Józef Markiewicz, MD, former prisoner doctor and survivor of a number of Nazi German concentration camps, including Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Gusen (prisoner No. 22397), contributor to Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim.
In May 1941, after being confined for nine months in Buchenwald, I was transferred to Gusen, a satellite camp of Mauthausen. When the German-Russian war broke out on 22 June 1941, a new hope emerged in the horror-stricken prisoners. Yet, as soon as they learnt of the German victories, they were downhearted again…
In Gusen, the cruelty of Hauptsturmführer Chmielewsky, dubbed the Devil, wrought havoc in the camp. Lice, hunger and violence plagued all the prisoners. The prisoners’ hospital was run by the “chief physician” or in fact the hospital capo Franz Zach, a pervert and professional thief from Vienna, who was extremely brutal to the inmates he treated and operated; he regarded himself as the lord of life and death. His exceedingly cruel activities were observed and approved of by the camp authorities, the SS doctors and the SS NCOs who served as orderlies or SDGs (Sanitätsdienstgrade), who were ignoramuses and criminals themselves. Their methods were simple: the weak must die—the weak did not deserve any bandages, medicaments, or food. Prisoners who were unable to work were redundant. So weak and sick prisoners were given cold showers until they died, drowned in barrels of water, or killed with petrol injections into the heart.
It was October 1941. The first transport of Russian POWs arrived in Gusen and Mauthausen. A group of 2,100 were sent to Gusen. The camp authorities kept up appearances by building a “Russian camp” (Russen-Lager), with several barracks separated off from the other blocks and surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Following the policy adopted in the Gusen and Mauthausen camps, the Greens, that is prisoners with a green triangle on their gear, the badge for criminals, thieves and pimps, controlled the hospital. Prisoner-doctors were employed only for the sake of form. The only medical care they could dispense boiled down to applying the most rudimentary dressings. Prisoners in a serious condition were doomed to die. Alas, the same sentence hung over everyone else.
A visit by Dr Krebsbach, the Standortarzt (chief physician), never bode well. He was a serial killer, the very opposite of anything you could call human or humane; in fact, he personified the Nazi perfidy and cynicism, and pioneered the mass extermination in the camp, poison jabs, sending prisoners to the gas chamber, carrying out pseudo-medical experiments on them. Pretending to be a scientist, he harangued the prisoner-doctors who were trying to treat the seriously ill with the following lecture, “Our great Paracelsus1 said that the doctor’s duty is to bring relief to the suffering, so how can you calmly stand by and watch the dreadful torment those poor prisoners are in! You know what you have to do.” That’s how he tried to justify killing prisoners with injections of Prussic acid, petrol, or hydrogen peroxide straight into the heart. But there was one thing he was wrong about. Despite his orders, the prisoner-doctors were never executioners. This job had to be done by others—the SDGs and hospital capo, together with his assistants, who enjoyed the killings.
The arrival of the POWs brought an outbreak of epidemic typhus. Many of the hospital workers fell victim to it. The remedy the camp’s authorities applied to stop the spread of the disease was to kill people, not the lice that transmitted it. Untersturmführer Kiesewetter, who was chief physician at the time, could “proudly” report that the typhus epidemic had been got rid of within a short time. As the Germans dealt with typhus epidemics in the same way in all the countries they occupied, the Minister of Health, Dr Conti, could brag about the excellent success rate of German medicine.
Christmas 1941. Although the Russian prisoners were being starved and tortured, they were “not dying fast enough.” The hospital was overcrowded. The visit of the infamous Krebsbach and Chief Commandant Ziereis brought a solution to this problem: all the patients, about 200 people, including Poles from the eastern territories, were to be killed. But there was no gas chamber at Gusen. So the Nazi German perpetrators ordered the windows of one of the barracks made airtight and had it filled with cyclone B gas. Six hours later the sanitary assistants were called in to remove the bodies: they were ordered not to tell anyone on pain of death! The sight of those bodies will haunt me till the end of my life. I could see how the victims had tried to avoid being suffocated by pressing their faces to the ground, which deformed their noses and cheeks.
