ulica Kopernika. This enabled Dr Robel, who had just been released from Sachsenhausen, and myself to secure the appropriate chemicals kept in the Pharmacology and Medical Chemistry Departments as a last refuge13 for members of the underground resistance.
In 1942 a criminal and technical unit was established in the Department of Forensic Medicine, and all of its staff were recruited from the German police. There was another change of the Department’s name, this time to Das Staatliche Institut für gerichtliche Medizin und Kriminalistik, and of its status; it was put under the authority of the Kommandeur der Sicherheitspolizei im GG.14 The forensic medicine departments in Warsaw and Lwów were also put under the authority of this new institution.
As soon as Beck took over as head of the Department a reign of terror set in. He was a distinguished Gestapo officer. A photo of Hitler shaking hands with him hung in his office in the Department, and he applied Gestapo methods at work. Moreover, he was an alcoholic and a notorious psychopath. For instance, whenever photos were taken of cases which were interesting from the scientific point of view or as forensic evidence, he had delusions that such pictures would be sent to the foreign anti-German propaganda. I was not in his good books, especially as all too often the courts disregarded his expert opinions and preferred to summon me instead. So it was no wonder that he did all he could to have me arrested.
Professor Bolesław Popielski,15 whom Beck had transferred to Kraków from the forensic medicine department in Lwów following my arrest, has written an account of what working relations were like in the Department at that time. So, to avoid unnecessary repetition and the charge of not being objective, I shall refer to Popielski’s article.
Stanisław Grek is another author who has described Beck’s activities and the atmosphere in the Department when he was head. Grek wrote his account straight after the liberation in 1945, and it was published in a series of articles headlined “Arcybestia Werner Beck” (The Arch-Beast Werner Beck) in Nos. 96, 97, 98, and 100 of the Warsaw daily Kurier Codzienny, which is the mouthpiece of Stronnictwo Demokratyczne (the Democratic Party).16
Beck and his criminal activities have also been presented in the documents drawn up for his extradition, which—as in many other similar cases—has not come about, and Dr Werner Beck is living quietly at Roermonder Strasse 80 in Laurensberg (West Germany), and working in the Städtische Krankenanstalten (municipal hospitals) on Goethestrasse in Aachen.
I was arrested in the Department on the last day of June 1942, and my office was searched very scrupulously. A similar search was conducted at the same time in my private apartment, as I later learned from my wife. I was taken to the Gestapo and subjected to a methodical interrogation lasting until the evening hours. I noticed that there was a document with the Institute’s letterhead lying on the interrogator’s desk. This and the particularly probing questions put to me convinced me that my arrest was Beck’s doing. Next I was transported to the Montelupich jail (with a stopover on the way at No. 1, ulica Grottgera, the German secret police headquarters). I spent just under a fortnight in the Montelupich jail, but I had the opportunity to see its prison regime for myself, along with the death cells, Nos. 87 and 94, and even the bent prison bars on the window of the cell from which Stanisław Marusarz17 managed to escape on 2 July 1940.
On 13 July 1942, when I was just an unwanted and dangerous Geheimnisträger (individual with a knowledge of secret information), I was taken to Auschwitz with about a dozen other prisoners in a lorry with a tarp roof. My documents in the Politische Abteilung (Political Department) were marked RU and NN, as my unforgettable friend Franciszek Targosz told me. Later I learned that RU meant Rückkehr unerwünscht (not wanted back) and NN meant Nacht und Nebel,18 in other words I was to vanish without trace. Yet their wish did not come true, and after three years in Hitler’s concentration camps at Auschwitz and Mauthausen I returned home to Kraków.
On arrival in Auschwitz, after we had stripped and had all our belongings taken away, taken a shower, and had our heads shaved, we were each issued with underclothes, prison gear and a pair of wooden clogs. Next we were lined up in front of one of the blocks, called up one a time and assigned triangular badges and prison numbers to put on our prison gear, and asked for the address of our next-of-kin to be informed if we died. As I was standing there, waiting for my turn, a green triangle prisoner19 approached me and gave me some bread wrapped up in a piece of newspaper, saying that I must be hungry, as the last time I could have had anything to eat must have been in the Montelupich jail. I recognised him as an international safe-breaker (I have forgotten his name) whose mental health I once examined before the War for the court in Kraków.
I’m citing this incident as my first example to show that some of the individuals imprisoned in concentration camps whose former lives had put them on the margins of society, were capable of humane and altruistic behaviour. And conversely: during my time in concentration camps I saw educated persons, such as professors, clergymen, or judges, who had enjoyed a high social and professional status and mixed in a cultivated milieu prior to their imprisonment, but when incarcerated stole fellow-prisoners’ food.
