Zbigniew Wlazłowski, MD, 1916–1996, survivor of Buchenwald and Gusen (prisoner no. 49943), author of concentration camp history-related medical articles and memoirs.
As in other Nazi German concentration camps, in Gusen (a sub-camp of Mauthausen), the chief aim of the inmates’ underground resistance movement was to keep prisoners from succumbing to starvation and emaciation. This task was not at all easy, as in this camp political prisoners were held together with common criminals. Moreover, both groups came from different countries, cultural backgrounds and represented distinct ideological views, which made for a specific conglomerate of many nationalities, leading to tense relations and not facilitating clandestine operations.
Nonetheless, in addition to the spontaneous resistance of individual Gusen prisoners, e.g. by destroying machines in their workplaces and sabotaging work, a structured liberation movement was organised in the camp. Along with smaller units that were formed in circles embracing several nationalities, three prisoners’ resistance organisations came to the fore. One was a communist group, another group held right-wing views, while the third group did not adhere to any specific political ideology. Prisoners of the various nationalities confined in Gusen were members of all three of these communities gathered. But it should be said that the main organisers of the prisoners’ secret resistance movement were the Poles. Even though the leaders of the clandestine communities had different political views, they all pursued one goal.
A separate self-help group was formed in the prisoners’ hospital, since this place was a camp within the camp, and its medical staff worked in special conditions. The hospital conspirators did not represent any precisely defined ideology and were able to collaborate with all three of the main resistance communities operating in the camp. The leaders of the medical resistance group were Drs Antoni Gościński and Feliks Kamiński, supported by Dr Franciszek Adamanis, a professor of pharmacy, and Dr Adam Konieczny.
This group’s first meeting was held in the hospital laboratory in late December 1941, and was attended by all of these prisoner-doctors. They worked out a general strategy and basic guidelines for their clandestine operations. To begin with, they wanted to improve the tense relations in the hospital, stop the mass murder of patients and invalids, and create the right conditions to provide patients with as much care as possible, and even give them some much-needed rest.
In order to fulfil these goals, the hospital conspirators resolved to get rid of the brutal hospital kapos Heinrich Roth and Franz Zach, to bring professional medical practitioners and trained orderlies into the hospital, and to try to prevent the mass killings and pseudo-medical experiments on the patients. They also wanted to improve the conditions in which their patients were held by providing them with extra rations and medications, organise talks on various philosophical issues, and offer them some cultural entertainment. Furthermore, they decided they would establish close contacts with the other prisoners’ resistance groups operating in the camp and get the block clerks and functionaries to join their clandestine operations. So the hospital was to become not only a clinic for the sick, but also an asylum for the harassed inmates and for those in greatest need of support.
The circle of collaborators included inmates working in the SS hospital, the dental surgery, the pathological anatomy laboratory, the hospital’s secretariat, as well as other sanitary assistants. Here are the names of some of those involved: Z. Baranowski, W. Cybulski, B. Drachajm, M. Filipiak, V. Gibal, W. Gospodarczyk, H. Gonzales, W. Kanarek, M. Kusheyev, F. Leonhard, I. Łuczak, S. Malost, Z. Mielcarewicz, A. Młodyszewski, F. Mocny, T. Olszewski, P. Pawłowski, J. Piechowski, E. Pięta-Połomski, P. del Rio, H. Skolik, J. Tadko, A. Wierachowski, E. Wierzchowski, J. Zblewski, J. Zwierzchowski, and L. Żynda.
Most of these persons were not fully in the know about the overall strategy of the resistance movement, but only carried out the particular tasks assigned to them. A three-contact system was used: only three prisoners were involved in implementing a given task. All of the scheduled operations and events inspired by the conspirators had to appear to have been accidental. The tasks were delegated to the medical staff as suggestions or proposals during their working hours or random meetings in the block or roll call square. Often those performing specific jobs for the resistance group were not fully informed about their clandestine character. These precautions were used so as to avoid the discovery and disclosure of the movement.
When the scheme started to bring successful outcomes, and after the hospital bogeys Roth and Zach as well as their “worthy” successor “Kasandra” Bobrowski1 had been killed, the situation of the patients began to improve. Dr Gościński was appointed chief physician of the prisoners’ hospital, and the hospital kapo’s job was given to Emil Sommer, a Sudeten German of Czech descent and a political (communist) prisoner. Hospital appointments were filled by highly qualified doctors who had previously worked in the quarries or other commandos. University students, including several medics, served as orderlies.