Yet the butchers were still not satisfied. In March 1942, there were still two hundred Russian prisoners, including 40 patients, left alive. The drunken Kiesewetter, a good student of Krebsbach’s, ordered the patients exterminated. The executioners in SDG uniforms murdered the remaining inmates with injections of poison. The Russian camp was closed. A hundred young Russians who survived the pogrom were transported to the main camp, where they were allowed to stay alive in extremely bad conditions. The medical staff and orderlies were no longer needed, so Chmielewski, the camp’s commandant, dismissed them and sent them to do hard labour. The most perfidious deed of the German camp policy was making prisoner-doctors sign death certificates, including bogus ones.
June and July 1942. The first transports arrived from Auschwitz, bringing about 100 prisoners infected with epidemic typhus. Those who survived a three-week period of quarantine were sent to the main camp. On Chmielewski’s orders, the camp seniors, block leaders and capos drowned thirty prisoners in the worst condition in a barrel of water—three at a time! The Gusen method of drowning prisoners was brought to such a degree of perfection that a small bucket of water was enough for the job.
Since Himmler had ordered camp commandants to employ prisoner-doctors in the camp hospitals, most of them could treat inmates, hoping to save their own lives. As the sanitary conditions in the camp hospital improved, the doctors had some say on what they were doing. Understandably, they could not save all the prisoners. The hospital capo had absolute power, but as he lived in fear of the camp commandant, he reduced patient numbers by killing the weakest with injections into the heart.
Now I would like to share two of my experiences from my time in Gusen. The first concerns the death of Edward Wypych, a bricklayer from Dąbrowa Górnicza. We became good friends when we were working in the Russian camp: I worked as a doctor and he was an orderly. Both of us had typhus, but Edward also developed pulmonary tuberculosis. He was put in the internal diseases ward in the Gusen hospital (Block 29). He knew he was dying, and was scared stiff of being shortlisted for the “mass jabbing.” He begged us to let him die a gentle death. His condition was so hopeless that any time he could have been selected for a jab. So Dr Adam Konieczny and I decided to give him a sedative. He fell asleep and then the camp executioners did their job. It was the friendliest favour for my fellow inmate, and actually the only one I could have offered him.
My second recollection is of Jerzy Ostrowski, a writer who wrote Chorągiew na dachu [A Banner on the Roof], Wspomnienia z Kanady [Reminiscences of Canada], and Zegarynka [The Speaking Clock]). He was transferred to Gusen from Auschwitz. What struck me about him when I first met him was his intelligent face. We became friends. I managed to help him a lot. He told me about his young wife and his literary plans. He had two bouts of diarrhoea (the notorious Durchfall). I treated him when he got sick for the first time. But when he fell sick again, he also had phlegmons on the arm: his whole body was infected; there was really no hope for him. He was suffering tremendously. Although he believed in God, his desperate condition made him beg for an injection. We did our best to help him, but he died on 24 November 1942. The fact that he died a natural death, surrounded by friends and colleagues, was a small consolation for his family.
He wrote a poem entitled “Pokuta” [Penance] which he dedicated to me.
To my friend Józef—from Jerzy
Brother, you walked on top, you strode over the surface,
Perhaps you never thought what kind of life there was under the crust.
You understood it with your mind, but felt it in your heart.
You never went through poverty, fear, or harm.
Now you look back on that life as if it was a tall story,
How come? It wasn’t cold or terrible? You never went hungry?
But you enjoyed every second of it, absent-mindedly,
And for both of us its sound was softer than the tinkle of any other tune.
So perhaps you’re paying for some misdeed of yours? You and me, and all of us.
We were too removed from life. We need to get much closer.
Now we’re learning the sense of the simplest words, it takes a lot of effort
To learn the meaning of sleep and rest, or of a bowl of soup for supper.
Year after year we’re swotting, learning this harsh ABC.
Days and weeks pass by in a continuous stream,
Yet the great master gives us no relief.
Will we pass? Will we pass this test of life? This ragged reef? …
But, brother, perhaps we’re still needed here?
Just the way we are: penitents on the road to Calvary, in rough prison gear? …
Maybe we lay our heads down not in vain?
Is that our task? A task no worse than any other worth the pain?