Next we were quarantined in overcrowded premises in Block 11, the Death Block. I shall never forget the moans and wailing coming from its bunkers and the barely audible sound of the shots at its black Death Wall, where executions were carried out. At such times those of us who happened to be in the room with windows giving a view of the yard between Blocks 11 and 10, with Death Wall on it, would be herded into the room on the opposite side of the building, which had windows with a view of the high-voltage perimeter fence around the camp. This is where I first saw inmates committing suicide by throwing themselves on the electric wire. Such incidents were commonplace and occurred on an almost everyday basis for the whole time I was held in concentration camps.
Due to the overcrowding and lack of fresh air, many inmates (including myself) wanted to go out of the block, even if it meant carrying heavy kettles of food. The overcrowding was particularly annoying at night. Finding a vacant space on the floor for the night was not easy, and completely out of the question if you had to get up for the call of nature.
Having contracted Durchfall (diarrhoea), which was a common disorder in concentration camps, I was moved from Block 11 to Block 28, the prisoners’ hospital. There was a pharmacy in the loft of that block, and when I recovered I was put to work in it. From the windows in the loft of Block 28 I often had the chance to observe prisoners being shot at Death Wall. The tall gate and walls of the block obscured part of the view, and all I could see were the heads and necks of the victims, and sometimes their backs down to their shoulder blades, as they stood facing the black wall. After a while the barrel of a gun would appear, and then you would see the victim drop down and disappear like a puppet.
One of the memories of Block 28 I shall never forget were the “choosies” (selections) of patients due for the gas or the “jab” (i.e. a lethal injection of phenol). Choosies were carried out by a German Lagerarzt (camp physician) and the SDG.20 Any patient with a condition which called for a long period of treatment, and hence also of nourishment; and any patient so emaciated that it made them unfit for work; or those who had contracted a disease which could turn into an epidemic—“qualified” for death by selection. Sometimes scores of such unfortunates would be sent to their deaths on just one day. But it could happen to healthy prisoners, too. I remember how one day a lorry full of Polish boys, about 20–30 of them, arrived in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. They were cheerful, singing, and enjoying what they thought was a pleasure ride. Less than two hours later their corpses were lying next to each other in the bathroom of Block 20.
The pharmacy in the loft of Block 28 was housed in a small room in which medications and dressings were kept. These materials were supplied on a very meagre monthly quota on the basis of an order the SDG made in the SS storehouse. Not surprisingly, in view of the shortfall, medications were administered only to patients who had a chance of recovery, at the expense of those whose condition was hopeless. The same criteria applied in the concentration camp jungle as regards food—the food which should have been given to the hopelessly ill was eaten by the more able-bodied.
Medical supplies improved when mass arrivals started of new prisoners transported to the camp from all over Europe. They brought in a variety of medications, including the latest sulphonamides and antibiotics manufactured by the best West European drug companies. In this situation, when the tiny pharmacy in Block 28 could no longer hold all the incoming materials, a new pharmacy was set up in a large hall on the ground floor of Block 21. A lot of the credit for “organising” deliveries of medical supplies goes to fellow-prisoner Cegielski, who was employed in “Canada,”21 and two colleagues of his (I have forgotten their names), who were particularly clever and skilful in smuggling in medications from “Canada” under a layer of dressings. I sent some of these medications, handled by the same delivery men, to the women’s camp, which also had problems with “organising” supplies.
Having an indoor job and being able to attend roll calls indoors, as well as access to medications such as vitamins, fortifiers, etc., were very important factors helping me to survive. Having access to sedatives during a spell when I was suffering from a carbuncular infection saved me from several operations with an anaesthetic nicknamed tene bene, halte fest,22 and afterwards having to keep changing dressings. But above all I realised what a great influence your psychological state has on your somatic condition. Many prisoners became indifferent and stopped caring about anything, all they could see around them was hopelessness, they succumbed to stress, broke down mentally, and died, usually of a trivial cause. Oftentimes we would ask about a fellow-prisoner whom we had talked to just a couple of days before, only to learn that he was in the crematorium, because he had broken down. The only friends I can still remember out of the numerous fellow-inmates I used to meet, companions who helped one another to keep our spirits up, are Adam Zacharski, Czesław Cegielski, Szczepan Kruczek, Franciszek Targosz, Józef Lorek, and Józef Woźniakowski. Another thing that kept our spirits up was the news brought in by new inmates or disseminated in the underground press. It let us keep hoping that we would survive to liberation, and kept us from cracking up.
