Stanisław Kłodziński, MD, 1918–1995, lung specialist, Department of Pneumology, Academy of Medicine in Kraków. Co-editor of Medical Review – Auschwitz. Former prisoner of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (prisoner no. 20019).
Dr Stefan Pizło. Source: Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1970.
Stefan Pizło was the first Polish physician to be sent to Auschwitz. From the early days of his confinement, he worked in the prisoners’ hospital (Häftlingskrankenbau or HKB). He was older than the other men who were deported to Auschwitz in the first transport, on 14 June, 1940, and so his fellow deportees treated him as a figure of authority and role model. In return, when in need, they could make the most of his expertise and dedication. Dr Pizło never deserted his post, and died on 7 July, 1942, having contracted typhus during the peak of one of the epidemics in the camp.
He was born on 6 March, 1887 in Sanok (now south-eastern Poland). His father Józef Pizło was a secondary school teacher (one of the schools in which he worked was Szkoła Realna No. 2).1 His mother was Anna née Weibl. Stefan Pizło began his secondary education in a Wadowice grammar school and completed it in Kraków in 1905, at the King John Sobieski Grammar School.2 From 1905 to 1910 he studied Medicine at the Jagiellonian University. Having passed all the required examinations, he graduated as a physician in 1912. Due to his poor health, he was discharged from the Austrian army3 after only two months of service. For a short spell until 1 February, 1913, he worked as a volunteer in Prof. Aleksander Rosner’s gynaecological and obstetrics ward of the Jagiellonian University Hospital. In 1913–1919 Dr Pizło was the municipal physician of Jordanów in the powiat4 of Myślenice. In 1916, during the epidemics of smallpox, typhus, and dysentery, the authorities of Austrian Galicia appointed him chief epidemic physician for the circuits of Rabka, Jordanów, and Maków (now Maków Podhalański). In 1919 he was conscripted for military service in the Polish Army and served as a physician in the rank of lieutenant in the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Polish Legions5 at Jabłonna and Zegrze (near Warsaw), and subsequently as chief physician in the 13th Field Hospital of the 2nd Division of the Legions6 on the Belarusian and Lithuanian front. Thanks to the petition of the community of Jordanów to the Ministry for Military Affairs, Dr Pizło was discharged from military service and resumed his previous duties in that region. In 1920 he was appointed epidemic physician acting in the capacity of powiat physician of Nisko (now in south-eastern Poland), and managing the hospital run by the Special Commissioner’s Office for Epidemic Control.7 One of his duties was to restore the medical service in the powiat, which had been devastated and impoverished by heavy fighting during the Great War. His crowning achievement was the construction project of the clinic in Rudnik (now Rudnik nad Sanem). The new building was up by 1939, and waiting only for the installation of its interior fittings, which were completed at the beginning of World War II, when it started to serve as a TB hospital. Many soldiers who fell ill or were wounded during combat on the River San, received proper treatment in that facility.
Dr Pizło was working in Nisko when World War II broke out. On 1 November 1939 he was arrested on the orders of Landkommissar Heinz Ehaus,8 because he had refused to collaborate with the German occupying authorities. He turned down the offer of an appointment as Oberkreisarzt (chief district physician), which would have given him a car as a perk to go with the job. Dr Pizło was held for a fortnight in Rzeszów jail for refusing the job. Shortly afterwards Ehaus was appointed Kreishauptmann for Rzeszów and earned notoriety first for establishing a Jewish ghetto in the city and later for destroying it.
Tarnów train station. The first transport of prisoners to KL Auschwitz. Click the photo to enlarge. Source: Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
Dr Pizło was arrested again in Nisko on 1 January 1940. And again, luckily, he was released. He was arrested a third time on 18 May 1940, transferred to Tarnów jail, and after a few weeks joined the first transport of prisoners to Auschwitz, where he was registered as political prisoner No. 333. All that his family heard of him from those happy few who were released from the camp were just some brief reports about his life in Auschwitz. For instance, Stanisław Bełżyński (who left Auschwitz in November 1941, became head of Home Army9 sabotage operations in the region, and was shot by the Germans in 1944 at Rozwadów railway station) told his family he had a relatively safe job in the prisoners’ hospital and was in fairly good health. Similar news was brought by Antoni Ostrowski, a fellow-prisoner from the first Auschwitz transport, when he was released. Yet in 1940 Dr Pizło’s relatives became really worried when they received a parcel from Auschwitz containing his civilian clothes: when a prisoner’s personal belongings were sent to the family, it usually meant he had died.
Dr Pizło was a fluent speaker of German, which undoubtedly helped him during his confinement. At the age of 53, he was also an experienced physician, whom his fellow prisoners badly needed. He was allowed to work as a prisoner-doctor already in the initial period of his imprisonment, that is during the so-called “quarantine.” His integrity earned him the respect not only of much younger Polish inmates, but also of German functionaries, including Oberkapo Hans Böck,10 prisoner No. 5, who supervised the prisoners’ hospital. It was due to Dr Pizło’s beneficial influence on those around him that some humane impulses could still be observed in the camp, where the detainees had to endure the savagery both of the SS men and common criminals of German origin.