However, there was also a brighter side to our camp life. A concert on Sunday, a soccer match… In a show of “care for” the health of Gusen and Mauthausen prisoners, in late 1942 the Nazi Germans opened brothels in the camp. Naturally, only a few chosen Prominente (big fish inmates)—functionaries (block leaders, capos, etc.), who were predominantly German—could avail themselves of these facilities. About a dozen bawdy-house ladies worked there and were very popular with the functionaries. There were tragic love stories, scenes of jealousy that many a time ended with clients being sent to work in the penal companies. Not for long, though, as the camp’s authorities needed their helpers and executors and turned a blind eye to all the misconduct as long as their task of mass murder was carried out.
Let me give an example of a prominent Gusen functionary in 1941. Wuggenig, a German serving as capo in the quarry, wanted a masseur. A colleague of mine recommended me, so that I could earn an extra piece of bread or a bowl of swede soup. Accordingly, I went to see Wuggenig. He was in a separate room, the so-called “staff office,” which was fenced-off from the rest of the block. “The prisoners’ nightmare,” as he was called, was sprawled out on the bed. I was embarrassed, but started massaging him. Another prisoner, Tadek Faliszewski, a renowned pre-war singer, was “singing for his supper” and making Wuggenig more relaxed. A boy, Wuggenig’s concubine, was waiting to give his master a pedicure and reading his eyes to find out how he wanted it done.
Recollecting my experiences, I should mention a few fellow inmates who helped me a lot when I was starving, forced to toil for long hours of hard labour. They included J. Osuchowski, a medical student from Kraków; Zbigniew Wlazłowski from Brzesko near Kraków; and Dr Adam Konieczny from Poznań, who died just two weeks before the camp was liberated. They didn’t just support me but also helped many other inmates. Today Dr Wlazowski is working as a radiologist in the naval hospital in Oliwa, while Osuchowski is working in Katowice—he has written one of the best books on the hell of the camp, entitled Gusen, przedsionek piekła [Gusen: Hell’s Antechamber].
A word needs to be said about the death of another colleague, Dr Antoni Czarnecki from Inowrocław. He worked as a doctor in a small commando in St Lambrecht, one of the highest towns in the Alps. After a few months, the commando “got into the bad books.” They were accused of planning an escape, and all of them were brought to Mauthausen main camp, where they were to be killed by order of the chief commandant. They were brutally beaten up and forced to do unendurable work. Poor, sickly Antoni could not stand the ordeal. He crossed the line of sentries for a quick exit.2
In January 1943, I was transferred from Gusen to the main camp of Mauthausen, and arrived together with Dr Czarnecki from Inowrocław and Dr Emil Farnik from Zaolzie.3 The Germans needed doctors for the newly constructed Aussenkommando sub-camps located in Austria. I was sent to the sub-camp in Linz.
In 1943, the conditions in the concentration camps improved, as Germany focused all of its efforts on developing its war industry. A new order was issued: prisoners were to be treated better. But it was not always put into practice. The living conditions in Mauthausen improved to some extent, but the Draconian policy of killing prisoners still continued in Gusen and the newly erected satellite camps, especially those located around Gusen, Mölk, Ebensee, and Grossraming. A new camp, Gusen II, was created at the time.
A similar small sub-camp was located in Grossraming, 70 km away from Mauthausen. I worked there as a doctor from 9 July 1943 till 29 August 1944. Prisoners in the sub-camps under construction were terrified. They were forced to work very fast. As a rule, after a few months of extremely hard labour even the strongest prisoners were on their last legs. To make them work even harder, they were given a weekly bonus of a few cigarettes. Relations in Grossraming were the outcome of the perfidious German policy and reflected the conditions in which prisoners worked in this and dozens of other satellite camps of Mauthausen scattered throughout Austria. Power was in the hands of the prisoners wearing green triangle badges, i.e. professional thieves, cut-throats, and pimps, who tortured and robbed fellow inmates, who were already suffering from starvation. The block leaders’ and capos’ jobs were usually given to Germans. The commandant was Obersturmführer Ludolf from Hamburg, a driver by profession. One of Ludolf’s functionaries was Unterscharführer Herbert Winkler, a miller’s assistant from the Opole area of Silesia. He was a good follower of his master’s example, notorious for his criminal exploits. Mauthausen veterans knew him well.
Hearth Pits. Marian Kolodziej. Photo by Piotr Markowski. Click to enlarge.
