When my thoughts go back to Majdanek: A woman doctor’s memories

How to cite: Perzanowska, Stefania. When my thoughts go back to Majdanek: A woman doctor’s memories. Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Teresa, trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. July 21, 2022. Originally published as “Gdy wracam myślami do Majdanka.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1966: 202–209.

Author

Stefania Perzanowska, MD, 1896–1974, participant of the Polish WW2 anti-Nazi resistance movement, survivor of Majdanek (camp No. 235), Auschwitz-Birkenau (No. 77368), and Ravensbrück (No. 107185), prisoner doctor and main organiser of the women’s camp hospital at the Majdanek concentration camp.

I

I have been to Majdanek a few times since the War.1 The last time I visited, there was a copse of young, green birches in what used to be the women’s field and the place was full of wild flowers and verdant grass and shrubs. Not a sign of the old barracks. For fun and a laugh, in our mind’s eye we distributed them, trying to figure out their positions in the copse of birches.2

How different Majdanek was now, how absolutely unlike the old concentration camp. Gone was the sticky, dense layer of mud trodden down by thousands of exhausted feet; gone was the dirty street through the camp with rows of grey barracks on either side. Gone was the noisy, garrulous crowd of thousands of women in striped prison gear—all that was left was an emptiness and an ear-splitting silence. We survivors of this camp were now the only ones disturbing that silence. Laughing and smiling, my colleagues were trying to locate and show me the spot among the white birches where once my bunk had stood. I watched them and smiled, too.


Stefania Perzanowska, 1960s photo. APMM (Archives of the State Museum at Majdanek) collections.

How all-powerful is Nature’s vital force and in each one of us, I thought. And time—what a blessing it is, letting our women’s field fill up with new trees and sprout green shoots, letting us smile as we walk across Majdanek. May time continue to be so generous and let our children and grandchildren enjoy many long years of safely staying and playing in this birch wood and running through its green grasses and flowers.

About a dozen or so barracks have been preserved on the rest of Majdanek, along with the crematorium and the barrack that houses Majdanek Museum. And that’s something that our children and grandchildren must see as well, learn of, and respect.

And afterwards, let them never again, for the rest of their peaceful lives, hear of the monstrous nightmare of war and concentration camps.

II

On 7 January 1943, thirty-five of us women prisoners from Radom jail were loaded up on a freight carriage, and the train rolled off for an “unknown” destination.3 All we knew that for us, the “unknown” meant one out of the many German concentration camps. After a whole night’s journey, with many standstills on the way, when the yelling SS men made us think that more prisoners from other cities were being loaded up, in the morning the bars on the doors were unbolted and we heard a shout of “Raus!” telling us to alight from the train. I was surprised to see Lublin Station full of SS men. Prisoners were being made to alight from other carriages as well, masses of men and women, all of them with the unmistakeable, idiosyncratic stigma of prison and Gestapo interrogation in their demeanour.4 I looked around; there must have been about a thousand of us.5 We were lined up in rows of five and marched down the streets of Lublin on that frosty morning, with snow crunching under our feet. On the streets there were a few passers-by, with various expressions on their faces, varying over a range of sensitivities. On some faces you could see horror, sympathy, fear, or an expression of helplessness; on others there was a look of obdurate fury or hatred.

Out of town, the snow was deep and the road full of potholes. The march was getting tougher and tougher, and we were all tired. Imprisonment and Gestapo interrogations had not exactly been good for our physical fitness. Finally, we stopped in front of a gate with a guardhouse, and beyond it the perspective of a long, centrally positioned road lined on either side with a row of grey barracks. All of it surrounded by a thick web of barbed wire. “So that’s what Majdanek Concentration Camp looks like,” was my first thought.

We were led into the camp. A group of men in striped prison gear passed us; an SS man was roaring at them and waving his whip around. A moment later, we were viewing another tableau, one that was typical for concentration camps, but ominous and shocking for us newcomers—SS men were vehemently lashing out with their whips at prisoners lying in the snow and kicking them with their hobnailed boots. At one point we stopped, they separated the group of men from us, and we went on, right to the back of the camp. Finally, they brought us into an absolutely empty field. Along its sides there were some snowswept barracks, with an expanse of deep, newly fallen snow in the middle. It took the SS men quite a bit of effort to open the door to the first barrack, which had half of its windows smashed; the same with the next one; finally, they ordered us into the third barrack. This one had a couple of window panes missing, too, and it was bitterly cold. It was fitted out with three-tier bunks, mattresses and blankets, and a small iron heating stove in the middle, stone-cold of course. An SS woman6 guard came in and said this was where we would be accommodated. She shouted something else in German and went out.

We were left on our own. There were about three hundred of us, thirty-five from Radom, and the rest from Kielce, Skarżysko, Tomaszów, and Częstochowa. We were exhausted and sat down on the bunks. They gave us no food, but we still had the food parcels our families had sent us when we were prison. By way of exception, on the day of our departure the SS handed over these parcels intact. Evening was coming on, so we went to bed but it was so cold that we couldn’t get to sleep. We didn’t even try to undress but just covered up with the blankets, but that didn’t help much. Finally, we got the idea to sleep two to a bunk and cover up with two blankets topped by a mattress. That was much better. Little Marychna Kantorska snuggled up to me; she had a slight build but was a much better warmer than the blankets and mattress. At last we fell asleep, that first night we spent in the camp.