The hospital’s office was entirely staffed by Polish and German political prisoners; this was achieved thanks to support from and collaboration with the resistance group operating in the camp’s secretariat and personnel department2 (the collaborators were R. Meixner, K. Cofała, S. Nogaj, I. Żmij and others). At this time, new prisoner-doctors were given jobs in the hospital. The group of newcomers included physicians C. Budny, E. Farnik, F. Halberg, J. Krakowski, J. Markiewicz, K. Miłoszewski, J. Pettea, P. Podlaha, H. Tomaszek, and A. Waresz; medical students H. Frajtag, F. Hernandes, M. Jovanović, J. Kalinowski, S. Królak, A. Kozłowski, S. Leszczyński, M. Lisiecki, V. Liventsov, Z. Przyłuski, W. Piątkowski, S. Pręgowski, P. del Rio, J. Riwszak, L. Roman, L. Klimek, W. Kostujak, J. Maciejewski, M. Morozko, J. Sabuda, and R. Zauret; and office clerks M. Czerwiński, J. Gruber, R. Kosmala, and L. Leitner. All of them were involved to a greater or lesser extent in the clandestine activities and entrusted with important tasks in their workplaces.
Drs Gościński and Kamiński were in contact with the main prisoners’ resistance movement, represented by S. Drobosiewicz, C. Łęski, and S. Nogaj. A. Konieczny was in touch with Gębik and Cieluch, and I was in touch with R. Łączyńki and J. Osuchowski. Dr Gościński and kapo Sommer liaised with the German group and co-ordinated clandestine activities through the chief clerk Rudolf Meixner3 and the camp senior Karl Rohrbacher.4 Dr Kamiński and V. Liventsov collaborated with the Russian prisoners’ group; E. Pięta-Połomski and B. Drachajm worked with the Spanish prisoners’ group, Dr J. Markiewicz and I worked with the Yugoslavian prisoners’ group, while Prof. F. Adamanis and M. Filipiak were in touch with the French and Italian prisoners’ groups. Initially, contact with the Czech inmates was maintained by Dr Podlaha, thereafter by E. Sommer and Dr F. Kamiński. In turn, Prof. Adamanis, Dr Gościński, A. Konieczny and I served as liaisons with the camp’s minority groups, i.e. British, Belgian, Dutch and Hungarian inmates. A. Młodyszewski tried to establish relations with individual inmates whom we needed for various operations.
The laboratory, post-mortem room, and dental surgery served as secret meeting places for the hospital resistance group. The lab was the most convenient venue, since it could be used by all prisoners due to the medical analytics and X-ray examinations as well as the physiotherapy treatment conducted there, and the presence of several inmates from different commandos did not raise any suspicions. The dental surgery was visited by many prisoners from different barracks, and for obvious reasons the SS-men were not eager to look into the post-mortem room. The roll call square was also a convenient place to meet and talk to various inmates, who used to gather there in their spare time.
Another successful undertaking of the prisoners’ resistance group, apart from getting rid of the sinister hospital kapos and bringing doctors with specialist qualifications into the wards,5 was countering SS attempts to murder TB patients and invalids on orders from the camp executive, as well as putting up resistance to SS doctors’ attempts to conduct pseudo-medical experiments on TB patients and perform surgeries on healthy prisoners.6
The Scale. Prisoner’s Eyes and Face. Marian Kołodziej. Photo by Piotr Markowski. Click to enlarge.
The SS physicians were now operating patients under the discrete supervision of Drs Gościński and Podlaha, who used the pretext of explaining specific surgical methods to them to control their operations. In many cases the prisoner-doctors’ interventions prevented mass murder and saved dozens of inmates, who would otherwise have been doomed to die. The orderlies and doctors often carried severely ill patients from one hospital block to another, keeping the practice a strict secret from the SS doctors. An SS-doctor’s visit and inspection of such “incurable” patients would have meant their selection for a “jab.” The prisoner-doctors kept a double set of medical records of those patients whose prolonged treatment or poor results would have inevitably led to their extermination. Many a time they issued death certificates with falsified names: instead of the real names of the deceased they put down the names of prisoners the SS had sentenced to death, knowing that they would be executed in a short time. This saved the lives of many prisoners, who survived and were liberated having “swapped” names with their dead fellow inmates. Thanks to the doctors’ collaboration with inmates working in the political department, the resistance movement learned which political prisoners were in imminent danger and should be urgently admitted to the prison hospital or officially declared dead and have a fake death certificate issued. The clerks or other members of the resistance movement used the pretext of serious illness to send emaciated inmates to the hospital, where they were kept for weeks until they recovered their strength.
