AuthorMaciej Lambert, MD, PhD, historian of medicine, internal medicine specialist, member of American College of Physicians (ACP), American Association for the History of Medicine, and the Section of History of Medicine at the Philadelphia College of Physicians.
Dr Bolesław Kaczyński was confined in three concentration camps for many years; in two of these camps he worked as a prisoner-doctor, earning the respect of his fellow inmates, as they say in their accounts.1
Born in Warsaw in 1908, he completed his secondary education in Drohiczyn and then attended the cadet school in Kraków.2 In the 1930/31 academic year he went up to the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów3 to read Medicine, graduating in 1936. After completing a one-year medical internship at Saint Anthony’s Hospital in Lwów,4 he opened his own medical practice.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, he was called up for service in the Polish Army. He was taken prisoner by the Germans but soon managed to escape.5 When the Polish defence campaign ended, he was in Łuków (in the Lublin Voivodship), where his parents lived. From the first days of the Nazi German occupation of Poland, he took an active part in the operations of ZWZ (the Union of Armed Struggle).6 As a doctor, he was able to move around more freely than other Poles. He distributed leaflets and the secret press, as well as ZWZ commanders’ orders, while continuing to carry out his professional duties.
Dr Bolesław Kaczyński. Source: Knap, P. “Druga strona medalu. Bolesław Kaczyński (1908–1963).” Pamięć i Przyszłość, 3(2013): 38–45.
The Gestapo soon learned of Dr Kaczyński’s activities in the resistance movement and arrested him on 21 October 1940. That was the beginning of his detention in concentration camps: Flossenbürg, Stutthof, and Außenlager Pölitz bei Stettin. In Flossenbürg (Bavaria) he was sent to work in the quarries, but in Stutthof7 he could at least work as a prisoner-doctor, although he was suffering from terrible hunger and exhaustion.
Dr Kaczyński took over the management of the prisoners’ hospital after Dr Stefan Mirau, who died of typhoid fever in 1942 (Duszyński, 1969: 295–309). In the first period of the camp’s operations, the SS guards gave free rein to their savagery and used the hospital to finish off prisoners who were severely ill or unfit for work. It was only thanks to Dr Mirau and all the other prisoner-doctors that the situation improved significantly. When the camp expanded in 1942, the old barracks were allocated to the hospital. Different wards called “stations” could be organised to help the Revier8 function more like a real hospital (Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof, 1966).
The severe hardship the hospital staff had to go through can best be illustrated by the following facts. In the hospital barracks, two or three patients had to share a bunk, often regardless of the disease they had. There were severe shortages of medications; the monthly allowance was used up within a few days. The camp’s high mortality rate is confirmed by the figures: the daily death toll during two outbreaks of typhoid fever amounted to 300 or more prisoners, and only about 25% died in the hospital, which was always full up.
The SS authorities periodically carried out selections in the hospital, which always ended in the mass murder of sick inmates. The executioners were German orderlies and SS doctors, who used phenol or petrol injections into the heart to kill selected patients (Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof, 1966, and Łukaszewicz, Z., 1947). Some orderlies used an even crueller method of killing: they drowned victims in the washroom (Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof, 1966). Not every prisoner was fortunate enough to be admitted to the hospital. The Germans forbade the prisoners’ hospital to admit Jews, as according to the Nazi policy, Jews were to live only so long as they were fit for work, and afterwards they were to be finished off.
So in these terrible conditions, the prisoner-doctors’ work was not easy at all. Nonetheless, even with the limited options of treatment they had, and basically with no access to diagnostic tests or instruments, they still did their best to help inmates. The hospital did not get an X-ray apparatus until 1944. As the SS doctors did not provide any anaesthetics, operations—sometimes very complicated ones—were performed with no general anaesthesia. Moreover, the windows of the operating theatre overlooked the execution square, so the medical staff and patients often saw executions being carried out.9
The team of physicians working in Stutthof, consisting of doctors E. Drobner-Kwiatkowski, L. Duszyński, B. Kaczyński, J. Łoziński, J. Węgrzynowicz, A. Witkowski, A. Wojewski, and W. Wolański, (Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof, 1966), looked after patients with exemplary dedication and selflessness. Gliński writes erroneously10 that Dr Kaczyński was held in Stutthof to the end of the camp’s operations (Gliński, Mirosław, 1971). “None of the doctors held in the camp during the five years of its existence deserve censure. Some were better, some were worse, but none of them could be accused of behaving unethically” (Duszyński, Lech, 1969).