In the morning, our blankets were frozen stiff and had stuck to our clothes. It was difficult to tear them off. It was terribly cold in the barrack. We went outside. I looked round and saw that there was no network of drains in the camp but behind the barrack there were latrine pits out in the open, with nothing to shelter them from the snow and cold. The only well in the camp was frozen solid, so we used snow to wash ourselves, sharing what we still had left of our prison soap and the few towels we had between us. An SS woman arrived, so I asked how we were supposed to wash and added that we were very thirsty. The answer I got to both of my questions was short and snappy, “Schnee ist draussen.” (There’s snow outside). The SS woman returned around midday and asked whether there were any Reichsdeutsche7 in the group. Two came forward. She made them block functionaries and told them to follow her with a couple of other prisoners. They brought back some coal, bread, and some bitter but hot “herbal tea.” They also distributed bowls and wooden spoons. Our day in the camp had begun, but for the time being they weren’t sending any of us out to work.

I was the only doctor in the group, so I suggested we should have a daily personal hygiene inspection. They all agreed. I chose a few volunteers who offered to help and we started the daily sanitary review. Those who were ill with various ailments came up. I was completely helpless, as I didn’t even have a stethoscope or a thermometer, or any medications. All I could do was to order those with a fever to stay in bed. I was most worried about one of them with a peritonsillar abscess developing due to untreated tonsillitis. She could no longer speak and was having trouble with breathing. I dug up some sand from under the snow, heated it up on the stove, and applied a hot poultice, but it didn’t help, she was choking more and more, she had enlarged nostrils, her lips had gone blue and her eyes were bloodshot. I had no idea how to help her. At last, I had a brainwave. I saw a long kitchen knife, which the block functionary had been given to cut bread with. I took it, wrapped a piece of cloth round it, leaving just the tip open. I came up to the sick prisoner and asked if she wanted me to make a cut in the abscess with the knife. She nodded, as she could no longer speak. With my left hand I forced her mouth open and went for the abscess with my right hand. The knife was sharp, the abscess had swollen, and as soon as I touched it, a steam of pus shot up onto my face. I gave her some of the camp brew of herbal tea as a mouth wash, which removed a lot of pus. My patient recovered her speech and started breathing normally. That first operation I carried out, in flagrant disregard of all the principles of asepsis, and what’s more, using an instrument fit for a butcher, brought no complications. A few days later, my patient and I were laughing off that surgery worthy of the Middle Ages.

III

Every day, new patients were coming to me, and every day I reported the fact to the SS female guard, asking for medications, a stethoscope, and isolation premises of whatever kind. I got no answer except for reprimands and abuse. Finally, on the sixth day, I think, Bodman,8 a fat German SS physician, arrived, assisted by the female guard and an SS orderly. He asked if there was a doctor on the premises and if any inmates were sick. I went up to him; he looked me up and down contemptuously. My appearance might well have not inspired much confidence: I was not properly washed (there was no water), my dress was creased because I slept in it wrapped up in a blanket, so I certainly did not look elegant. He told all the sick prisoners to strip and line up for an examination. I was a newcomer to the camp, so I couldn’t understand that; as a doctor, I could not go along with making patients with a fever strip naked and queue up in a cold barrack for a medical examination. I explained that they were in bed and showed him where. They all bellowed at me, “Ausziehen!” (Get them undressed!).

When they were all naked, standing in the queue and shivering, he did not examine any of them but just asked to see the diagnoses. He only gave one of the patients with lumbago a punch in the lumbosacral area, so hard that she fell down. At the end of the queue there was a patient with a fever whom I suspected of typhus, but there was no rash as yet. When I showed him the diagnosis, “suspected typhus,” he fell into a furious rage. He shook his fists over my head, swore at me and used offensive language, calling me an idiot and accusing the patient of malingering. I was to be punished by having to scrub the floor in the block, starting right on the next day, not practising in medicine, which I had no idea about. And with that, he and his assistants stormed out of the block in a fury.

However, a few hours later I was sent a stethoscope, a thermometer, a syringe, and a very small assortment of medications. A few days later, he came again. Again we had the same sort of parade, but by this time the patient I had suspected of typhus had developed a rash and had lost consciousness due to a high temperature, so she could not get up for the parade. When I told him of this, he again started to shout and swear at me and furiously went up to the bed, pulled the blanket off the patient and saw the rash, which was exceptionally profuse and absolutely typical. He stopped swearing at me and all at once his tone of voice changed. He asked me very politely where I had studied medicine, what I wanted, and what I could do for this patient. I said that I had been asking every day for a place to isolate this patient and any other cases of typhus that might occur, and for a separate hospital barrack. He gave his consent to this and ordered a design drafted for a hospital barrack. And straightaway one of the barracks was designated for the purpose and its floor space divided up into a series of separate hospital rooms.