The commando was divided into two camps, about 1,500 people in total. Within 14 months, 80% of the prisoners were left unfit for work. I had to send the rest of the weak prisoners back to the Krankenlager (the so-called camp hospital) in Mauthausen main camp. Some of them managed to survive. The death toll for those 14 months in Grossraming was at least 40% of all the inmates. These are true figures, because I kept a secret record. Undoubtedly, the individual who bore most of the responsibility for these deaths was Commander Ludolf. He did not let prisoners stop working because of sickness and regarded them as malingerers. I was mentally exhausted, I had to literally fight for every patient. But surprisingly enough, courageous words impressed Nazi bigheads. They yelled at me and uttered threats, but I won many of these battles. Ludolf was a criminal by instinct, and checked every day how many patients I had admitted to the hospital; he would kick up a fuss over each patient. On the other hand, he enjoyed looking at corpses, and if he saw one in the hospital, he would treat me to a cigarette, which I had to smoke in his presence. He did this to show that he did not question my medical qualifications, but in his opinion, I was not the right type of physician for a concentration camp: I was too “kind” for these “animals,” as he put it. He thought that prisoners were dying because they did not feel like living, or because they were eating poisonous weeds or grass to stop the hunger. Obsessed with getting the maximum effort out of prisoners, he refused to keep patients in the camp hospital. He preferred to have them dead than alive in the hospital. When he was in a good mood, I tried to persuade him that his policy would not increase work efficiency, but I laboured in vain. However, after some time I managed to convince him, and he would allow more admissions of sick prisoners to the hospital in the main camp of Mauthausen, and many of them were saved.
This period left a deep impression on my memory, because of one of the most important experiences that gives me a sense of moral satisfaction when I look back in retrospect at the events. One night, Ludolf burst into the hospital after a bout of heavy drinking and ordered me to “jab” two prisoners whom he had condemned to death. I refused to carry out such an abominable order, saying that a doctor’s duties did not include murdering patients regardless of the conditions, and that he had enough executioners to carry out such commands. Surprisingly, Ludolf neither shot me nor sent me to the penal commando. In fact, he started to treat me with some respect, and even showed concern for my health. When he was appointed commandant of the Mölk sub-camp, he desperately wanted me to work there. Luckily, I managed to get out of that.
At that time, conditions in the hospital in the main camp of Mauthausen improved significantly. Weak, malnourished inmates received extra portions of food: milk, butter, and even eggs. They were allowed to take a few months’ rest. Of course, this was due to the growing German need for more manpower. However, the idyll did not last long. Nevertheless, even incoming Jews were not killed as soon as they arrived in the camp. They died, but pursuant to the camp’s general regulations, just like other ethnicities. It was certainly a breakthrough in the practices at Mauthausen and Gusen, since up to that time no Jew had survived for longer than two or three weeks.
Early in 1944, Himmler addressed a letter to all the SS physicians working in the concentration camps in the whole of the German Reich, thanking them for bringing down mortality in the camps and hoping that it would fall to zero. An SS orderly gave me this circular, which was the epitome of German deceit. Yet in practice it did not stop the likes of Ludolf from killing prisoners on a massive scale. The weak were eliminated ruthlessly, while healthier prisoners were brutally exploited until they lost all their strength. SS-men throwing prisoners onto the barbed wire and then reporting that they had committed suicide; SS-men shooting prisoners on the pretext that they had tried to escape; SS-men setting dogs on prisoners to tear them apart—those are some of the sad but true pictures of Grossraming I will never forget.
To tell the truth, I have to say that things improved in May 1944, when a new commandant was appointed. Obersturmführer Alfulisch was not a brutal sadist, but more of a cynic treating prisoners with indifference and contempt. The atmosphere was less oppressive, beatings were forbidden, and I was given a free hand as regards hospital admissions, so fatalities were rare. These idyllic conditions did not last long, only until 29 August 1944, the day when Grossraming camp was closed down, in line with the German policy of cutting down on work that was unnecessary for the wartime industry. The entire commando was transferred to Mauthausen central camp. This was also the final period of my confinement in Nazi German concentration camps—and perhaps my most tragic spell—in the central hospital. Ludolf was appointed commander of Mölk and employing the methods he had tried and tested in Grossraming. He was even more oppressive, as now he exercised absolute power not just over a thousand prisoners, but over ten thousand.