One of the Stutthof survivors (Staśkiewicz, Leon) has the following recollection of Dr Kaczyński:
I was in the camp hospital from the end of December 194011 with a severe phlegmon in my left leg. I was in danger of losing my leg, which would have resulted in selection and death. . . . Phenol injections were administered by the SS orderly Haupt12; . . . in addition, I had amoeboid diarrhoea, . . . which had a 95% fatality rate. Dr Kaczyński gave me a lot of care and attention, making dressings twice a day, which was formally forbidden, applying all the methods of treatment he had at his disposal to keep me from being selected for a jab. . . . As I found out later, Dr Kaczyński saved me three times from being killed by Haupt. . . . From May 1943, I had to keep a low profile so as not to catch the notice of the camp authorities, and Dr Kaczyński risked losing his position as a physician to treat me in the evenings, when the chances of an SS man entering the hospital were minimal. He used all the available kinds of treatment, including blood transfusion. I owe him my life and the fact that my leg was not amputated. Dr Kaczyński used to tell me, “With a leg like that you won’t be able to dance but at least you’ll walk.”13
This prisoner stayed in the hospital for several months and witnessed many similar cases, and writes of Dr Kaczyński’s sympathetic and dedicated attitude to all the sick, whom he treated on equal terms, without preferring anyone. But at the same time, he did not tolerate malingerers, who wanted to be admitted to hospital, because they would have taken up the beds needed by the genuinely sick.
The orderlies serving as kapos treated inmates in a savage and cruel way. Sometimes Dr Kaczyński managed to stop the cruellest executioners, even the orderly Breit,14 from bullying defenceless patients. Dr Kaczyński’s interventions were always vigorous and decisive, although he was aware of the risks he was taking. He saved many prisoners from additional suffering and even death.
Dr Kaczyński spent four years in different concentration camps. During this long period he had moments of weakness and breakdown, just like other prisoners. When he was suffering from hunger pangs and extreme fatigue in Stutthof, he wanted to kill himself by going on the electrified barbed wire; many inmates chose this kind of death to free themselves from suffering. On another occasion in Stutthof, he was badly injured by an SS man who did not like the fact that he was not standing up straight during a roll call and hit him with a bottle. It took his fellow prisoner-doctors until late into the night to remove all the pieces of glass from his back using tweezers.
In mid-1944 the Germans set up a sub-camp15 near Stettin (now Szczecin), halfway to Pölitz (now Police), which soon became the most infamous of all the Stutthof sub-camps. Hydrierwerke A.G., a large synthetic petrol factory was set up in Pölitz, and about 30 thousand prisoners from many European countries, including about 15 thousand Poles, worked in it. They were accommodated in seven large camps (Frankiewicz, Bogdan, 1969), of which only Messenthin-Pölitz (Mścięcino-Police) has been preserved intact.
Dr Kaczyński arrived in Messenthin with other prisoners at the turn of April and May 1944.16 The prisoners were provisionally put up in tents and sent to work in the factory and to build the camp; unfortunately, the camp’s 32 concrete barracks are now serving as utility premises in a piggery.17 Messenthin was a place where thousands of prisoners were killed.
Extremely hard and dangerous work in the factory, infectious diseases, and other factors resulted in a high mortality rate. “Due to strenuous work and starvation, prisoners suffered from oedema, and bloody diarrhoea, which was always fatal. The death rate was around 25 a day as a result of disease and brutal exploitation, and many inmates being killed by the SS-men” (Bojko, Eugeniusz, statement).