Next day,9 we were taken to the bath-house. Many of us were reluctant to undress in front of the male prisoners attending the bath-house and the SS men. The German prisoner who was Bade-kapo, a good-natured, simple-minded fellow who had been a Majdanek inmate for a long time, explained that in a concentration camp stripping was an everyday procedure which had no effect on them, and that we would soon get used to it. Another thing that came as something of a shock to us newcomers was that all our personal belongings—our warm underwear, shoes and stockings, our coats and clothes—were taken away from us and exchanged for striped prison gear and clogs. The bath-house as such, and especially taking a bath in it, was a farce. Each of us got a dollop of liquid soap poured out on her hand, and this was followed by a hot shower. When you spread this soap over your body, it turned into a sticky gunge hard to wash off. And for the finishing touch, each of us had to get into a tub full of a dirty solution of potassium permanganate with a surface layer flashing with all the colours of the rainbow. When we came out of this “bath,” our bodies were caked with a brownish-purple sediment. Finally, we were given the highlight of the disinfection procedure: we had the hair on our armpits and pudenda sprayed with pyrethrin insecticide.

And now, once we were dirty, smelling of pyrethrin, cold and wearing our new striped prison gear, to complete the ceremony we were to be given headscarves. And again things turned into a grotesque charade. There were not enough headscarves. Two big baskets were brought in full of funny hats which were distributed among us. Each of us got one on a random basis and after a while, when we looked around at one another, nearly all of us burst out laughing, even though the atmosphere was far from cheerful. The sight was simply burlesque: we were all in prison stripes and our hair was wet and tousled, but topped with a funny hat. An old lady from Tomaszow was sporting a white pillbox with a veil; another had a tiny red hat with a feather; a third had an elegant black chapeau with a coloured ribbon. I got a bright green beret with a red feather pinned on at a saucy slant. At least this slapstick show brought a bit of relief to the tense atmosphere after the mockery of a bath we had been through and the theft of all of our belongings. Of course, we would not have been women if we had not managed to turn all those funny hats into well-fitted caps by the end of the day.

IV

On the next day, we had our first male “guests” from the men’s field, a group of about a dozen prisoners serving as draught animals to bring in a consignment of coal. Among them there were a few from Radom who had arrived on the same transport as us. They managed to inform us in the gaps between the noise made by yelling SS men that we were on Field Five and the only women’s transport in Majdanek so far, and that there had been a fairly large men’s camp here for a long time already. They also told us about the new transports expected to arrive.

And sure enough, a few days later, on 17 January, an escort of SS men brought a new transport from the Pawiak10 up to our field. They did not allow us to talk to the newcomers, but I made use of my doctor’s privilege and ran up to them as fast as possible. They were allocated a barrack with no beds or bunks, and were sitting or lying on the floor. There were hundreds of them, including a large group of very young girls, “Pawiak juniors.” I asked if there were any sick persons and told them about the camp and what to expect, advising them to put away some of their things when they were taken for a bath and would have to change into prison gear.

From that day on, the camp started to fill up with more and more inmates. Transports came in from prisons in Lublin and Lwów;11 hundreds of women caught in street round-ups12 in Warsaw, and a group of female smugglers13 arrived as well. New barracks were filling up all the time, and more and more sick inmates were coming for treatment. There were well over a dozen cases of typhus already. During my visits to the various barracks, I inquired whether there were any nurses who wanted to work in the hospital that was being set up. Four qualified nurses, Wanda Orłoś, Wanda Ossowska, Zofia Orlicka, and Maria Żurowska, came forward; along with Halina Cetnarowicz, a medical student who had completed her first year; Hanna Jodko-Narkiewicz, a third-year student in Prof. Zaorski’s seminar of secret medical studies;14 and Irena Todleben, a chemist and bacteriologist. All of them were from the Pawiak transport. Two others from a Radom transport, the dentist Jadwiga Łuczak and the pharmacist Józefa Wdowska, said they were ready to help. In addition, nearly a score of others said they wanted to work in the hospital. The qualified nurses and some of the unqualified volunteers were to staff the hospital, while the rest were to make up a sanitary team to inspect personal hygiene in the barracks and fight the plague of pediculosis that was ravaging the camp.

Finally, an area of the hospital block was separated off to serve as a small room for typhus patients. There were already about a dozen of them, and every day new cases were emerging, so we didn’t wait for the room to be fully furnished but quickly installed triple bunks in it, filled the mattresses with new wood shavings, and moved the typhus patients to the new premises. The isolation room did not have a door up yet: there was a door, but no hinges. So every time someone tried to walk in or out, we had to block the entrance into the isolation room by putting up the door, which would usually fall on top of us. But even so, we were happy that our patients were isolated off, that they had hospital bunks and medical care.

