Zdzisław Jan Ryn, MD, PhD, born 1938, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and formerly Head of the Department of Social Pathology at the Collegium Medicum, Jagiellonian University, Kraków. Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the Kraków Medical Academy (1981–1984). Polish Ambassador to Chile and Bolivia (1991–1996) and Argentina (2007–2008). Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Physical Education (AWF) in Kraków. Co-editor of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim.
Dr Władysław Tondos, one of the Zakopane community of medical practitioners whose lives are an inextricable part of the history of the Nazi German concentration camps and the ordeals they suffered there, has passed away. He died after a long struggle against diseases he developed during his incarceration in the infamous house of torture the Nazi Germans set up in Zakopane’s Palace Hotel,1 and later in Auschwitz and other Nazi German concentration camps. The last time we saw this excellent physician was at the special session of the Kraków Branch of the PTL (Polish Medical Association), held as a public meeting to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.2 It was a special day for Dr Tondos personally, because during the meeting the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta3 was conferred on him.
Dr Władysław Tondos. Source: Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1976.. Click the image to enlarge.
Dr Tondos is connected with practically the entire history of the resistance movement operating in the Zakopane area against the Nazi Germans during Germany’s wartime occupation of Poland. He was also one of the few prisoner-doctors to survive the Nazi German concentration camps and render distinguished service in the medical profession during their wartime detention (Dr Tondos was an inmate of the renowned Block 20 in Auschwitz4) and in the post-war period. His work as a phthisiologist (pulmonary TB specialist) in the Zakopane medical community earned him special merit.
I would like this modest biographical article to be a memorial tribute to Dr Tondos, who was well-known to many Auschwitz survivors. For my own part, I would like it to be an expression of my respect and gratitude to him for all that I learned and experienced from my personal relations with him.
Dr Tondos never published any recollections of his confinement in the concentration camps, but he is frequently mentioned in the memoirs of survivors of the Palace jail and Auschwitz. The most extensive accounts of him are to be found in the work of Filar and Leyko, Talewski, Ryn (1971: 96–103), Marczyński (160–172) , and in survivors’ correspondence.
Before I go on to the wartime and concentration camp chapter in Dr Tondos’ life, I shall give a brief overview of his biography.
Władysław Tondos came from a farmer’s family. He was born in Kalina Mała, in the Powiat of Miechów, on 6 October 1900. His father was a very intelligent man, even though his education stopped at the primary level. His mother was very hard-working and full of vitality. Władysław’s parents gave him, their eldest son, as well as his younger brother Julian, a thorough education. Both graduated in Medicine. Jan, the youngest brother, stayed on the farm with the parents.
Władysław went to primary school in his home village, and then received the basics for the rest of his education from the Tadeusz Kościuszko Grammar School in Miechów, which had a good reputation for mathematics and the natural sciences. However, the First World War interrupted his education. In 1920 he volunteered for service in the Volhynian Uhlan Regiment.5 He didn’t complete his secondary education until 1923, and was awarded the school-leaving certificate on 21 June of that year. He read Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine of Poznań University, and graduated as a physician on 30 December 1932. He obtained the doctor’s degree in 1933. Professor Paweł Gantkowski was the academic supervisor of his doctoral dissertation, which was on an interdisciplinary subject combining philosophy with medicine.
In 1933 he married and moved to Zakopane, and started work in the Odrodzenie (“Renewal”) Sanatorium (now the Dr Olgierd Sokołowski Sanatorium),6 where he began his medical specialisation course in phthisiology (the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis). On completing his internship, he was appointed assistant to Professor Olgierd Sokołowski, who was his superior until the outbreak of the Second World War. He also worked with Dr Edward Łotocki in the sanatorium. From the very outset, Dr Władysław Tondos was deeply committed to the treatment of his patients, and spent most of his working time caring for them. His younger brother Julian is also a phthisiologist and works in the Zakopane Teachers’ Sanatorium.7
When the War broke out most of the patients of Zakopane’s sanatoria left. Only the most seriously ill stayed. At first they were all transferred to the Tytus Chałubiński Sanatorium, for a better standard of care, but later they were redistributed to the diverse sanatoria in an attempt to keep the Germans from requisitioning the buildings. Unfortunately, the plan failed and about 150 patients were sent to the Red Cross (Tytus Chałubiński) Sanatorium. At the time its director was Dr Franciszek Lewicki, and Dr Ludwik Fischer was its chief physician (Kłodziński, 229–234).