Now, when so many years have elapsed, it is extremely difficult to provide a comprehensive overview of Dr Pizło’s life and work in Auschwitz. Overwhelmed by so many memories of the camp reality, the few survivors still left of those in the camp in its early days cannot recollect details or full episodes concerning this fellow prisoner. However, they distinctly remember him as a good and kind friend who often brought them words of comfort, extended a charitable gesture, and offered hundreds of small favours that normally go unnoticed, but proved so important in the camp. All these survivors concur that Dr Pizło was a serious, unassuming man, always lost in thought and preoccupied with his tasks. He kept a low profile and had no ambition to rise above the rank of ordinary prisoner.
This is how Dr Pizło was described by Dr Jan Pakowski, No. 8633:
I remember his tall, slim, and slightly leaning figure. He was a calm, composed man. He had a room on the first floor of Block 28 for TB patients, who were not permitted to leave it for their entire time in the hospital. As ordered by Hans Böck, I had to replace Dr Pizło for a week or two when he was down with flu. Some of his patients suffered from and died of severe pulmonary tuberculosis, but others were not critically ill: actually they had managed to be admitted to hospital after submitting wangled samples of a sick person’s spittle to the camp’s TB lab, which were tested as positive. The TB room was overcrowded and the turnover of inpatients was high, so it was hard to keep everything in order and provide decent conditions. However, Dr Pizło was capable of winning everybody’s respect and trust. When he fell ill, the patients anxiously enquired about his health. They wanted to know when he was coming back to work and whether I was staying with them for good. Frankly, I felt a bit sorry that they treated me as a necessary evil. I can remember the TB room had a real ceremony for distributing the food rations. The patients elected a “rationing board” for a certain “term of office.” Its members had to weigh out absolutely identical portions, using primitive scales made of cardboard, sticks, and pieces of string. The procedure was monitored by all those present, even the bedridden patients. The rationing ritual, introduced by Dr Pizło as a poor substitute for occupational therapy, was repeated three times a day to calm down the sick prisoners, eliminate theft and dishonesty, and start conversations.
For Dr Pizło the worst day came on 28 July 1941. As the prisoner-doctor in charge of the TB room, he had to accompany a board of SS physicians who selected almost all of his patients for death and sent them off in a notorious transport to an extermination centre in Germany: the prisoners were told they were going to a “sanatorium” near Dresden.11 This was the first occasion when Auschwitz inmates were killed in a gas chamber. Although Dr Pizło was not aware of what the SS board had really planned, he knew Nazi German methods all too well and realized his patients were in danger, so he wanted to save as large a group as possible.
As the information about Dr Pizło’s life in the camp is scanty, let me quote from an account by Auschwitz survivor Dr Kazimierz Hałgas, registered in the camp as No. 5670:
I met Dr Pizło early, perhaps in October 1940. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, when we were getting off the train, I was hit on the right calf with a rifle butt and developed a sizeable leg ulcer, as big as a large coin. For a few consecutive evenings I tried to be admitted to the dressing room, but my requests were always rejected by Alois [Staller],12 the functionary of Block 17a. When finally one day I was allowed into the dispensary, I was hit again, this time with a club, by Walentynowicz.13 Dr Pizło happened to see this, came up and asked me what I needed. Having heard my story, he told me to wait outside Block 15, fetched some ointment and dressings, and told me how to apply them. When he learned that I was a medical student, he was even more attentive. I had to see him two or three times a week outside that block to have my dressings changed. This is how the wound was almost fully healed. Once Dr Pizło caught me selling my evening portion of bread for a cigarette. I never heard a word from him that day. But on the next occasion he gave me six German Junos:14 they must have been presented to him by an SS man who had needed a dressing too. Dr Pizło told me to enjoy them and then to quit smoking. He also warned me that if I sold my bread for cigarettes again, he would stop helping me. I had been craving for nicotine so much that I accepted the gift, secretly relished all my smokes, and indeed gave up smoking. Nota bene, Dr Pizło was a heavy smoker himself, and still had a cigarette in his mouth even on his deathbed. After my wound had been healed, we met only sporadically, because we worked in different blocks. In September 1941 both of us were working in the unit disposing of the bodies of prisoners gassed in the bunkers of Block 13.