It took just another week for the entire hospital barrack to be ready. It was different from other barracks in that it was divided up into eight separate rooms. Full of enthusiasm, we got down to planning and arranging our first hospital barrack. It had four patients’ rooms, three for infectious diseases, and one non-infectious room; a dispensary; a storeroom; living quarters for the staff; and a small room supposed to serve as an office. Dr Bodman, the one who had started by calling me an idiot, insisted that I had to have separate sleeping quarters in that quasi-office. I tried to explain why I wanted to share the same accommodation as my staff, but to no avail. So we put up a three-tier bunk in the mock office.

In one of the vacant barracks there were some boards used in the camp to make beds, empty mattresses, and wood shavings. We knocked those boards together and installed new beds in the hospital barrack and packed the shavings into the mattresses, as we wanted to move our patients to the hospital barrack as soon as possible. But we had no blankets or chairs, not even a single light bulb, no bowls or spoons, and of course none of the most rudimentary hospital equipment. When I asked an SS orderly for these things, he replied complacently, “Organise it for yourselves.” In the camp jargon, “to organise something” meant taking it away from someone. We started by going round all the barracks and trying to cadge blankets, chairs, bowls, and spoons. Then we managed to “organise” a few light bulbs and an old table from a vacant, half-dilapidated barrack. We transferred the patients, and that’s how we started work in our first hospital barrack on Field Five, at the beginning of February 1943. It was not until about ten days later that the management of the camp’s medical service bothered to take an interest and graciously sent us some hospital equipment, a couple of thermometers, bedpans, sterilisers, syringes, and some medications, along with stools, tables, and kitchenware.

Meanwhile, the population of the women’s camp was rising week by week, and so was the number of patients in the hospital. After a month, the four rooms designated for patients could no longer accommodate all of them, and we had to have a second barrack allocated, one that had not been converted into a hospital, and after another month we needed two more barracks.

The escalating numbers of the sick was a natural outcome of the conditions in the camp. In general, residential barracks for inmates had broken window panes, tended to be unheated, and in most of them prisoners slept on the floor because there were no bunks. They had narrow mattresses with a filling of wood shavings which disintegrated into dust, and lice-ridden blankets with a sticky coat of filth on them as their only bed cover. They had no chance to take a wash or look after their personal hygiene because the well which was the camp’s only source of water was frozen solid. Of course, there was no system of drains and sewers, either, just a row of open latrine pits behind the barracks. Prisoners had to answer the call of Nature watched by SS guards. That’s what sanitary conditions were like in Majdanek.

But as by this time the concentration camp machine was operating according to plan, every day was chock-full of a mass of rules, regulations, and orders introduced for one purpose only—to harass, wear out, and finish off prisoners.

Every day in winter at the crack of dawn, the women were driven out of the barracks and made to stand in rows for the morning roll call. They shivered with cold, having to stand outside in freezing weather, sometimes for hours on end in their thin prison gear. The winter of 1943 was exceptionally cold. They had to stand there absolutely motionless because every time they moved, they would get a crack of the whip, that indispensable attribute their German guards took to roll calls, coming down on their heads and shoulders. When roll call was over, the female guards would yell and swear at them, getting them into columns ready to march out to work and hustling them out, usually for labour outside the camp. Women prisoners worked for 12 hours a day doing hard labour, usually on pointless tasks such as digging and filling up ditches, carrying stones from one pile to another pile, carrying heavy loads of soil or bundles of grass. A system of planned perfidy was applied to bully women on jobs of this kind, the aim being to drain all their energy as fast as possible. The evening roll call after 12 hours of toil was yet another, even worse ordeal for their aching backs and shoulders and their exhausted feet.

Our daily life in the concentration camp was attended by continual hunger. A small chunk of dry, black bread and a bitter herbal brew for breakfast and supper, with a dinner consisting of stinking, often undercooked, unsalted parsnip, never with any butter or other fat—that was all we got for our everyday food ration. So it was a regime of permanent hunger, that inseparable companion of all the prisoners and concentration camp inmates. In the first winter months of our confinement in the women’s camp of Majdanek, the hunger was even worse, because the food parcels our families sent us from home which would have been a tremendous help never reached us.15 Though a vast number of inmates, especially the Russian and Jewish women, never got any parcels and were very hungry all the time.

Hunger afflicted and debilitated us physically, but at this time it did not yet result in the typical emaciation and inanition that you would see in prisoners after a longer period of confinement. Hunger, cold, toil beyond human endurance—these were all harassments unavoidably afflicting all the prisoners in all the concentration camps, the natural consequences of the deliberately designed and strictly implemented concentration camp rules. It had all been planned and envisaged in advance, and every day it was scrupulously executed.

Officially, the Germans had designated Majdanek to operate as a death camp.16 One day, when I approached Women’s Commandant Erich17 to ask her for a milk ration for babies whose mothers, Russian women from the environs of Voronezh, were in hospital, sick with typhus, she replied by hitting me in the face, first on one cheek, then on the other, and blurting out in a rage, “This is not a sanatorium, but a Vernichtungslager (extermination camp).”