It was August 1944. At that time, the organisation of the Mauthausen hospital was different than the one in Gusen. Mauthausen was to be the hub where those unfit for work were to be sent from all the satellite camps. The facilities for patients were barracks which had been built as stables to accommodate 24 horses. These barracks were a few score metres long and about 8–10 metres wide. In each there was just a small window right under the roof. Inside there were two rows of three-bunk beds with straw mattresses and blankets. In the “good old times” it was two patients to a bunk, but by the final phase the ratio had gone up to 5–6 to a bunk. There were eight of these barracks. The chief physician was Dr W. Czapliński, who had been imprisoned in Mauthausen for a long time. He was accountable to the SS authorities. Dr Czapliński was in charge of a large international group of physicians and nurses. He managed the work of the block doctors who treated patients in all the blocks. Unfortunately, the medical staff was supervised by block functionaries, most of whom were Germans, so there were constant conflicts with them, which paralyzed the Polish doctors’ efforts. In general, Polish doctors held management jobs, because of their good medical qualifications and high ethical standards. But the purely administrative authority in the hospital was exercised by the Lagerältester (Camp Senior) and the Revierschreiber (hospital clerk). The former was a German, while, thankfully, the latter was Polish—Franciszek Poprawka from Poznań; Kazimierz Rusinek was his deputy. Mauthausen prisoners were lucky to have Poles as senior staff in the hospital. Czapliński, Poprawka and Rusinek did wonders to improve conditions in the camp, and thousands of prisoners owed them their lives.
Dr Czapliński enjoyed the reputation of being a great moral authority, both as a physician and as an outstanding personality. At particularly hard moments he was a crucial asset for the rest of the camp’s inmates. Poprawka’s courage and resolute stance against the camp authorities made him a brave seconder to Dr Czapliński; in a way, he represented the hospital before the authorities of the main camp. Czapliński and Poprawka were the best informed about the political situation and familiar with all the gossip in the camp. Talking to them was a source of comfort to inmates, a relief from the ordeals they were going through. On countless occasions these two intervened in the clerk’s office and saved patients from being put on a transport;4 on countless occasions they intervened with the block physicians to keep patients in hospital for months! Alas, they could not help every single inmate. They never considered the social background or political sympathies of the Polish inmates they tried to save. Their character and moral values were decisive. Sometimes they failed, if they could not keep an inmate under observation for long enough. Nevertheless, a lot of good people were saved, which should be credited chiefly to Rusinek, Poprawka, and Dr Czapliński.
As one of their closest collaborators, I often saw and admired the tactful yet authoritative way in which they handled sensitive national problems, especially concerning Frenchmen, who had an inferiority complex with respect to the Poles. In that true embodiment of Dante’s Inferno, Dr Czapliński did all he could to maintain good clinical standards in the hospital he was head of. We had an excellently equipped chemical and bacteriological laboratory, supervised by the bacteriologist and clinician Dr Ławkowicz, an X-ray room, and electrocardiograph. We had scientific meetings to discuss specific cases. The medical staff included two Polish university professors, Dadlez and Olbrycht from Kraków, as well as several French, Italian, and Czech professors.
The main camp had a well-equipped hospital directed by Prof. Podlaha, a surgeon from the University of Brno. Visiting dignitaries were shown round this hospital. It only admitted big fish, primarily Spaniards and Germans working as functionaries. No Muselmänner were admitted there. Numerous patients were put in the lower camp hospital. At the beginning of 1945, there were about 8 thousand patients. In some blocks there were as many as 1,500, five to a bunk. For a long time, the division into surgical, internal and infectious departments had been strictly observed, but by the end of the camp’s existence, there were patients with pneumonia sharing a bunk with others with severe phlegmons—five to a bunk, no matter how serious their condition. Most patients lay naked; and only by way of exception in a nightshirt if they had no lice. The nurses’ main task was to wage a war on lice. The only way to do that was to carry out a daily inspection, as there was no soap, and often no water, so combating lice was a never-ending chore. Nonetheless, we never had an epidemic of typhus fever in the hospital, which would have meant the entire camp being closed and all the prisoners exterminated. Disinfestations of the barracks were an annoyance for patients, and only a small percentage of the lice and bedbugs was removed. There was a severe shortage of medicaments. The SS-men jealously guarded their supplies. A Polish pharmacist called Banach “conjured up” some of the indispensable medicines, but it was a drop in the ocean of needs. In the last months of the camp’s existence, the death rate for erysipelas rose to 80%, because we had no Prontosil (an antibacterial drug). After the American army liberated the camp, 100 thousand tablets of Prontosil were found in the SS pharmacy! Finally, I do not want to describe the enormous torment and harassment that the patients were exposed to. It would call for a better pen and talent. All I wish to say is that the camp doctors’ constant, often hopeless, fight for every single human life did not make them happy.