Although I worked as a pharmacist, I had the opportunity to witness situations involving forensic medicine. A few weeks after I started working in the pharmacy in the loft of Block 28, SDG Klehr came to the pharmacy and told me to prepare to conduct a post-mortem. Unlike other concentration camps such as Mauthausen-Gusen, Auschwitz did not have a special post-mortem facility, and post-mortems were conducted very rarely, contrary to all the principles of medicine and hygiene, in the septic operating theatre on the ground floor of Block 28. In compliance with Klehr’s instructions, I went to the Leichehalle (mortuary) in Block 28 and notified my fellow-prisoners who worked as Leichenträger (corpse-carriers). But they told me there were no bodies in that room, as they had all been sent to the crematorium.
Prisoner bunks. Marian Kołodziej. Click to enlarge.
When I informed Klehr that everything was ready for the post-mortem but there was no body, he replied with an ironic grin, “die Leiche spaziert noch.”23 And indeed, a while later I saw a young, debilitated prisoner being brought into the Block 28 operating theatre. Klehr told him to lie down on the operating table, and ordered prisoner Pańszczyk to inject a lethal dose of phenol into his heart. When the young man was dead, Professor Kremer,24 who was a Lagerarzt at the time, was called and arrived with jars containing a preserving liquid and said he wanted to carry out a test to see if atrophia fusca (brown atrophy) developed posthumously in the organs. Next he told me to extract samples from the organs in the body, including organs in which brown atrophy never occurs. Klehr didn’t wait for one of the Muselmänner to die, even though they were dropping like flies all the time, he simply had a prisoner killed with a phenol injection.
Next to the pharmacy on the ground floor of Block 21 there was a Krankenbauschreibstube (hospital clerk’s office) and an aseptic operating theatre, which enabled me to see what was done in these rooms.
In the operating theatre German doctors practised operating techniques, on live patients instead of on corpses. This was correlated with the orders given at roll calls, for prisoners who had been receiving treatment for certain conditions before being sent to Auschwitz, or those who were suffering from ailments such as gallbladder trouble, kidney stones etc., to report to the prisoners’ hospital. This is how the German doctors selected their “material” to operate on, or alternatively they looked through prisoners’ medical records. I didn’t want to land up on their operating table, so I asked Dr Gadomski to remove my original medical record, which had an entry that years before I had suffered from kidney stone disease, and to replace it with another card which described a general diagnosis, “under observation.”
In the clerk’s office bogus medical records were fabricated for prisoners who had been shot or gassed. These documents said that they had died of natural causes, and that was the information sent to their next-of-kin. The clerks, who were not medical practitioners, had been trained using medical handbooks to write a plausible description of the symptoms of various diseases, such as pneumonia, heart failure, nephritis, senility, etc.; and depending on the number of victims who had been executed or gassed that day, they were told by the Lagerarzt to create the same number of bogus medical records. The dates of death were faked as well, and prisoners who were killed on the same day had different dates of death ascribed to them.
All this paperwork was a cover-up, and if Hitler’s regime had not collapsed, an outsider doing research after the War on prisoners’ medical records might well have thought that the treatment dispensed to prisoners in Auschwitz had been carried out in accordance with all the latest requirements of medical science and practice. Luckily the fall of Nazism made it impossible to eradicate the evidence of the atrocities.
SS doctors who had an office in Block 21 often looked into the pharmacy, to get foreign medications for which there was a big demand, and also for cosmetics sent to the pharmacy from “Canada.” The camp’s chief pharmacist was another frequent visitor. He took away a lot of medications for his private pharmacy in Silesia.
One day SS-Untersturmführer Werner Rodhe,25 who was a Lagerarzt, turned up in the pharmacy and gazed for a while at a shelf marked Aphrodisiaca. When I told him that the stuff on it was useless, he was sort of embarrassed that I might think he wanted something for himself, and said that he had a court order to examine the semen of a German prisoner for a paternity and maintenance case, and that Dr Dering was going to perform a testicular biopsy. When I told him that a biopsy would not diagnose necrospermia because the sperm in a sample extracted by testicular biopsy was immotile and only acquired motility on contact with fluid secreted from the prostate gland, he asked me how come a pharmacist knew about such things. I replied that I was not a pharmacist, but a forensic pathologist. When I had examined the sperm sample, I handed over the report with the results of the test for him to sign, along with an invoice waiver for the fee. Perhaps that incident was the reason why he often came to see me and ask for my opinion on various similar matters which he did not know how to resolve, and henceforth treated me amicably. My colleagues noticed this, and on several occasions asked me to obtain his help to discharge someone from the penal company. It worked.