Yes indeed, it was an extermination camp. Yet according to them, for full extermination it was not enough to force freezing cold, starving women to work for 12 hours a day, keep them in barracks fit only for animals and deprive them of even the most primitive sanitary facilities. Such methods were too mild. So the camp’s ingenious management availed itself of more radical means to make these frail, exhausted women break down mentally and turn into nervous wrecks. A decision was taken to poison every single moment of their confinement in the camp with a reign of terror, a whole medley of harassments and penalties to abuse and keep them downtrodden all the time. First by physical violence, exercised on any pretext or with no pretext at all. Prisoners would be hit on the head with a horsewhip during roll call, punched in the face, whacked with a rubber baton or caned on a special flogging bench. I remember many instances of the mass administration of flogging in the course of the evening roll call on prisoners guilty of “serious crimes”—prisoners who worked in the “gardens” and had been caught stealing a carrot or a spud. I remember Halina Stypułkowska, an elderly member of the hospital staff, being kicked and beaten up by the female commandant because the wind had ruffled her grey hair. During the beating her glasses were broken and I had a lot of trouble extracting all the splinters of glass from her face. Whenever this commandant paid an unexpected visit to the hospital, someone would be beaten up for atrocities such as boiling water on the stove to make tea for the patients. Even Commandant Thuman18 himself could turn up at the hospital at 2 a.m. and slap us on the face only because he was drunk and had to take it out on someone.

Violence was an everyday experience, as commonplace as the parsnips we got for dinner and the stripes on our prison gear.

I know of no women prisoner of Majdanek who was never beaten up, and I know many bruised all over in concentration camp sessions of violence. Other forms of corporal punishment included kneeling out of doors on wet soil during rain or in freezing temperatures, being made to stand for hours between two lines of high-voltage electric wire, which could kill you instantly if you touched it, or even being slung up by your arms in the camp office. Intimidation, yelling, and using the most primitive kind of offensive language was the common attribute shared by all the Germans in the camp. Hardly ever would they be seen but in a frenzy, fuming with hatred and with bestiality written all over their faces.

SS female guards, especially their commandant Elsa Erich, went on the rampage anywhere in the camp, while the hospital was the stamping ground for the SS orderlies, who were specially appointed to hospital jobs to keep a close watch on us and deal with administrative matters.

A fair number of them came and went over the nearly eighteen months of the hospital’s operations in Majdanek.

The first on them was Konieczny,19 who spoke fluent Polish because he came from Silesia. He wasn’t as bad as the rest as regards swearing and offensive language and tried hard to get into our good books with his ingratiating Polish and trying to cater for the hospital’s needs. But the people in the camp had become especially cautious, so none of us trusted his feigned loyalty and we never said a word out of place when he was around. Konieczny soon showed what he was capable of when the first Jewish transports and selections started.20

V

Jewish selections were one of the honorary duties of German concentration camp physicians and the orderlies who assisted them. Every new transport that arrived in the camp, including every Jewish transport,21 was first taken to the bath-house. Often, nurses would be called in from the hospital to help with the mock disinfection of the new arrivals, and sometimes I had to attend as well.

In the first part of the bath-house, they were ordered to strip naked. They hung their clothes up on a clothes rack and were hustled into the second part of the barrack, the part with the showers. Since we all knew that these Jewish women could have had money, gold or jewellery on them, because they were not transferred from a prison but deported from their homes in the ghettoes, as soon as they were in the showers, the orderlies and SS female guards pounced on their belongings, like scavenging hyena in search of carrion. They would quickly and greedily cram their pockets with any valuables they found. The next phase of looting was conducted when the victims were in the showers. Up to that point they had to go in naked, but they were allowed to keep their shoes on. Now they were ordered to take their shoes off and leave them next to the wall. Some used their footwear, usually high-soled clogs which were fashionable at the time, to hide their valuables. The hot water from the showers and the vapour coming off the women’s bodies gave rise to a thick curtain of mist, so they didn’t really see what was going on. The orderlies, whose duty it was to assist in the bath-house and during disinfection, went in but the only thing they did there was to pilfer any assets that the women taking a shower had still left in their shoes. When the shower was over, the wooden floor-poles were lifted up and any gold which had dropped out of bathers’ hair or other parts of their body was fished up. One day, I saw Commandant Thuman come in at the end of a bathing session and stuff his pockets with gold dollar coins and diamonds.

Once this parody of a bath and disinfection was over, yelling SS men hustled out the wet and naked women to the front part of the bath-house and made to stand in rows. Now the selection started. Usually it was done by the orderlies, and sometimes by a German SS doctor. The naked women were made to walk past an SS man with a whip in his hand. He motioned with his whip to those who were young and healthy to move to the right, and these women went to the camp. Those in a poor condition or with eczema or skin injuries were made to stand on the left and were taken straight to the gas chamber, they weren’t even given any prison gear to put on. I won’t try to describe the dreadful screams uttered by mothers as they were parted from their daughters, I won’t try to describe the horrific fear on the faces of those women walking naked in line upon line—it was simply indescribable, a haunting, unforgettable memory.

When the selection was over, those who survived it were sent to the Jewish barracks in our camp. The rest went to their deaths in the nearby gas chambers.