One of the raw materials used in the production of artificial petrol was pitch, which inmates had to unload. The dust from the pitch settled on their faces, causing severe skin diseases and often leading to blindness (Markiewicz, T. Wspomnienia z pobytu na przymusowych pracach w Niemczech w latach 1940–1945 [typescript No. 212 in Instytut Zachodnio-Pomorski w Szczecinie]; Meissner, W. statement [Archives of the Szczecin District Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes, Ref. No. S. 15/68], and Szor, A., statement).
Dr Kaczyński was the only prisoner-doctor in Messenthin. His potential to provide medical care for inmates was extremely limited in outcome of the rapid and badly planned construction of the camp. In fact, the Germans did not design any special barracks for a hospital, and all the sanitary facilities were simply makeshift. They set up two barracks for a Revier, and later, when the number of patients started to rise, they added three more barracks. Next to the hospital there was a mortuary, with a toilet and a delousing room nearby, and outdoor washrooms. The admissions room was in a barrack opposite the camp gate. The hospital was just as cluttered up as the other blocks with three-tier bunks, and often two or three patients had to share a bunk. Below is a passage from a survivor’s account:
It was hot outside, and in the hospital we were literally boiling . . . we could not stand the horrible stink of pus and faeces . . . or the stuffiness. There were patients with various diseases, most of them . . . had dysentery, . . . phlegmons, . . . or tuberculosis. They relieved themselves on their beds and blankets, so they were brutally made to take their dirty blankets to the washroom and wash them in cold water.
Jezierska, Maria Elżbieta, 1965: 66–100
These facts, though incomplete, provide evidence that the medical conditions in Messenthin were much worse than in Stutthof,18 and yet “Dr Bolesław Kaczyński, the physician in the camp . . . managed to snatch several patients from the jaws of Death in spite of the extremely primitive conditions and shortages.” (Jezierska, Maria Elżbieta, 1965: 66–100). J. Nowicki is one of the survivors who recalls Dr Kaczyński’s admirable skills and conduct (Nowicki, Jerzy, 1968).
At times, when Dr Kaczyński was helpless and had no more medications or bandages, he tried to keep the patients’ spirits up by organising clandestine lectures, literary soirées and even concerts, during which various Polish and other songs were sung.
And it was to his fellow inmates that Dr Kaczyński owed his survival. But before that happened, the SS-men conducted an abominable mass murder in the hospital. During the first days of April 1945, trucks drove up to the hospital barracks. The Germans told the apprehensive hospital staff that the patients would be evacuated and ordered them to put all of them on the trucks. A quarter of an hour after their departure, shots were heard—nearly 600 prisoners were murdered19 (Bojko, Eugeniusz, statement, Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof, 1966, and Jezierska, Maria Elżbieta, 1965).
The final evacuation of the camp began on 18 April 1945.20 The last column of trucks left the camp when the approaching Red Army was already shelling the German positions in Stettin and Pölitz. There were only 30 of the most seriously ill patients still left in the camp, along with a few other prisoners who were to help the Germans cover up all the evidence of the camp’s existence. Later the Germans burned the thirty patients alive (“Hitlerowcy żywcem spalili więźniów polickiego obozu,” 1970), and they did it on the eve of the camp’s liberation.
Just before the final evacuation, Dr Kaczyński was in hospital too, sick and extremely exhausted. But he was spared the fate of the patients who were burned alive: he was saved by those who owed their lives to him. They “went up to the seriously sick Dr Kaczyński and simply carried him out to the last truck to leave” (“Hitlerowcy żywcem spalili więźniów polickiego obozu,” 1970).
Dr Bolesław Kaczyński in his surgery. Source: Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim (Medical Review – Auschwitz), 1972. Click to enllage.
That’s how Dr Kaczyński’s four years of ordeal in concentration camps ended. He was liberated in early May 1945, and on the eighth of that month arrived in Szczecin with a group of emaciated prisoners still in their striped prison gear. He was one of the first doctors to arrive in Szczecin, which had been liberated on 26 April.21 They immediately started organising a health service for the first settlers arriving from other parts of the country.