Sometime later he asked me to examine some corpses, admitting that apart from two occasions during his medical studies at university he had never done post mortem examinations and had no practice in the subject, but he did not want to be shown up in the eyes of the Politische Abteilung (Political Department). The bodies to be examined were Georgians, victims of an attempt to escape. For a fairly long time we had noticed some very dark-skinned men with black, curly hair in SS uniforms in the environs of Block 27, which accommodated Erkennungsdienst (the police records department). Later we learned that they were Georgians. There were five bodies in the old crematorium—a well-known SS man (I don’t remember his name) and his Alsatian dog, and separately three Georgians. The SS man had a bullet wound in the chest. The Georgians had been shot in the head, with the bullet’s entry hole, distinctly charred round the edges, under their chins. Apart from that they only had scratch marks, characteristic of the marks made by a dog’s paws, and superficial bullet wounds on the limbs. I concluded that following the fight which ended with the death of the SS man, the Georgians did not want to be taken alive and tortured, so they committed suicide.
In the autumn of 1944 Dr Edward Wirths, the Standortartz (chief physician), asked Dr Fejkiel and myself to report to him. When we came to see him, we learned that he had just arrived back from a spa treatment at Wiesbaden, where the question of the behaviour of the heart after death was discussed. There was a difference of opinion whether death ensued during the diastole or the systole phase; and since we did not know how the valves behaved, he was issuing an order to the hospital staff to call the Leichenträger immediately on the death of a patient to collect the body for a post-mortem. I carried out these observations assisted by a colleague, Dr Tabeau (nom-de-guerre Wesołowski). The Polish legal provisions say that a post-mortem should not be carried out before 6 hours have passed since the death, otherwise an entry should be made in the post-mortem report saying why it was done earlier and whether any clear symptoms of the onset of death had been observed earlier. So I was very interested to observe such very early post-mortem changes, which would be of immense practical significance for forensic medicine, and I published the results of these post-mortem observations in 1946, in Nos. 25 and 26 of the medical weekly Tygodnik Lekarski, in an article entitled “O zmianach pośmiertnych” (On post-mortem changes).
In the summer of 1944 the SS doctors asked me for information on the lethal doses of various substances, and whether I knew of any substance to spike a drink which would make the person drinking it disclose information while unconscious. Of course I told them I knew of no such substance. Next day Sturmbannführer Dr Capesius,26 the chief physician of Auschwitz, and SS physicians Dr Bruno Weber and Dr Rodhe, called a few prisoners’ into the SS physician’s room in Block 21, and made them drink a beverage which looked and smelled like coffee. After taking this “coffee”, the prisoners left the room in a state of intense maniacal excitement. The same procedure was carried out the following day, but this time the prisoners who had been experimented on had to be carried out of the room on stretchers, and two of them died during the night. When the SS doctor taking the morning report on the next day was told of this, he burst out laughing sarcastically and said that even so, “they had a nice death.” Later we learned that it was an experiment using mescaline, a hallucinogenic drug.
Already by the early summer of 1944, when the Soviet front started to approach closer and closer, the authorities of Auschwitz began to send out groups of prisoners to other concentration camps. The last evacuation transport left Auschwitz on 18 January 1945, the day Soviet troops occupied Kraków. I left Auschwitz on this transport.
We marched in long columns, five prisoners in a row, heading for Wodzisław via Jastrzębie-Zdrój and Pszczyna. It was a cold day, with temperatures a few degrees below zero Centigrade. Anyone who was too weak to keep up with the rest of the column was shot. On the very first day of the march SS men shot at least 80 women and 30 men. In Wodzisław we were made to board coal carriages and taken by rail to Mauthausen, via Bohumín, Přerov,27 and Vienna. Prisoners were exhausted by the march which took several days, freezing from spending the nights outside in the snow or in sheds, and then travelling for three days in open coal wagons at sub-zero temperatures; and many of them died from the cold. On the evening of 25 January 1945 we arrived at Mauthausen. Many were in their death-throes or had symptoms of psychosis. And no wonder: only coal, bricks, and the like can survive winter transportation in such conditions, but if you’re transporting potatoes or sugar beets you have to put them in a carriage with a roof. The march from Mauthausen railway station through the town and up to the concentration camp was another ordeal which took its toll.
Once in the camp, we had to hand in our personal belongings, take a shower, run naked through the snow to a barrack which was scores of metres away, and then spend the whole night sitting on the bare floor with our legs apart. Sitting between our legs was another prisoner, who had another prisoner between his legs, and so on. Luckily, the next night I didn’t go through the same painful experience again, because the “organising team” in the camp, that is Franciszek Poprawka, Kazimierz Rusinek, Franciszek Sokół, and Władysław Czaplinski, transferred me to the patients’ camp (as we later learned). Here at least I got the chance to sleep in a bunk, with just one other man in it. It was not until much later, after the death of Dr Gromkowski, that I was assigned his bunk and locker.