And what about the orderlies? They returned to the hospital, smiling and pleased with themselves. They emptied their pockets of all the valuables they had stolen, put them on the table and shared them out among themselves. Once, I remember, one of them in an extremely good mood wanted to give me a handful of the money and gold and called me an idiot when I refused to take it (“aber du bist Idiot!”).

Later, once the Jewish women were working in the camp, selections were held from time to time. They were conducted by camp physician Blanke22 in person. The women would be made to stand in rows of five, with their clothes on but barefoot and with their heads bare, and again, the older ones, the skinny ones, those with injuries or grey hair were told to move to the left for the gas chamber. And if any of the poor victims tried to break away from the group destined for the gas, Blanke would shoot her with his revolver. The orderlies bravely assisted their doctor in the task, pulling by the hair any of those who resisted. The ostensibly gentle Konieczny made a very conscientious contribution to the tormenting of those poor Jewish women.

I remember him for one more thing he did. For a time, I was the only woman doctor in the camp, so I had to handle obstetrics as well. A young and robust Jewish woman was in childbirth. It was her first time and the pain was bad, so she was screaming. In comes Konieczny, goes up to her, lovingly strokes her head and cheers her up, saying, “Don’t scream, don’t be afraid, soon you’ll have a beautiful baby.” I delivered the birth and Konieczny took the baby from me, showed it to the mother, and said, “Look what a fine boy you’ve got!” The next moment, before the very eyes of the mother, he took the crying newborn, wrapped him up in a newspaper, stuffed him into his briefcase, got on his bike and took the baby to the crematorium. I can still hear that baby’s muffled cries coming from the briefcase...

That was what Konieczny was like. He was with us for a couple of months, later he was sent to the men’s hospitals and he called on us a few times when things of interest to him were going on, such as for instance 3 November, the day of the mass murder of all the Jews. After Konieczny, there was an orderly whose name I don’t remember. For all intents and purposes, he was nondescript: he would pop in for just a while and never said much, he was silent and taciturn.

On the other hand, his successors left a deep impression on my memory. They had their office hours at the same time or came in at different times, but they were very similar to each other and shared the same opinion on brutality and never had any moral scruples. The first of them was Reinertz,23 whom we nicknamed “Goofy” because of his teeth, as big as a wolf’s fangs, protruding from his upper jaw. He was tall and a fast mover, both in his physical movements and gestures as well as unpredictable in his decisions and non-material moves. He never came in quietly but would furiously charge into the hospital, always full of ideas how to harass us with his phoney innovations. One day he would climb up on the tables on up to the uppermost of the three-tier bunks in a frenzy of tidying up and run his finger along the ceiling or stove looking for dust. Another time, he would find fault with the temperature charts and medical records, so he would tear them up and order us to re-write them, though he had absolutely no idea what was in those documents. On another occasion, he would burst into the residential part of the barrack where the staff lived, pull the blankets off the beds because he didn’t like the way the beds had been made, and empty the entire contents of the staff’s personal lockers, with all their personal effects, food parcels, etc., onto the floor, claiming that our lockers were untidy. Another time, he would vent his tidiness mania on patients’ beds, chucking out every personal item he found there, such as a comb or a toothbrush. At such times, he would yell his head off, making the walls of the barrack shake. And, of course, he regaled us with the most primitive curses.

One exceptionally wet and windy morning, he ordered me to transfer all the patients from the first hospital barrack to another, unheated barrack. He gave no reason for the move. And that was when I rebelled. I could put up with him making a dreadful mess, shouting and cursing, and constantly interrupting and meddling in my work. I had to tolerate it. But to make women who had a fever go out in the cold and rain—that was something I neither could nor would allow. I told him that for as long as they were patients I was responsible for them and I would not have them put at risk of even more serious illness and complications just to please him. He fell into a rage and started shouting and stamping his feet. Finally, he charged out of the barrack with a threat, “You’ll wish you never said that to me.” Half an hour later, he was back with the German camp physician Blanke, who yelled at me at first how dare I, but when I explained that I could not allow my patients to move to another barrack on such a cold and wet day, he agreed and told Reinertz, “What do you want with her, she’s right,” and with that he left. Then all hell broke loose. Never in all the time I had been in the camp had I heard such a rich repertoire of curses. He finished by telling me, “You think you’ll live to liberation? You’ll go up that chimney! I’ll see to that,” and he pointed to the crematorium chimney. From that day on, he stormed in every day at the crack of dawn, before the roll call, to see if I was up and to pick holes. He always cursed, and every few days he would threaten me with going up the chimney. But he never mentioned transferring the patients again.

Reinertz had another fad. He used to brag that he had done a two-month sanitary course in the army, so he was excellent at putting on dressings and administering surgical treatment. The prevalence of scabies, lice infestation, and vitamin deficiency made for a lot of minor surgical treatments like, for instance, cutting abscesses, and we did all of this ourselves, trying to conduct it in conditions that were as sterile as possible. We had a steriliser and the right instruments, so we worked in accordance with the principles of asepsis. Whenever Reinertz appeared, and we never knew when he would barge in, he would push one of us away from the table, wipe a sterile lancet on his dirty trousers because he didn’t fancy it being wet, set about cutting the abscess, which he loved to do, and then applied a dressing. He never washed his hands. After a couple of these larks from him, we tried to do all the surgery straight after the roll call because that was the time when he was least likely to materialise.