8 April 1945. The barracks were enormously overcrowded. There was terrible hunger. We all lived in the hope of imminent liberation, rejecting thoughts of the destruction that our torturers had planned—tunnels had already been dug in Gusen and Ebensee to bury thousands of victims. We could hear Russian guns from the area of Krems, but each day news spread that there would be an evacuation. The SS-men assured us that they would not leave any prisoners alive for the Russian army. The first signs of freedom coming were the Swedish Red Cross vehicles. They entered the camp, and incredibly, with the consent of the SS authorities, they left with some of the patients: all the Dutch patients, several Frenchmen; two Poles were smuggled out with them to sound an S.O.S. to the whole world! Nobody cared about prisoners of other nationalities, especially the Poles, so again we were utterly disheartened. For the next few weeks, patients did not get any bread. Their daily food ration was just half a litre of swede soup. There were two incidents of cannibalism. Extremely starved prisoners cut out the liver from fresh corpses.5
Yet our executioners wanted those appalling conditions to deteriorate even more. In mid-April, Ziereis, the camp commandant, ordered the transfer of two thousand patients to the main camp to “improve their living conditions.” In reality, they were placed in some isolated barracks, from which SS-men led them out to “liberation”—via the gas chamber. The Mauthausen gas chamber had a low capacity, and could only kill 100 to 150 people a day. As a result, about 200 were saved from the last group of prisoners shortlisted for the gas chamber.
The SS-men fled on 3 May 1945. Viennese policemen, who were accomplices of the SS, took over the camp. As the prisoners had been organising defence, they managed to store some weapons; they were determined not to give their lives away for nothing. Russian troops were near Krems, while the Americans broke the front near Regensburg. At one p.m. on 5 May, we saw three American tanks on the road leading to the camp. We were free! There are no words to describe how happy we were. I doubt whether anyone would want to try. Can you describe being born again? The American soldiers were speechless when they saw the human skeletons and piles of corpses. Some had tears in their eyes. They swore to take revenge on the Germans. Today you can see how soon those emotions faded. The US army proceeded to clear the hospital camp in a grand American manner; the patients were accommodated in the former SS barracks, tents were set up, and American medical staff treated and looked after the patients.
I left the camp with the first transport on 29 May 1945, heading for home via Prague and Ostrava. On 1 June 1945—after five years of captivity—I set foot on Polish soil.
Translated from original article: Józef Markiewicz, “Wspomnienia lekarza z Mauthausen-Gusen.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1965.
- Theophrastus von Hohenheim, a Swiss physician, d. 1541a
- Some prisoners of German concentration camps who cracked up committed suicide, and some of the convenient ways of doing this were to run for the high-voltage electric fence, or cross a line of sentries, who had orders to shoot such prisoners on sight.b
- Zaolzie, a region straddling the Polish-Czech ethnic border, now in the Czech Republicb
- “Being put on a transport”—another euphemism for “selection,” i.e. put on a shortlist for death, either with a phenol jab or in the gas chambers. The clerk’s office was involved because the SS kept detailed records, and the hospital clerk had to fabricate death certificates that gave bogus causes of death.b
- The correct term for this kind of behaviour is necrophagia. Cannibalism involves the deliberate killing of the victim who is then eaten.b
a—note by Dr Maria Ciesielska, MRA project Expert Consultant; b—notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Head Translator of the Medical Review Auschwitz project.
A publication funded in 2020–2021 within the DIALOG Program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.