Conditions in Mauthausen were much worse than in Auschwitz. Often we used to say that Auschwitz was the Grand Hotel in comparison with Mauthausen. Although up to the autumn of 1942 conditions in Auschwitz were no different from those in Mauthausen, later, once the Germans started their policy of bringing Jews from all over Europe to Auschwitz for extermination, which was carried out on a vast scale, there was a substantial improvement in the chances to “organise” something out of the diverse kinds of goods the SS men confiscated from incoming Jewish transports. At this time you could also get food parcels from home. All this vastly improved the living conditions for “Aryan” prisoners.
Meanwhile more and more evacuation transports were coming to Mauthausen from other concentration camps which the Germans managed to vacate before the arrival of Allied troops. As the German line was shrinking, conditions in Mauthausen and its sub-camps were deteriorating. It was becoming more and more congested, with three prisoners to a bunk now, and the quality and quantity of the food was getting worse. All we were getting now was a watery soup made of turnips and unpeeled potatoes, with grains of sand grating on our teeth. No wonder crowds of starving Muselmänner were scavenging in the waste tips for food—bits of mouldy bread, cabbage leaves, or bones thrown out of the kitchen.
What’s more, it was in Mauthausen that I first came across cases of something for which I had to find the right name—necrophagia. Not cannibalism, as the phenomenon is referred to in some memoirs. Cannibalism means first killing a human being, followed by eating their flesh. In Mauthausen under prisoners’ mattresses you could find pieces of human flesh which starving prisoners cut out of corpses for a variety of unknown reasons, and eat.
To counteract the shortage of food, which was well below the minimum daily intake, prisoners organised a system of mutual aid, and I was one of its beneficiaries. We shared out the food rations due to those who had died in the meantime, and the food parcels sent to addressees who could no longer claim them (because they were dead).
The rising number of transports arriving and bringing in prisoners from other concentration camps further worsened living conditions in Mauthausen for the prisoners already there, because they got less food and less room on the bunks. But on the other hand the news the new arrivals brought gave us hope and kept our spirits up, in the expectation that the War would soon end and we would be liberated. All this helped us to survive.
There were other indications that the War was about to end. For instance, volunteers were being mobilised for the front line and issued with Afrikakorps uniforms. They were being mustered in the concentration camp before marching out to the front. Another telling fact was the arrival in April 1045 of International Red Cross ambulances, which took the French and Belgian prisoners to Switzerland. Finally, the Allies were carpet-bombing the camp more and more often. During these raids the SS men on duty abandoned the watchtowers and ran for cover in the air-raid shelters.
On 2 May 1945 the Viennese police took over the management of the camp from the SS men. On 5 May the first American tanks appeared. As soon as I saw them, I headed for them, and those of the Muselmänner who were still up on their feet did the same. Soon the police vanished and the gate of the camp was opened up. There was yet a day of reckoning to come for the kapos. On the following day the Polish Committee was set up as part of the International Committee, and it published a news bulletin entitled Polski Biuletyn Prasowy. Dr Józef Putek was appointed Chairman of the Committee, which organised aid for the Polish prisoners, who could use it right up to the time they left the camp. It also made the arrangements for their departure. Those who were fit enough left immediately after liberation, either for the West or for Poland. Although many people tried to persuade me to leave for the West, I decided not to do that, arguing that extra Cracoviam non est vita, et si est vita, non est ita.28 Many prisoners were in such poor health that they could not travel at all, because they were so hungry that despite doctors’ warnings they ate not only the food supplied by the Americans, but also food procured from local farmers and became very sick, and some even died. Not surprisingly, soon the American authorities put a drastic limit on the issue of passes to leave the camp, and the very few they did issue by way of exception were valid only for a few hours. I was one of those lucky enough to get one, which let me make some magnificent excursions in the nearby Alps and to see the blue Danube.