Reinertz pestered us for six months, later he would appear only from time to time. Somehow, he never managed to accomplish his chimney threat, instead, when the War was over he found himself in the dock in Lublin.

Reinertz had a workmate, the Cremationist, as we used to call him because he held the extremely honorary post of manager of the crematorium.24 The Cremationist was an exceptionally brutal and sadistic individual, just as good at yelling his head off and all the time coming up with new barbs. In addition, he used to drink himself silly. For a couple of weeks at the start of summer 1943 he used to come into the hospital every day so sloshed that he could hardly keep up on his feet and was effectively half-conscious. He would then take out his gun and start shooting, at the ceiling, at the legs of the beds and stools, at the treatment table, or come to that at anything else he fancied. He would issue nonsensical orders, for instance he would tell me to discharge all the patients by the next day, but of course he forgot his own orders. He took a fancy to a young girl who had been ill with typhus and used to throw a tantrum if he didn’t see her. We would hide her as soon as he stood in the doorway to the hospital barrack. Apart from swearing and making a hell of a row, he used to cause a lot of damage because he would wreck and smash anything he could lay his hands on. His month on the booze was a real test of our nerves as he was absolutely unpredictable, and we never knew whether he would not start shooting at the patients and staff instead of at the ceiling or floor.

During one of his drunken brawls he started picking at me, accusing me of sabotage, keeping malingerers in the hospital, and not respecting the authorities, so he would have to put an end to me and take me to the crematorium. And sure enough, he pushed me out of the hospital with the butt end of his revolver and took me to the crematorium. The staff and patients were shocked as they watched him make me leave the hospital. They didn’t know where he was taking me. But once we got to the crematorium, it turned out that it had broken down an hour before and was out of order. It took a few days to repair. The stoned Cremationist soon forgot about his threat and next day came up with a completely different set of ideas.

The Cremationist gave me another, very disconcerting episode in the camp. One day, a group of four inspectors, two Gestapo men and two in prison gear from the main office, arrived in our hospital to carry out what today might be called “stocktaking.” They came with the ledgers to check all the furnishings in the hospital and started counting all the beds, mattresses, blankets, kitchen utensils, and the equipment in the dispensary. Everything tallied with the books until they came to an entry for several hundred sheets. I had never had even a single sheet delivered for the hospital. I explained that there were no sheets, that I had never had any sheets issued, and they bellowed at me that I had stolen the sheets and if I didn’t hand them back, they would hang me straightaway on the gallows that stood in the middle of the field. I insisted I had never had any sheets but they said I had, so I called one of the staff and we tried to explain to them that we had never set eyes on even a single sheet, but they hollered at the top of their voices, “Either you give back the sheets or it’s the gallows for you.” I was beginning to feel a bit edgy. I knew very well that in a concentration camp only the camp’s authorities were considered right, while prisoners were generally not trusted. I knew that contradicting them would get me nowhere. Suddenly, at the height of the quarrel, I had a brainwave. I asked them who it was that was supposed to have given me those sheets and asked to see the receipt. It turned out that it had been made out by the Cremationist. They showed it to me: I had purportedly received 800 sheets for the women’s hospital and the receipt was ... antedated to December 1942, when we had not even arrived in Majdanek and I was still in prison in Radom. When I showed them that date and explained that I wasn’t in Majdanek, nor was there a women’s hospital in the camp at that time, they were perplexed and embarrassed. They quickly collected up their ledgers and left. And that, I think, marked the beginning of the end of the Cremationist’s career in the concentration camp. It turned out that he had issued more receipts of this type and, luckily for me, his brain was so befuddled by drink that he got the dates wrong, or maybe did not consider dates important at all. I’ll be honest and admit that when the inspectors left, my nerves cracked up and I burst out crying, just like a woman.

And just think, according to the official rules, both the doctors as well as the orderlies were supposed to help us with the work in the hospital and make things easier for us.

***
To be continued in the seventh special edition of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim [original Editor’s note].25

***

Translated from original article: Perzanowska, Stefania. “Gdy wracam myślami do Majdanka.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1966.