All or at least a large part of the letters Dr Pizło wrote from the camp to his beloved wife Cecylia have been preserved. They are composed in good German. His first letters were written on pages from a notebook and some of them do not have a censor’s stamp. The content includes some standard phrases that prisoners were obliged to put in (like “I’m fine and don’t need anything”), or mostly on domestic matters, showing that although he was confined in the camp, he still wanted to act as head of the family. Therefore he advised his relatives what they should do, for instance he told them to sell the piano. He wanted to know how they were managing. The first letter is dated 28 July 1940, and the entire collection, which is in the hands of his family, is absolutely unique. A letter he wrote about six weeks after his deportation to the camp gives the date of the first Auschwitz transport and his registration number, and names his workplace, that is the prisoners’ hospital. During the first months of his imprisonment, Dr Pizło described how much he longed for freedom and how terribly he missed his nearest and dearest. He asked them to pray for him, said that hope kept him from giving into apathy and depression, and that he was suffering from insomnia. The letters hint at a “stomach problem” in September 1940, which most likely means that for a few weeks he had Durchfall, that is starvation diarrhoea. In the letter dated 2 February 1941, Dr Pizło said he had received a parcel with clothes as well as four food parcels. The first one was from the Kraków branch of Patronat, a Polish charity organization that aided prisoners. He added that in January 1941 he had had flu followed by kidney complications. From his letter dated March 1941 the censors deleted certain parts, but we can still read the following passage: “My life’s actually fine, but anything may happen, as even much younger people can die. So please keep this letter as my last will and testament. I bequeath my Omega watch to . . .” Dr Pizło received his next parcel with warm clothes in December 1941. In January 1942 he was suffering from rheumatic pain. His family’s replies intimated that his youngest son Jerzy was seriously ill and later that he had died, which was a harsh blow. Dr Pizło received that news about three months before his own death after contracting typhus.
This honest man and good doctor died on 7 July 1942, and was grieved by his many friends and patients. The Auschwitz Registry Office sent Dr Pizło’s family an official notification (Sterbeurkunde) of his death.
Official notification of the death of Dr Stefan Pizło received by his family. Source: Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1970.
This article is based on
(1) my own recollections of my time in Auschwitz;
(2) the accounts I have received from fellow prisoners Prof. Władysław Fejkiel, Dr Kazimierz Hałgas, Dr Witold Kosztowny, Dr Tadeusz Paczuła, Dr Jan Pakowski, and Mr Eugeniusz Niedojadło, M. Econ.;
(3) Dr Stefan Pizło’s letters sent from Auschwitz;
(4) his biography;
(5) information provided by his son, Dr Stefan Pizło Jr.; and
(6) the documents held in the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.Notes
- A secondary school similar to the Prussian Realschulen.
- III Gimnazjum im. Króla Jana III Sobieskiego. This school, with a reputation for scholarly excellence, is now known as II Liceum im. Króla Jana III Sobieskiego w Krakowie.
- Prior to 1918, when Poland‘s independence was restored after 123 years of dismemberment under foreign rule, Kraków and its region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
- Powiat—traditional name for a second-tier territorial administrative district in Poland.
- 3 Pułk Piechoty Legionowej. The Polish Legions were a military force set up in 1914 in the Austrian zone of Poland and commanded by Józef Piłsudski. They contributed a major military effort to the restoration of Polish independence and (under a new name) victory for Poland in the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919–1921.
- Szpital Polowy nr 13 w 2 Dywizji Legionów.
- Naczelny Nadzwyczajny Komisariat do Walki z Epidemiami, an institution set up by the Polish authorities in 1919 to control the epidemics ravaging the country in the aftermath of World War I.
- Heinz Ehaus (1906–1945), German administrative officer and member of the Nazi Party appointed to various posts in German-occupied Poland. Sent the Jews of Rzeszów to concentration camps. Committed suicide at the end of the War. See Ernst Klee, Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich (1st ed.). Frankfurt-am-Main: Fischer, 2003.
- Armia Krajowa (the Home Army) was the largest underground resistance organisation in German-occupied Europe.
- Hans Böck (Auschwitz prisoner no. 5) was one of the first 30 German prisoners sent to Auschwitz from Sachsenhausen, where they were being held for “criminal offences” (Böck’s “crime” was homosexuality). See http://www.sww.w.szu.pl/index.php?id=artykuly_historia_obozu_auschwitz.
- Probably the NS-Tötungsanstalt Sonnenstein (the National Socialist killing station at Sonnenstein). Sonnenstein Castle near Dresden was one of the first Nazi German euthanasia centres, where about 15 thousand persons were killed on the T4 programme.
- Alois Staller (Stahler), b. 1905, Auschwitz prisoner no. 3277. An investigation against him for war crimes was launched in 1960 in Frankfurt-am-Main, but the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. See Der Ort des Terrors: Hinzert, Auschwitz, Neuengamme. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (eds.), Vol. 5 of the Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistichen Konzentrationslager series, München: C.H. Beck, 2007, p. 250.
- Feliks Walentynowicz, no. 46 on the first transport of Polish prisoners brought to Auschwitz. See Stanisław Kłodziński’s article “Phenol in Auschwitz-Birkenau” on this website.
- Juno—a German brand of cigarettes, owned and manufactured by Reemtsma.
Notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, the Head Translator for 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.