Before the War Stettin was a city with a population of 380 thousand. In May 1945 only 6 thousand Germans were still left, hiding in the basements of the ruins. There was a small group of a few hundred Poles, the nucleus of a new Polish community. The city was completely devastated and gutted by fire. 70 per cent of it lay in ruins. There was a food shortage and terrible hunger; infectious diseases were rife. For want of other transportation, medical equipment and drugs were brought in handcarts to the first outpatient clinics and treatment stations. One of the tasks undertaken by the Polish Department of Health was to take over the hospitals, which had been completely devastated and had no equipment at all. Moreover, going into a hospital was very risky, as German soldiers still hiding in the ruins would fire at Polish health workers (Lambert, Maciej, 1970).
Due to the unstable political situation, in late May 1945 the Polish municipal authority was forced to leave Szczecin. Dr Kaczyński moved to Stargard Szczeciński, where he set up the first hospital in that city. Just like Szczecin, Stargard was almost completely depopulated and in ruins. But a small group of enthusiastic Poles, including Dr Kaczyński, helped to launch its first health care facilities, which was very important for the development and re-polonisation of the Restored Western Territories. In 1950 Dr Kaczyński was transferred to Dębno Lubuskie22 (in the Szczecin Voivodship), where for a certain time he was the only physician; later he was head of the local hospital.23
In recognition of Dr Kaczyński’s achievements for the development of the health service in Western Pomerania, and taking into account his active participation in the re-polonisation of these areas, the Council of State24 and local authorities conferred several honours and distinctions on him. For example, he was awarded the Gold and Silver Crosses of Merit, the Medal for the Tenth Anniversary of the Polish People’s Republic, and the Pomeranian Griffin.25
Dr Bolesław Kaczyński died on 27 January 1963.
Those who knew Dr Kaczyński, whether from the camps or from his pioneering work for the Szczecin region, remember him as an outstanding personality, an altruist and dedicated physician.26 The fine words of another doctor, Karol Marcinkowski,27 who lived in the nineteenth century, may be applied to him: “Why I have worked to the best of my ability can be understood only by one who has known what it means to do one’s duty.”
I would like to thank Dr Bodgan Frankiewicz of the Szczecin Archives for his help with the source materials and invaluable advice; Judge Jan Gutkowski, Chairman of the Szczecin District Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes,28 for providing the protocols of witness’ statements from the Commission’s documents, and Prof. Alfons Wojewski, MD, head of the Urology Clinic of the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin, who was a camp doctor of the Stutthof hospital and has given me a lot of useful information on prisoner-doctors’ activities in the concentration camps.
Translated from original article: Lambert, M., “Dr Bolesław Kaczyński.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1972.Notes
- Most of these statements are cited in the article by Tomasz Sikorski and Urszula Kozłowska, “Medical care and sanitation, hygiene and living conditions in German (Nazi) concentration sub-camp Konzentrationslager Stutthof — Aussenlager Pölitz.” Acta Universitatis Wratislaviensis. 1981, Studia nad Autorytaryzmem i Totalitaryzmem. 42, No. 1 Wrocław, 2020, 21-31. The authors also give a detailed biographical note on Dr Kaczyński. Source: https://doi.org/10.19195/2300-7249.42.1.1.