Notes


1. Dr Perzanowska’s recollections of Majdanek concentration camp were published In 1970 in a volume entitled Gdy myśli do Majdanka wracają… (When my thoughts return to Majdanek…; Wydawnictwo Lubelskie). A second edition is planned for 2022.a
2. In 1945 work started on the Majdanek Museum site for a new project of landscape design. One of the items in the scheme was the afforestation of Prisoners’ Fields II, III, IV and part of V with an oak and birch wood. The idea was to set up a symbolic burial ground or memorial park. Trees started to be planted in the spring of 1948. After over a decade, the scheme was abandoned because the trees were growing so fast and so tall that they were obstructing the view of the camp’s extant buildings and neutralizing the place’s atmosphere of tragedy. In the 1960s a decision was made to fell the trees, and a new landscape project was made for the Museum.a
3. Polish political prisoners started to be sent to Majdanek in January 1943. The train which arrived on 7 January carried the first transport with this category of prisoners. They had been held in prisons in Radom, Piotrków Trybunalski, Częstochowa, Kielce, and Skarżysko-Kamienna.a
4. Prisoners deported to Majdanek disembarked at Lublin Station or the train was unloaded on a side line about 3 km away from the camp.a
5. The transport on this train consisted of 716 prisoners, 571 men and 145 women, almost all of them ethnic Poles.a
6. The female guards in German concentration camps were not in fact members of the SS and did not wear army uniforms. Instead, they had grey uniforms consisting of a skirt or divided skirt, a jacket, cap, and cape.a
7. Reichsdeutsche—German citizens of Nazi Germany.b
8. SS-Obersturmführer Franz von Bodmann (1908–1945), chief physician of Majdanek, German war criminal. Captured by the British at the end of the War and committed suicide before being brought to trial. His surname is misspelled in the Polish article. The other SS physicians working in Majdanek were SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Rindfleisch and SS-Hauptsturmführer Max Blancke.a
9. Chronology out of order. The women prisoners from Radom had their first bath and were issued prison gear on 25 January 1943.a
10. The Pawiak was a prison in Warsaw which the Germans used as a notorious place of detention for Polish political prisoners. The first Pawiak transport arrived in Majdanek on 18 January 1943.a
11. Before the War, the City of Lwów was on the territory of Poland. It is now known as L’viv and is in Ukraine.b
12. The German authorities occupying Poland caught people who happened to be out on the streets in round-ups and sent them to Germany for slave labour. About 2 million Polish citizens are estimated to have suffered this fate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forced_labour_under_German_rule_during_World_War_II.b
13. When Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland in September 1939, they drew up a line of demarcation between their respective zones of occupied Poland. Smuggling of various types of contraband across this line, as well as trading on the black market to supplement the very small food rations imposed by Germany, thrived but was subject to severe penalization. [Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa.
14. In line with their racist policy, the German authorities occupying Poland closed down all the country’s universities, colleges, and secondary schools. Polish educationalists set up a system of secret university and grammar school education.b
15. In March 1943, the management of the camp allowed the Polish Red Cross and Central Welfare Council to provide extra food parcels for inmates, but only ethnic Poles were entitled to receive these food parcels.a.
16. The camp’s official name was Konzentrationslager Lublin. It was a death camp only for the Jews sent there and murdered in its gas chambers or mass executions.a
17. Else Ehrich (1914–1948), senior female warden at Majdanek and other concentration camps; German war criminal. Apprehended by the Allies after the War and handed over to the Polish authorities. Charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, tried, found guilty, sentenced to death and hanged in Lublin. The name is misspelled in the article.a
18. Anton Thumann (1912–1946; the name is misspelled In the original Polish article). Thumann was not the commandant of Majdanek, but only the head of its prisoners’ department III, and his duty was to supervise prisoners.a
19. Rottenführer SS Günther Konietzny was to be prosecuted in West Germany in 1975, but the court acquitted him on grounds of inability to stand trial (illness). https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majdanek-Prozesse.a
20. In the language used in German concentration camps, “selection” meant the short-listing of prisoners due to be killed. In late April 1943, when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was put down, entire families of the ghetto’s Jewish inhabitants were sent to their deaths in Majdanek. Usually, prisoners who were sick, elderly, pregnant, and children under 14 were sent to the gas chamber straight on arrival.a
21. Those designated for immediate death were not sent to the bath-house.a
22. SS–Hauptsturmführer Max Blancke (1909–1945), German war criminal; chief physician of Majdanek from 10 April 1943 to 20 January 1944. Committed suicide as the War was coming to an end. Perzanowska misspells his surname and gets the dates of his Majdanek period wrong.a
23. SS-Unterscharführer August Wilhelm Reinartz (1910–after 1978). In 1947 a Polish court handed down the death sentence on him, but it was commuted to 2 years in prison on health grounds (terminal illness). After his release in 1950, he worked in West Germany as a medic.a See: https://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=142492&start=30; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majdanek_trials http://www.majdanek.com.pl/obozy/majdanek/procesy.html; http://www.nachkriegsjustiz.at/prozesse/projekte/Endbericht_Majdanekprozesse_Zukunftsfonds.pdf.
24. SS-Oberscharführer Erich Muhsfeldt aka Mußfeldt (1913–1948), German war criminal. Crematorium specialist in Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Later also worked in Flossenbürg, where he was apprehended, put on trial before the American Military Tribunal and eventually extradited to Poland, tried by the Supreme National Tribunal, convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Muhsfeldt.a
25. Another article by Perzanowska on the Majdanek women’s hospital was published on pp. 169–180 of the 1968 edition of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim and appears to be the sequel promised in the footnote.b

a—notes by Marta Grudzińska, Expert Consultant for the Medical Review Auschwitz project; b—notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Head Translator for the Medical Review Auschwitz project.

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