With time, the sanitary assistants provided better care to the patients, and the few brutal functionaries who still worked in the hospital had to curb their sadistic inclinations.
Prisoners who were medical students or orderlies could attend clandestine courses in a variety of the medical disciplines, hygiene, or patients’ care, run by prisoner-doctors with special qualifications; the courses were held after work, in the evenings or on holidays. Most of the hospital staff also took foreign language courses; usually the languages offered were Russian, English, or Spanish.
There was also a programme of cultural events for patients: in their leisure time they could attend concerts given by fellow-prisoners who were musicians, or poetry readings by those who were poets. The purpose of these surreptitious events was to bring a bit of sunshine into the gloomy lives of the patients. The choral performances conducted by Lubomir Szopiński7 and the music recitals given by Gracjan “Jasio” Guziński, Józef Pawlak, Heinrich Lutterbach and Edward Unkiewicz8 helped the sick forget their terrible situation for a while; the poems recited by Konstanty Ćwierk, Grzegorz Timofiejew, Włodzimierz Wnuk, and Zdzisław Wróblewski filled broken-hearted patients with hope for a better future. You could hear well-known vocalists like Tadeusz Faliszewski, Zygmunt Malinowski, or Józef Gruszczyński, as well as other soloists singing in the hospital blocks. Of course, the performances could only be held with the utmost caution when there were no SS-men around.
Thanks to Dr Gościński’s personal relations with the SS doctors and camp authorities, who sometimes sought medical assistance for themselves and their families, it was possible to obtain extra food rations for the hospital. However, it was the prisoners who were members of the resistance movement employed in the officers’ mess, SS kitchens, storehouses and in the commando in charge of rabbit and dog breeding, who provided the most effective help. Risking their lives and displaying enormous ingenuity, they carried cauldrons of food intended for the SS-men or their four-legged pets, into the hospital. They smuggled in large quantities of bread, margarine or other foodstuffs hidden under piles of stones, boards or other things on the carts which inmates had to pull into the prisoners’ camp. A certain part of this “delivery” was given to the hospital. Here we should mention the merit of Władysław Cybulski, the prisoner in charge of supplying food to the hospital, who organised such extra deliveries for patients.
The functionaries employed in the camp’s post office, in the SS hospital and on the premises where the prisoners’ belongings were stored were of great help to the patients as well. Families often sent prisoners medications which were usually confiscated or stored in the camp warehouse. The functionaries managed to smuggle some of these medications into the hospital, thus supplementing its sparse resources and saving many lives.
In the lab, Professor Adamanis, the pharmacist from Poznań, produced medicaments such as calcium chloride, which were not supplied to the camp’s pharmacy at all or delivered only in small quantities but were needed to treat TB patients on the quiet. In early spring 1945, the lab staff also used analytical reagents to produce nitro-glycerine to blow up the entrances to the tunnels in the quarry. The camp authorities were planning to kill all the prisoners in the quarry before surrendering the camp to Allied forces. Moreover, the lab staff made and purified methylated spirits intended for clandestine purposes. The alcohol was used to bribe block seniors, kapos, and functionaries to give particular prisoners less strenuous jobs or better beds in the barracks. It could be exchanged for extra bowls of soup, but most importantly, a villain who got a bribe refrained from using violence against inmates who were our protégés. For just a small amount of alcohol, German Prominente (big shots) would turn a blind eye to certain things going on in the camp.
The hospital staff, especially the doctors in charge of particular wards, as well as the prisoners working in the pharmacy, dental surgery and lab, could easily establish and maintain good relations with functionaries and Prominente. They used these acquaintances to carry out our secret schemes. Thanks to these contacts, a large number of prisoners were transferred to “better” commandos or were not brutally beaten or starved to death.