During one of these expeditions I met an Austrian farmer whom I knew from the time of my military service. In 1907,29 when I was in the third year of my medical studies, I served half of my one-year military service in the Austro-Hungarian army, in the Fourteenth Infantry Regiment in Bregenz. The regiment’s recruits came from Upper Austria. During my conversation with this farmer I asked if he knew the whereabouts of Ziereis,30 the commandant of Mauthausen. My acquaintance passed on the appropriate information, and a posse consisting of American military personnel and Germans was sent to search for him, and indeed found him in the place my acquaintance had indicated. On being ordered to put his hands up, he started to run, but was shot and wounded not very seriously. He was brought back to the Gusen sub-camp, interrogated, and thereafter hanged. On my return to Kraków, I handed over the minutes of the interrogation, which contained a lot of information relating to the RSHA31 and to other concentration camps, to Dr Sehn, the judge who acted as President of the Regional Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes in Poland,32 who was to pass it on to Deputy Minister Kazimierz Rusinek.33
The reason I stayed in the camp was because of the large number of sick prisoners unable to travel and in need of medical attention. I was asked to do this by Dr Józef Putek, Chairman of the Polish Committee, and I did not leave until early June, when Dr Putek and I returned to Poland by car. On our way home through Czechoslovakia we were offered hospitality in several places, where we spent successive nights. We stayed for a longer spell in Prague, where there were crowds of migrants of various nationalities, victims of the Nazi German resettlements, on the move northwards or southwards, eastwards or westwards. We crossed the Polish border in Cieszyn, and Dr Putek bade us farewell when we reached Chocznia, his home village near Wadowice. We spent the next night at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, and arrived in Kraków on the afternoon of 13 June, 1945. We stopped at St. Lazarus’ Hospital (No. 17 on ulica Kopernika) to hand in the medications and sanitary materials we had taken from the camp for the journey. Yet that short stopover was enough for Dr Bolesław Popielski and Dr Maria Byrdy to turn up from the Forensic Medicine Department and welcome us. Another person who turned up was a reporter from Kraków Radio (I’ve forgotten his name), who asked me for an answer to just one question (not wanting to tire me out)—which of my experiences did I consider the most intense? The reply I gave the radio reporter was published on page 139 of the fifth volume of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim.
My work as a forensic pathologist did not end there and then, even though I was now a free man and my Country had been liberated. Indeed, it intensified now.
In view of the loss of the forensic medicine departments in Lwów and Wilno,34 the destruction of the Warsaw Department of Forensic Medicine, and the fact that the Poznań Department of Forensic Medicine had been left without its head, who had died, all the duties and work in pathology for the entire country were now the responsibility of the Kraków Department of Forensic Medicine, of which I was head. In addition, our Department had lost its scientific equipment, which had been looted by the Germans.
As a huge number of Polish scholars had died due to the War and German occupation, the authorities of the Polish State set up a commission, Centralna Komisja Kwalifikacyjna dla Pracowników Nauki, to fill the vacancies in Polish academia. I was a member of its board, and for several years spent more of my time in Warsaw than in Kraków. I was also appointed by Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce35 to work as an expert forensic scientist for the investigations conducted for the Supreme National Tribunal.
My first contribution to the investigation of Nazi crimes following my return from the concentration camp was in 1945. From 15 October to 6 December, I took part in the work done at Krzesławice near Kraków, an old, fairly inconspicuous fort dating back to Austrian times, where (as I have already said), the Germans committed a series of mass murders. The team conducting this investigation consisted of a large group of judges and prosecutors delegated by the Regional Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes in Poland, myself, and Drs Kusiak, Kaczyński, and Sobik, my assistants from the Department of Forensic Medicine as experts, as well as ancillary staff from the Department (Photos 1, 2, 3, and 4). The entire area of the fort was systematically excavated, so as not to miss any of the burial sites, and 29 mass graves were discovered. They contained various numbers of corpses, from a minimum of two to a maximum of 52. The bodies of 440 victims, including 18 women, were found. The bodies had lain for several years in different environments—some in very moist soil, others in sandy soil, and hence they showed various degrees of post-mortem changes such as adipocere (corpse wax) or mummification. Skeletonization had occurred in most of them. Except for 43 of the bodies, all the rest had skull fractures characteristic of a bullet hole in the back of the head.
Each corpse was given a metal tab with a number attached to it before it was removed from its burial site. Upon removal from the ground, the bodies were thoroughly examined, and items found on or near them, such as medals, personal documents, letters and other paper documents, samples of clothing, dentures, etc.—anything that could help to identify the victims—were collected. These items were put in separate bags, each labelled with a metal tag with the same number as the number on the body, for further laboratory tests. During the examination and post-mortems we measured the limb bones to determine victims’ height and approximate age, we examined the condition of their teeth, and we looked for vestiges of surgical scars and other characteristic features which could be helpful in the identification procedure.
When reports appeared in the papers on the mass graves in Krzesławice, families came forward who thought or were certain (on the basis of secret messages) that their loved ones were among the victims. The families identified 24 of the bodies beyond all reasonable doubt, and another 67 bodies were identified on the basis of items and clothing samples found on them. A further 13 bodies were identified on the basis of personal documents and other documents found on them. Thus, a total of 104 victims were identified.
On 29 and 30 November of the following year (1946), I took part in an analogous examination of the victims buried within the grounds of Kobierzyn Psychiatric Hospital (see the 7th volume of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, pp. 68–78, and Photo 5).