The Germans set up a hospital for their officers in Sanatorium Odrodzenie, and many German airmen were treated there. For a time the Chałubiński Sanatorium was used as a rest home for the German military. The Teachers’ Sanatorium was used as a school for the Hitlerjugend.8
On the initiative of Dr Fischer, the Polish Red Cross provided a medical service for local inhabitants. Patients received treatment for a very small fee of 50 groszy, which they paid to the Polish Red Cross.
As soon as the War broke out, Zakopane and the Podhale mountain region became an important centre for the underground resistance movement. One of its best-known activities was the courier service across the Tatra Mountains.9 In January 1940 ZWZ started operations,10 and Dr Hugon Karwowski became the commander of its Zakopane division. Dr Władysław Tondos joined ZWZ in the autumn of 1940, and (alongside two other Zakopane doctors, Ludwik Fischer and Jan Gadomski) rendered distinguished service in the resistance movement.
At this time the local resistance activities involved recruiting new members, collecting arms, organising and conducting “illegal” border crossings for the transfer of personnel and secret documents, and disseminating samizdats. ZWZ doctors provided clandestine medical treatment for wounded and sick members of the resistance movement. They provided some of these patients with protection by taking them into Zakopane hospital and later helping them to escape and avoid being caught by the Germans, who had a wanted list of resistance fighters. Dr Tondos used the services of liaison personnel to keep in touch with the resistance movement. They came to see him in his private surgery at home in Willa Orla on ul. Kościeliska.11 A lot of patients visited his surgery, which helped with his work for the resistance movement.
However, already by the spring of 1941 the Gestapo unit stationed in Zakopane was on the trail of the local resistance men, who were put under surveillance. Soon mass arrests followed. Most of the victims were members of the intelligentsia and sportsmen, who made up the core of the resistance organisation.
Dr Karwowski was arrested in April 1941. Dr Tondos learned of this from his friend, Father Stanisław Krupa, a Zakopane Jesuit. Several people had warned Dr Karwowski that he could be arrested and encouraged his to leave Zakopane. He died after being tortured under interrogation in the Palace. Nor much later, Dr Gadomski and Dr Adam Przybylski were arrested, put through the rigours of the Palace, and sent to Auschwitz, where they died of typhus.
Dr Tondos was warned that he was on the German wanted list, and for a time he spent the nights away from home. He was arrested on 15 April while he was receiving patients in his private surgery at Willa Orla. Mazurkiewicz, a Zakopane man notorious as a Gestapo interpreter and agent, tapped on the window. Two Gestapo officers came in after him and took Dr Tondos to the Palace. The house was searched, but no suspicious evidence was found.
In the Palace he was put into a large room with many other arrestees, all standing with their face to the wall and not allowed to communicate with one another. In the evening he was summoned for his first interrogation. Mazurkiewicz interpreted for the Gestapo interrogators, who told Dr Tondos they knew he was an educated man and a medical practitioner. They appealed to him to use his common sense and consider his situation critically, and offered to withhold the torture if he told them all he knew about the resistance movement. Dr Tondos refused, saying that he did not know anything about the resistance movement.
Then he was stretched out on the table and was hit six times with a wooden rod. He continued to refuse to speak, so he received twenty-five strokes. When he tried to put up resistance, one of the Gestapo men put a pistol to his head and warned that he had no chance to fight off eight men. There was more punishment to come: on the same day his arms were tied behind his back and he was slung up by the arms on a scaffold. Later he said that he felt the greatest pain when the stool was removed from under his feet and he slumped down under the weight of his body. The pain in his shoulders was so excruciating that it made him pass out. After a while, his head hung down and a stream of mucus spilled out of his mouth and nose. Every time he lost consciousness they doused him with water. He can remember one of the Gestapo men telling him that this was the method doctors used to bring people round… He was left hanging on the scaffold for about two hours.
“My mouth was hot and parched, a terrible pain was splitting my skull, there was pain in my arms and legs, and quite literally every muscle, even the smallest bone in my body was aching. Finally, around nine o’clock, I was brought in for another interrogation and tortured in the same was as on the previous day. I was beaten and suspended in a doorway, but there were some new types of ordeal as well, which my torturers considered better. In the intervals between successive beatings and being slung up, I was made to stand in a corner holding an iron rod over my head,” Dr Tondos recalled (Filar and Leyko, 229–234).