For an alternative account of Dr B. Kaczyński and his conduct in the concentration camps, see Paweł Knap, “Druga strona medalu. Bolesław Kaczyński (1908-1963),” Pamięć i Przyszłość. 3/2013 (21), 38-45, online at http://opip.megiteam.pl/files/0003/1451/Kw_PiP_nr21_s38.pdf.a
- Krakowska Szkoła Podchorążych.b
- Before the War the City of Lwów was on Polish territory; now it is in Ukraine and is known as Lviv.b
- Szpital św. Antoniego we Lwowie.b
- According to the contemporary historian Paweł Knap, this is inaccurate, since according to Dr Kaczyński’s autobiography, he was released after being taken prisoner in 1939. There are also several other biographical inaccuracies that Knap tries to review and explain in a new biography of Dr Kaczyński.c
- The Union of Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej) was an underground army formed in Poland on 13 November 1939. It operated until 14 February 1942, when it was renamed the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK).a
- Dr Kaczyński was transported from Flossenbürg to Stutthof on 8 July 1, where he was registered as No.14701, a political prisoner. AMS (Archiwum Muzeum Stutthof, Stutthof Museum Archive), prisoners’ register, Ref. No.I-IIE-5, p. 24.c
- Revier—German for “infirmary” or “sick bay”, used in the concentration camps for prisoners’ hospitals.b
- According to several statements, the view onto this part of the square was blacked out. Some of the patients and medical staff watched what went on around the gas chamber and crematorium, peeping through cracks in the wooden walls and through scratches on the paint on the windows.c
- Gliński did not have access to many statements or records when he was writing his first paper about the hospital in Stutthofin the late 1960s.c
- The dating is doubtful, since Dr Kaczyński did not arrive in Stutthof until July 1942. A sick prisoner was unlikely to have stayed in the camp hospital for several months or even years; as the survivor says, he was in the hospital until May 1943.c
- SS-Hauptscharführer Otto Haupt (1896–?), Nazi German war criminal, member of the management of Stutthof, actively involved in the mass murder of prisoners. Tried by a West German court in 1964 and sentenced to 12 years in prison.b
- According to extant records, Leon Staśkiewicz, the prisoner who made this statement, was in the camp hospital four times. The dates of his discharges were 22 June 1943, 5 October 1943, 1 February 1944, and 28 August 1944. AMS, hospital discharge registers, Ref. Nos. I-VB-22 and I-VB-23.c
- Jan Breit, b. 1916, prisoner No. 14628, arrived in Stutthof from Flossenbürg on the same day as Dr Kaczyński, which means that they must have known each other before. Breit worked as an orderly in the Stutthof hospital and was known for his fairly brutal conduct. He also “jabbed” selected prisoners. In 1946, he was sentenced to death by the Gdańsk Special Criminal Court and hanged.c
- For more information, see Józef Jagodziński, et al., Bunkry na ruinach. Szkice do historii KL Stutthof–Aussenlager Poelitz, Szczecin: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej. Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, 2009; Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz, Police, Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1974; Maria Elżbieta Jezierska, “Obozy w Policach,” Biuletyn GKBZHwP, vol. XV, 1965.c
- This sub-camp of Stutthof serving the Pölitz refinery started operations on 25 June 1944, when the first transport of 800 prisoners arrived. Dr Kaczyński was one of them. The camp accommodated a maximum of 2 thousand prisoners. Marek Orski, Filie obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof na terenie miasta Elbląga w latach 1940-1945, Gdańsk Sztutowo: Muzeum Stutthof – Pracownia Historii Obozu Stutthof 1939-1945, 1992, 307-313.a
- Currently (2020), the site is part of the industrial district of Police, with many companies located in the former camp buildings. There is a memorial for the victims of Stutthof and a street named after them.a
- Groups of several hundred prisoners who were sick or unfit for work were regularly sent from Pölitz to Stutthof; most of them were finished off in the camp. This shows that the hospital only had primitive equipment, and also that the conditions in which Dr Kaczyński had to look after patients were primitive; cf. Orski, Filie..., 310-311.c
- According to recent studies, this figure is overstated, Orski, Filie ..., 312-313 estimates the number of victims of executions in the forest at around 300.c