The camp executive stored large quantities of food reserves in the hospital bunkers under the floor of the pharmacy, lab and pathological anatomy room. This secret cache of food was opened when the food supply chain collapsed early in 1945.
Prisoners working as cleaners in the secretariats, the SS residential quarters and the SS hospital were in touch on an everyday basis with German soldiers who had radios. So they informed their fellow inmates about the current situation of the troops on the fronts and the mood prevailing among the German guards. Every day, a prisoner working as a lab technician came in from the prison hospital to collect samples for medical tests from the SS hospital. Thus, many a time he smuggled various things out from the Jourhaus(the administrative and commandant’s offices). Naturally, these things could not fall into the wrong hands. Gruber, who worked as a clerk in the hospital’s secretariat, was a liaison man with the Austrian resistance movement operating in the environs of Linz. But soon he was denounced and killed. Yet, when tortured during the SS interrogation, he did not reveal the names of any of the hospital conspirators.
Another source of valuable information about the relations existing outside the camp was Erika, a female SS guard. She used to escort the female prisoners from the “special purposes buildings” (the brothel)9 to the lab for a medical examination or physiotherapy treatment.
In turn, Dr Gościński maintained relations with Dr Benno Adolf, the camp’s chief physician, who enjoyed the support of the Berlin government and was appointed to the post in compensation for his loss of health due to nervous exhaustion in the Battle of Stalingrad on the Eastern Front. He became a silent ally of the prisoners, as he could not stand Nazism and predicted the imminent fall of the Third Reich. During his frequent visits to the hospital, Dr Adolf told the prisoner-doctors of the situation on the fronts and the current positions of the German troops. He assured them that the camp would be liberated soon. Moreover, he informed them that the German communist underground organisation knew of the situation of prisoners confined in the concentration camps and would help them in due time. He promised to inform the prisoner-doctors when the camp executive issued the order to exterminate all the inmates. However, he was chief physician only for a few months. Adolf’s successors, like his predecessors, were diehard supporters of Hitler, and their attitude towards prisoners was utterly venomous, so we had to proceed with caution.
After Allied forces liberated the camp on 5 May 1945, the hospital was taken over by an American field hospital. The hospital resistance movement ceased to exist. Some of its members stayed with the patients, changing their striped prison gear for green US officers’ uniforms; the rest of the hospital staff went home and only a handful of the medics chose to emigrate.
The tasks of the resistance group operating in the Gusen prisoners’ hospital had come to an end: large numbers of inmates had been saved. After the war many of them made brilliant professional careers in their now liberated countries.
Translated from original article: Wlazłowski, Z., “Lekarze polscy w obozowym ruchu oporu w Gusen,” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim; 1969.
- Cf. The Gusen prisoners’ hospital, also by Z. Wlazłowski (1967).a
- Cf. Nogaj (1967: 154).a
- For more information on Rudolf Meixner, read https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/KZ_Gusen_I and http://www.nizkor.com/hweb/camps/gusen/pers/gusenssx.htmb
- Cf. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/KZ_Gusen_I and http://www.nizkor.com/hweb/camps/gusen/pers/gusenssx.htm.b
- Cf. Wlazłowski, 1967.a
- Cf. Wlazłowski, 1968.a
- Here we have put in the first names of the artists mentioned by Dr Wlazłowski.b
- For more information on Unkiewicz, see http://www.gusen.org.pl/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=72&Itemid=84&limit=1&limitstart=1.b
- Cf. Wlazłowski, 1967: 119.
a—notes translated from the original version of the article; b—translator’s notes.
- Nogaj, S. Mój udział w ruchu oporu w obozach koncentracyjnych Dachau i Gusen. In Pamiętajmy. Jednodniówka wydana z okazji XXII-lecia oswobodzenia obozów koncentracyjnych Mauthausen-Gusen. Katowice; 1967: 154.
- Wlazłowski, Z. Gruźlica płuc i postępowanie z chorymi na gruźlicę w obozie koncentracyjnym Gusen. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1968: 98–101. English translation available soon on the Medical Review – Auschwitz journal website.
- Wlazłowski, Z. The Gusen prisoners’ hospital. Kantor, M., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. August 3, 2020. Originally published as “Szpital w obozie koncentracyjnym w Gusen.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1967: 112–121.
A publication funded in 2020–2021 within the DIALOG Program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.