Every other day he was slung up by the arms five times and beaten, that’s how they tried to get him to talk. He would only regain consciousness once he was down on the floor. On one occasion after being slung up, he was beaten on the shins, but the pain no longer had much of an effect on him, in comparison with the pain of being slung up with his arms twisted behind his back. Another ordeal that was hard to endure was the “weeping chamber.” This was a room where he and other prisoners were put in chains and were kept in a standing position with their nose pressed to the wall. They were not allowed to move or change position. He spent 10 days and nights there standing up in the same position. The physical and mental ordeal was indescribable. At the time he was in ski trousers and boots. For a long time after the ordeal he could not take the boots off, his feet had swollen up so much.
Every time he was interrogated, he seethed with animalistic anger and rancour against the Germans, and sometimes he could barely keep himself from biting or spitting at a Gestapo man. But he knew that it would have spelled death for him. During his incarceration in the Palace he met Dr Gadomski, who was in a state of extreme exhaustion and barely alive, having lost consciousness many times under torture. The Gestapo compared the statements made by Dr Tondos and Dr Grzegorzewicz, who was one of the senior officers of the Zakopane unit of ZWZ, checking them for inconsistencies, but both suspects denied working for the resistance movement and only said they knew each other from their professional work as medical practitioners.
After 10 days of torture, Dr Tondos was moved to another cell in the left wing. It had two beds and one mattress for the twelve prisoners held in it, nonetheless the conditions in this cell were better. Dr Tondos was the only physician in the group. He and Moniczewski, another ZWZ member, devised a plan to escape by knocking a hole in the wall of the cell, but they gave it up when they realised they would still have to get through the Gestapo station. For part of the three weeks Dr Tondos spent in this cell he did not get any food. The Gestapo decided to starve him in a last attempt to get him to talk. Three decades later he still had vivid memories of how he would break out in a cold sweat whenever food was delivered to the cell. He survived thanks to his cell mates, who usually managed to save some food and drink for him from their rations. He recalled that this spell was yet another time of harassment, poor food, “P.T.” and continuous uncertainty, because all the time they kept coming to take someone away to be shot. All that made his spell in the basement of the Palace a genuine ordeal.
Before Dr Tondos’ transfer to Tarnów jail, one of the Gestapo officers told him he was tough and that they were impressed by his conduct and resilience, but the fact that he hadn’t said anything didn’t mean he was innocent. He would be sent to Auschwitz for the duration of the war, with a promise that he would be released when the war was over.
He was sent to Tarnów in mid-May 1941, after an ordeal of over a month in the basement of the Palace. He was the only one of the thirteen prisoners in the transfer despatched in chains. There were eleven guards in the vehicle transporting them.
He spent six weeks in Tarnów jail, where political prisoners were held together with criminals. The conditions were very hard: dirty, overcrowded cells and poor food. Usually prisoners’ meals consisted of soup made of beetroot leaves.
On 29 July 1941 Dr Tondos was sent to Auschwitz in a transport of 63 prisoners. He travelled in the same train carriage as Dr Gadomski. Dr Józef Mężyk (now living in America) and Dr Tadeusz Śnieżko, an internist from Tarnów, were in the same transport. On the way, the sight of Germans, especially at the railway station in Kraków, depressed them.
Dr Władysław Tondos is on record in the following documents preserved in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum: the Zugangsliste (new arrivals list); the Block 20 registers; the registers of the camp’s X-ray station; the list of members drawn up by the camp’s resistance movement: this list left Auschwitz on 25 August 1944 with prisoners who were being transferred to Neuengamme; the registers of the Auschwitz prisoners’ dispensary; and the hospital registers for Block 21 (surgery). A photograph taken of Dr Tondos in the camp is preserved in the records of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (letter no. IV-8520-257-4706/73, of 23 October 1973).
For most of his confinement in Auschwitz, Dr Tondos worked as a doctor in the infectious ward of the prisoners’ hospital (Block 20). He was one of the best phthisiologists in the camp, and was often asked for specialist advice concerning serious cases of TB in the Birkenau women prisoners’ hospital, which was run in 1943/44 by Dr Władysława Jasińska. The work of a prisoner doctor at the time was certainly not an easy task, as we know. Medications were in short supply, nevertheless Dr Tondos did all he could to save the lives of TB patients. He used a simple pneumothorax device made of bottles to dispense successful treatment. As I have been informed in a letter from Eugeniusz Niedojadło, an Auschwitz survivor and Dr Tondos’ patient, the SS physicians considered prisoners who contracted TB unproductive, and whenever they discovered a case of TB, they would have that prisoner killed. Prisoners with TB were “selected” and sent to the gas chamber or killed with a phenol injection. Dr Tondos was in charge of the pulmonary ward, and he often had to face a moral dilemma – should he be honest and disclose the real nature of a patient’s serious condition and order the medicines he needed, or should he keep it quiet and save the patient’s life at least for a time? He made his decisions always in accordance with his conscience and medical ethics, and thanks to him many young prisoners survived.