- About 1,600 prisoners were evacuated from Pölitz to the west. The evacuation was carried out by the governors of Sachsenhausen. 384 prisoners were taken by train to Barth on 17 or 18 April 1945; later about 800 prisoners were marched out of the camp for Bergen-Belsen; on 22 April 1945 the last large group of about 500 prisoners was sent out in the direction of Rostock. About 30 patients and 30 other prisoners were left in the camp to destroy its infrastructure. The last group of prisoners was liberated in the vicinity of Warnemündeon 1 May 1945, Orski, Filie ..., 312.c
- One can hardly speak of Szczecin being liberated on that day, as the city was not handed over to the Polish authorities officially until several months later, after a lot of problems. On 19 May 1945 the Soviets expelled the small groups of Poles and the first Polish authorities that had arrived in the city. At the time the city was still being administered by the Germans. The Soviet commander handed over the city to the Polish administrative authorities on 9 July 1945. These facts were discreetly hinted at in the account of Dr Kaczyński’s post-war activities.c
- Currently (2020) Dębno, in the Voivodeship of Western Pomerania.b
- Now (2020) Samodzielny Publiczny Zakład Opieki Zdrowotnej Szpital Powiatowy w Dębnie.b
- The Polish Cabinet.b
- Złoty i Srebrny Krzyż Zasługi, Medal 10-lecia Polski Ludowej, Odznaka Gryfa Pomorskiego.b
- In 2003, a Police primary school was named after Dr Bolesław Kaczyński. A memorial plaque was unveiled on its wall. The new publications by Paweł Knap and Józef Jagodziński cited above throw more light on Dr Kaczyński, showing some individuals’ reservations regarding his activities in Police. But they are only based on circumstantial evidence and have no solid evidence to confirm them.c
- Karol Marcinkowski (1800–1846) was a distinguished Polish physician and patriot, social activist and promoter of primary education. Hefoundeda welfare society to assist poor students and became a symbol of the highest professional and moral values in medicine.a
- Okręgowa Komisja Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich. In 1998 the entire Commission, at the national and all the regional levels, became part of investigations division of the IPN (Institute of National Remembrance), which since 2006 has been publishing statements and testimonials online in the Chronicles of Terror data base at www.zapisyterroru.pl.b
a—Translator’s notes; b—notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Head Translator for the Medical Review Auschwitz project; c—notes by Marcin Owsiński, Expert Consultant on the history of KL Stutthof for the Medical Review Auschwitz project.
- Bojko, Eugeniusz, statement. Archives of the Szczecin District Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes, Ref. No. S. 15/68.
- Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof. 1966. Obóz koncentracyjny Stutthof. Gdynia: Wydawnictwo Morskie.
- Duszyński, Lech. 1969. “Etyka i działalność polskich lekarzy w czasie II wojny światowej.” Pamiętnik II krajowego zjazdu lekarzy ZBoWiD, Warszawa: Państwowy Zakład Wydawnictw Lekarskich, 309–317.
- Duszyński, Lech. 1969. “Udział lekarzy cywilnych i wojskowych w walkach narodowo-wyzwoleńczych.” Pamiętnik II krajowego zjazdu lekarzy ZBoWiD, Warszawa: Państwowy Zakład Wydawnictw Lekarskich, 295–309.
- Frankiewicz, Bogdan. 1969. Praca przymusowa na Pomorzu zachodnim w latach II wojny światowej. Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie.
- Gliński, Mirosław. 1971. “Obsada szpitala obozowego w Stutthofie.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 69–71.
- “Hitlerowcy żywcem spalili więźniów polickiego obozu.” 1970. Głos Szczeciński, No. 60 (7610) 12 March 1970, 1–2 (T. Ordakowski’s account).
- Jezierska, Maria Elżbieta. 1965. “Obozy w Policach.” Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce XV: 66–100 (Gołowacz’s account).
- Lambert, Maciej. 1970. “Jubileusz.” Nowy Medyk. 9(139): 1–15. May 1970, 1 and 4.
- Łukaszewicz, Z. 1947. “Obóz koncentracyjny Stutthof.” Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce III.
- Markiewicz, T. Wspomnienia z pobytu na przymusowych pracach w Niemczech w latach 1940–1945. Typescript No. 212 in Instytut Zachodnio-Pomorski w Szczecinie.
- Meissner, W. statement. Archives of the Szczecin District Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes, Ref. No. S. 15/68.
- Nowicki, Jerzy. 1968. “Od Stutthofu do Sandbostel.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 158–169.
- Staśkiewicz, Leon. Statement (extant in M. Kaczyńska’s document collection).
- Szor, A. Statement. Archives of the Szczecin District Commission for the Investigation of Nazi German Crimes, Ref. No. S. 15/68.
A publication funded in 2020–2021 within the DIALOG Program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.