The first expert opinion I delivered in court was for the proceedings against Fischer,36 ex-governor of Distrikt Warschau, before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw.
In Kraków I appeared before the Supreme National Tribunal on 10 December 1947, in the proceedings against the staff of Auschwitz (see the 2nd volume of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, pp. 37–49).
On 20 May 1948 I delivered an expert opinion in the trial of Josef Bühler, former head of the so-called government of the Generalgouverenement,37 which was held before the Supreme National Tribunal in Kraków (see the 3rd volume of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, pp. 103–115).
Finally, I answered the Polish government’s request passed on to me by Professor Jerzy Sawicki,38 and handed in the manuscript of a study I had written in Polish, which was translated into French and published a few years later as “Observations critiques medico-légales sur la publication ‘Amtliches Material zum Massenmord von Katyn,’”39 in Acta Medicinae Legalis et Socialis (1953, Nos 1-2), the official journal of the International Academy of Legal Medicine.
Having finished writing up my recollections of what I experienced under Nazi German occupation, and on reading them over, I would like to add a few personal reflections.
Above all, I am deeply convinced of the truth of Virgil’s words, labor improbus omnia vincit;40 and that I owe my successful resolution of so very many problems, as well as the possibility of completing so many projects I was asked to handle, to the self-sacrificing work of my associates from the Department of Forensic Medicine, and to the late Judge Jan Sehn, who heard cases of special significance and was president of the Kraków Regional Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes in Poland. I shall always be grateful to them for this.
Finally, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Professor Bogusz for persuading me to record my recollections in writing. At the same time I apologise for not keeping my promise to write the whole truth about the behaviour of human beings cast into inhuman conditions. It is not an easy task, and it is one that calls for a lot of attention to many different and complex factors working together or independently of each other: factors such as hunger, egoism, violence, poverty, faith, inhuman living conditions, extreme exhaustion, the craving for power, fear of losing your job, the instinct of self-preservation and the desire to survive, etc., and the subject needs to be addressed by a better writer. You could not arrive at a clear and true picture of this matter without getting to grips with all these aspects. Personally, as a physician, someone with a natural sciences education, I think that the most important of all of these factors is one of the strongest instincts, the survival instinct. But I shall leave this fascinating question to specialists from the diverse disciplines.
Translated from original article: Jan Stanisław Olbrycht, “Doświadczenia wojenne medyka sądowego.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1968.
1. Józef Bogusz (11 Sept. 1904 – 21 Mar. 1993)—Polish surgeon, professor of the Jagiellonian University and co-founder of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim.
2. Spoken words are fleeting, written words are enduring (Latin proverb).
3. When Germany invaded Poland about a million volunteers marched to the country’s eastern regions, where new military units were being organised.
4. All places east of Kraków; Zbaraż (now Zbarazh), Tarnopol (now Ternopil) and Lwów (now Lviv) are currently in Ukraine, and Przemyśl and Jarosław in the eastern part of the Republic of Poland.
5. On 6 Nov. 1939 the Germans arrested nearly 200 Cracovian academics and sent 173 of them to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where many died. To round up the victims, the Germans played a ruse, summoning them to attend Müller’s purported lecture. After the War Müller was tried by a British military court and sentenced to 12 years in prisons (of which he served 6), but his involvement in Sonderaktion Krakau was not mentioned at the trial.
6. Więzienie św. Michała (literally “St. Michael’s jail”) was a prison accommodated in the former Carmelite Monastery of St. Michael and St. Joseph. In 1797, the Austrians, who then governed Kraków, abolished the Carmelite Order and set up a penitentiary in the Order’s confiscated property. The building now houses the Archaeological Museum.
7. Krzesławice was a suburban village (now it is within the municipal boundaries of Kraków, 11 km north-east of the city centre). During World War 2 the Germans used Fort 49, a component of the defences built by the Austrians in the early 20th century, as a place of execution.
8. In German-occupied Poland Volksdeutsche were people with (real or alleged) German roots, given preferential treatment by the German occupying authorities.
9. “Only for Germans.” The Germans practised a rigorous policy of segregation.
10. Jan Robel (1889–1962)—graduated in chemistry from the Jagiellonian University, where he also read (but did not complete) medicine. After his release from Sachsenhausen, the Germans made him examine samples they collected from the site of the Katyn Atrocity to prove it had been committed by the Soviets. Robel made a secret copy of his results for the Polish underground resistance organisation, of which he was a member. After the War he led the commission which showed that Zyklon-B was not a disinfectant, as the Germans alleged, but had been deliberately synthesised to kill humans.