Initially, all TB patients were sent to the gas chamber or killed with a phenol injection. It was not until the infectious diseases ward was set up that prisoner-doctors got some sort of a chance to treat such patients and help them to survive. A total of about 600 patients received treatment in the ward. The fact that Dr Tondos knew the Lagerarzt (SS physician) Dr Friedrich Entress from their college days before the war, when they had both been medical students at Poznań University, improved his chances to help patients. During his confinement in Auschwitz, Dr Tondos taught Entress how to treat TB, showing him how to apply a pneumothorax.
For epidemiological reasons, Block 20 was strictly out of bounds to SS men except for the SS medical staff. This made it an excellent place for the dispatch of clandestine parcels sent out of the camp, as well as a venue for secret meetings of the camp’s resistance movement. It was the place where incoming medications for the treatment of TB were sorted; most of these medicines were kept for use in the ward, and the rest was distributed to other parts of the camp. Contact with the resistance movement outside the camp helped the prisoner doctors to obtain a supply of the medications they needed to save lives. The analytics lab adjoining the ward produced glucose and calcium gluconate, which was used in the treatment of TB. Dr Tondos looked after this aspect of the ward’s activities, too.
Many doctors and other medical staff were associated with the TB ward. In 1943 Dr Tondos managed to place Dr Adam Przybylski of Zakopane in the ward. Dr Przybylski later died of epidemic typhus in Birkenau. Dr Gadomski was another who died of the same disease. Dr Tondos remembered his death as one of the gentlest in Auschwitz: he passed away in a state of euphoria, experiencing a series of pleasant hallucinations. Dr Gadomski dreamed of returning to Zakopane after the war and living quietly in a highland cottage. Another of Dr Tondos’ Auschwitz patients was Eugeniusz Niedojadło of Tarnów (Auschwitz camp no. 213), who survived. In the autumn of 1942 Niedojadło contracted typhoid and was put in Room 3 in Block 20. Dr Tondos made an unforgettable impression on him: “He was exceptionally tactful, cultured, straightforward, friendly, and brave. His attitude to patients could serve as an example for other doctors to follow. He was fully dedicated to his patients. For him there was no such thing as time off, he was at his patients’ beck and call, always ready to bring relief and comfort them,” Niedojadło wrote in his recollections. Dr Tondos did all he could in Block 20 to save the lives of TB patients who were victims of the pseudo-medical experiments the SS physicians carried out. This aspect of his activities is mentioned in Fejkiel’s article in Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim on the pseudo-medical experiments conducted in Auschwitz by the SS medical staff (Fejkiel, 101–105).
Dr Tondos returned to Zakopane as soon as he was released from the German camp. His arrival was a happy surprise for his family, who had had no news of him for a long time. He went back to work after a short rest. Dr Sokołowski’s Sanatorium was still being used for military purposes, so he took an appointment in the Tytus Chałubiński Sanatorium. Exhausted and in a poor state of health after many years in prisons and concentration camps, he was not given the appreciation and assistance he deserved from the authorities. Yet he still continued to work resolutely, performing the duties of chief physician for his ward. In December 1947, the Polish Ministry of Health sent him to Switzerland on a WHO bursary for a three-month training course in chest surgery.
In February 1965, Dr Władysław Tondos testified in court as a witness in the trial of Robert Weissmann and Arno Schmisch, SS men who had operated in the Palace in Zakopane. The trial was held in Freiburg, Germany. The roles of these “ex-acquaintances” had undergone a strange reversal. Now the Polish doctor, whom Weissmann used to hang up by the arms from a scaffold, was giving evidence before a German court against his former torturer and accusing him of genocide. In their book on the Palace torture house, Filar and Leyko write,
Yes, Weissmann certainly recognised Dr Tondos. He remembered this doctor from Zakopane. Now the doctor from Zakopane could read his “old acquaintance’s” mind by looking in his eyes. The accused must have been regretting that he had not finished off Dr Tondos, just as he had done with Dr Karwowski and the others, there would have been one witness less…
When Dr Tondos finished his testimony, the judge asked him whether Weissmann was well-known in Zakopane.
“Yes, certainly,” Dr Tondos replied, “especially as he used to go round the town in a coach drawn by a pair of small piebald horses and driven by a Jewish man called Beck.”
Weissmann admitted to this, but was annoyed by the claim about the horses, which he denied and insisted they were owned by the Gestapo. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Dr Tondos seldom spoke about his memories of the concentration camp. His patients, whom he had treated in the camp and whose lives he had saved, were much more talkative. He continued to look after many survivors in the sanatorium, and they became his friends. Even thirty years after liberation, he was still getting letters from survivors he had treated in the camp, thanking him for saving their life. It was the greatest reward he could have expected and the greatest source of satisfaction his professional career gave him.
He continued to work as chief ward physician until December 1972. However, his spells of sickness were getting more and more aggravating and making him keep to his bed. The greatest acknowledgements and tokens of appreciation came when he could no longer enjoy them. The following distinctions were conferred on him: the Award for Exemplary Work in the Health Service, the Award for the Tenth Anniversary of the Foundation of the People’s Republic of Poland, the Gold Cross of Merit, and finally the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta.
On his last name day (27 June)14 a moving event took place in Dr Tondos’ house in ul. Chramcówki, Zakopane. His friends came, along with many of the patients he had still been treating only shortly before in the sanatorium. To the music of a Góral highland band, they expressed their gratitude and wished him a happy name day. It was the last name day in Dr Tondos’ life – he died in Zakopane on 15 September 1973.
I would like to express my deep gratitude to Mrs Janina Tondos for making photographs of Dr Tondos and documents relating to him available to me; and also to Drs Edwin Paryski, Roman Talewski, and Stanisław Kłodziński: as well as to Mr Eugeniusz Niedojadło, for their invaluable information.
Translated from original article: Z.J. Ryn, “Dr Władysław Tondos.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1976.
- In October 1939 the Nazi Germans set up one of their most notorious jails in occupied Poland in the Palace Hotel, in the mountain holiday resort of Zakopane, and used it until January 1945. 2 thousand Polish citizens are estimated to have been brutally tortured, and 400 murdered there.
- Today the tradition of these annual memorials is being continued ibn the City of Kraków. They are held in January to mark the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau (27 January 1945).
- The Order of Polonia Restituta—Poland’s second highest civilian award for distinguished public service, founded in 1921.
- Block 20 was the infectious diseases ward of the Auschwitz prisoners’ hospital, and the prisoner-doctors and nurses on its staff worked valiantly to save as many lives as they could.
- Pułk Ułanów Wołyńskich. In other words, young Tondos joined in the defence of his country, which in 1918 had just recovered its independence, and was invaded by Bolshevik Russia in 1920.
- Currently (2020) this institution is Zakopane’s specialist hospital for lung diseases.
- Sanatorium Nauczycielskie.
- Hitlerjugend—a Nazi German paramilitary youth organisation.
- During the War the mountain guides of Zakopane operated a courier service, taking people fleeing from Poland across the border, to Rumania, Hungary, or Slovakia. The couriers also carried secret correspondence and mail across the mountains to the Polish government-in-exile (initially in Paris, later in London).
- ZWZ—Związek Walki Zbrojnej (the Union of Armed Struggle), was the original Polish underground resistance organisation, the predecessor of the AK (Armia Krajowa, the Home Army).
- This house is now a private hotel.
- Neuengamme—a Nazi German concentration camp near Hamburg.
- Wilhelmshaven and Sandbostel—German POW camps in Northern Germany.
- An alternative tradition to celebrating birthdays practised in Poland is the celebration of one’s name day, generally on the feast day of one’s patron saint.
Notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Head Translator for the Medical Review Auschwitz project.
Fejkiel, Władysław. 1964. “Eksperymenty dokonywane przez personel sanitarny SS w głównym obozie koncentracyjnym w Oświęcimiu.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 101–105.
Filar, Alfons, and Michał Leyko. 1970. „Palace,” katownia Podhala. Tajemnice gestapowskiej placówki w Zakopanem. Warszawa: MON.
Kłodziński, Stanisław. 1966. “Dr Ludwik Fischer.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 229–234.
Marczyński, Aleksander. 1974. “Z dziejów służby zdrowia na okupowanym Podhalu.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 160–172.
Ryn, Zdzisław J. 1971. “Lekarze zakopiańscy podczas okupacji.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 96–103.
Talewski, Roman. 1971. Początki i rozwój zakopiańskiej medycyny. Wrocław, Warszawa, Kraków, and Gdańsk: Zakład Historii Nauki i Techniki PAN.
A publication funded in 2020–2021 within the DIALOG Program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.