11. Beck and his superior, prof. Gerhard Buhtz, supervised the post-mortems of the Polish victims the Germans discovered in 1943 in mass graves at Katyn (Russia).
12. “You are quite right, Professor, Strassmann did indeed carry out tests on a case of mass methanol poisoning in a shelter for the homeless.”
13. A reappraisal of mass poisoning with special attention to methanol intoxication.
14. A suicide pill for resistance fighters to avoid interrogation under torture if caught by the Germans.
15. The commandant of the secret police in the Generalgouvernement.
16. Bolesław Popielski (1907–1997), a Polish pathologist from Lwów who was later head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Wrocław and kept an “heirloom” left by Beck, 7 skulls each with a bullet wound in the back, allegedly the skulls of Polish officers murdered in Katyn. https://nto.pl/siedem-czaszek-pamieci/ar/3975413.
17. This Polish political party was founded in April 1939. After the War it resumed official activities, but was completely vassalised by the PPR (Polish Workers’ Party, viz. the Communists).
18. Stanisław Marusarz (1913–1993)—a Polish Olympic ski-jumper, during the War a mountain courier working for the resistance movement. When arrested by the Germans and put into Montelupich prison, Marusarz escaped by jumping from a second-floor window and surviving thanks to his ski-jumping skills.
19. A cloak and dagger operation, literally “night and fog”: the code name of a Nazi German operation to get rid of individuals considered dangerous.
20. The green triangle was the badge worn by convicted criminals on their concentration camp gear.
21. Sanitätsdienstgrad—the German orderly who assisted the Lagerarzt during selections.
22. “Canada” was the nickname of the warehouse where items confiscated from new prisoners arriving in Auschwitz were stored.
23. The Latin and German for “Keep well”—an ironic name for an ineffective anaesthetic.
24. “The corpse is still walking.”
25. Johann Paul Kremer (1883–1965)—doctor of philosophy, professor of anatomy and human genetics. German war criminal. Sentenced to death in the First Auschwitz trial in Kraków, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was released in 1958.
26. Dr Werner Rohde (1904–1946)—German war criminal. He stood trial before the British military court in Wuppertal from his crimes committed in Natzweiler (not Auschwitz-Birkenau), was sentenced to death and hanged in 1946.
27. Viktor Capesius (1907–1985)—a Volksdeutsche from Romania, chief pharmacist of Auschwitz. Stood trial in the Second Auschwitz Trial and sentenced to 9 years’ imprisonment.
28. Mauthausen-Gusen—a German concentration camp complex 20 km from Linz, Austria; held prisoners from many countries, mainly Poles and Soviet citizens.
29. Bohumín—city in Moravian Silesia on the present-day Czech-Polish border; Přerov—city in Moravia (now in the Czech Republic).
30. There is no life except in Kraków, and even if there is, it’s not the right kind of life—a paraphrase of the original Latin sentence referring to Bavaria.
31. At that time the territories of Poland were still partitioned between three neighbouring powers, one of which was Austria-Hungary.
32. SS-Standartenführer Franz Ziereis (1905–1945).
33. The Reich Main Security Office (Reichssichicherheitshauptamt).
34. Kazimierz Rusinek (1905–1984)—Polish socialist and after the 2nd World War a member of the Communist government, Minister of Labour and Social Welfare.
35. These two cities and their regions, which belonged to Poland before the War, were allocated to the Soviet Union in outcome of the territorial changes agreed by the Big Three Powers at Yalta and Potsdam at the end of the War.
36. The Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Nazi German Crimes in Poland, now the Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation.
37. Ludwig Fischer (1905–1947) was appointed Governor of Distrikt Warschau as soon as the Germans occupied the city, and stayed in office until the end of the War. A war criminal, he was caught by the Western Allies and sent back to Poland, where he was tried, sentenced to death, and hanged.
38. In fact Bühler was State Secretary, Staatssekretär.
39. Jerzy Sawicki (1910–1967)—a Polish prosecutor in proceedings against Nazi German war criminals; also involved in the Communist project to pin the blame for the Katyn Atrocity on the Germans.
40. After the War the Communist authorities of People’s Poland launched an international campaign to exculpate the Soviets of the Katyn Atrocity and blame the Germans. Jan Olbracht wrote a paper discrediting the results of the post-mortems conducted in 1943 by the International Medical Commission the Germans brought to the site of the massacre. See Tadeusz Wolsza, Encounter with Katyn. Czarolina Press and The Janusz Kurtyka Foundation, 2019, pp. 30, 57, 73-77, 156, 165, 189–190. In 1992 the Russian government admitted Soviet guilt and handed over some of its archival documents relating to the Katyn Atrocity to Poland.
All notes come from the translator, Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa.