Dorota Lorska, MD, 1913–1965, Polish-Jewish physician, activist, and historian of medicine. Physician in a Republican field hospital during the Spanish Civil War, member of the French anti-Nazi resistance movement. An Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor (prisoner No. 52325), she was a prisoner doctor working in the notorious Block 10 and engaged in the international resistance movement in the camp. After the war she testified in the 1964 trial of Władysław Dering. For more information, see the extended biographical article in Medical Review Auschwitz online.
Everything that happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau was utterly horrendous. At every step from their arrival on a transport sent from a distant location, prisoners encountered terrible things beyond human imagination.
During the Spanish Civil War, long before I arrived in Auschwitz, I heard Egon Erwin Kisch saying that reality is stranger than fiction, and later I saw how true those words were. What I had earlier attributed to the sphere of diverse human predicaments and experiences and treated as rather abstract—for that is what fantasy is all about—now applied to the depth of human degradation. The facts were stranger than fiction. Incredible even for us, who lived with them, and even more incredible for those who merely heard of them.
One of the most shocking accounts recording the history of Auschwitz is the diary of Höss, the camp commandant. It is a spine-chilling work with a cold-blooded enumeration of steps that led to its author’s rise to manage a giant death factory though—at least in his own opinion—he was a gentle and good person.
What kind of age were we living in? Was it the age of the Hunnic raids? Or of the mediaeval Inquisition and people being burned at the stake? Those things were merely childish games in comparison with what the representatives of the Herrenvolk deliberately and systematically did to millions of innocent people in a meticulously premeditated plan. Years later during their trial in Frankfurt, some of them were still cynically looking at the testifying witnesses whom they had not managed to murder two decades earlier. Unfortunately, so many have not yet been brought to stand in the dock.
Every single day at the camp brought harrowing experiences. With the passage of time, prisoners’ reactions to the surrounding reality grew more and more muted. The impressions of the first hours, days and weeks were the most severe. Personally, I cannot escape from the memories of my arrival in Block 10 and the first weeks I spent there [See also the English translation of another of Dr. Lorska’s articles, “Auschwitz, Block Ten” available on this website—Translator’s note]. I would like to share some of them because these facts are better than any descriptions at conveying the relations between prisoners and the overall atmosphere in the camp.
The arrival. A hot August evening after several days of travelling inside locked cattle cars. Sticks are being used on the half-conscious passengers to make them alight from the train. People are so staggered that they cannot really believe in the reality around them. As the SS physician Kremer stationed in Auschwitz noted in his diary, what happened there surpassed Dante’s vision of hell. That evening which left such a deep scar in my memory, the SS physician Wirths was “working” there.
One of the mechanisms in the diabolical Nazi German procedure assumed that it was not the camp commandant but the SS physician who decided on the basis of biological factors who was destined for immediate extermination, and who deserved a stay of execution, which in a few rare cases would let him or her live a bit longer, or even survive.
Before being sent to the block selected as their future quarters, prisoners were subjected to an unforgettable procedure: the “haircut.” Though it was less oppressive than some of the other hardships, it was not at all insignificant for the women. I still remember having my head shorn. It was done by a Slovak woman, a prisoner I later befriended in the camp. That night, I addressed her in Czech, trying to sound witty, I said: “Don’t pull my hair that hard, at least leave some of my skin.” “You should be glad that I’m letting you keep your head,” she replied.
With a few exceptions, prisoners who had already spent some time in the camp were very brutal to newcomers, as if they were afraid that the new prisoners would be spared all the torments they had been through. Political prisoners constituted an exception—they were united by the common goal of their struggle against fascism. Only that idea could overcome the national, religious, and racial prejudices, and unite antifascist inmates with a strong bond of solidarity which could withstand all the horrors of the camp practised against them by the Nazi German system. It should be noted that citizens of over twenty European countries were imprisoned in Auschwitz.
The attitudes of those who were deported to the camp at a very young age and without any specific worldviews were shaped in a particularly interesting way. Obviously, all of them wanted a rapid end to the War and, usually, to see Hitler defeated, but they found it difficult to understand what fascism was about and what it was capable of. Besides, for the mature people who had previously been left-wing activists, the camp proved to be a genuine political training ground, where they learned the true nature of fascism with all of its bestiality, and where they could fully understand the power of international solidarity and the noblest humanism embracing all mankind.
The March of Numbers. Artwork by Marian Kołodziej. Photo by Piotr Markowski. Click the image to enlarge.
According to a Biblical legend, the world will not perish as long as there are Thirty-Six Righteous dwelling in it. I am absolutely certain that those who survived Auschwitz owe much of their survival to the righteous prisoners who acted in the best interest of everyone in the camp. They included Germans and Russians, Poles and Frenchmen, Jews from various European countries, and other citizens from most of the European countries.
Already in the camp, you often sensed that in that mass of people and under the constant threat of death, people’s emotions somehow became more concentrated: evil persons turned even worse, and those with good qualities in their character were perhaps becoming better. Though it was not always so. Waiting for death wasn’t the only thing you did in the camp; the camp was also the place where you lived. Despite all the overwhelming problems, the small things were important too—just as in normal life. People changed, and someone who started by being practically a servant of the SS-men would gradually or suddenly completely change their behaviour.
That girl who shaved my head when I arrived in the camp was a Jewish woman from Slovakia. Her name was Różenka. She was brought there in one of the first transports sent from her country when it was ruled by Tiso. Only a few girls on that transport from the town of Humenné in Sub-Carpathia survived. Their families perished in the gas chambers, and these girls wanted to survive at all costs. On the whole, they diligently assisted the SS female overseers, serving as their substitutes and treating new arrivals brutally. They were usually appointed block functionaries.
That was the situation when we arrived in Block 10. As time went on, we introduced various measures which made a big difference to the conditions in the block. Różenka was one of those who helped us a lot in this task. She was a typical example of a pretty girl from the Slovak countryside. When I first met her, she was quite corpulent even though she had been in the camp for two years already. She had a characteristic chubby face with red cheeks, and bright, lively eyes. Thanks to her privileged position as the block elder’s deputy, Różenka was well-dressed in comparison to other prisoners and healthy, vigorous, and young. Her duties allowed her to leave the block on numerous occasions during the day, though under the escort of an Aufseherin (female SS overseer), but it gave her an opportunity to visit various places in the prisoners’ hospital.
Contacts with the outside world were facilitated also thanks to the help of male prisoners, who visited Block 10 on various pretexts. They brought in the soup cauldrons, they came to do maintenance jobs and repairs or to settle administrative matters. It was easier to arrange a meeting between men and women prisoners in the prisoners’ hospital: in the medical wards, the dental surgery, the X-ray room, or in the entrance-way to the operating theatre. Those meetings laid the foundations for affections and sometimes even for Platonic love. In the isolated conditions of the charnel house known as Auschwitz, every meeting between men and women was an exciting experience in itself. Sometimes they were rather casual, paid for with a piece of bread or margarine, though relationships with no trivial and material strings attached also developed. In the dull daily reality of the camp, a simple friendly glance in front of the block while returning with your kommando, a short conversation of just a few minutes, a risky letter, or even a few flowers smuggled in from the Gärtnerei (however unbelievable it may seem) would lift people’s spirits.
One of the male prisoners who managed to come into our block deserves a special mention. His name was Bernard Świerczyna and he was a political prisoner working in the Bekleidungskammer (clothing warehouse). He was one of the leaders of the in-camp resistance movement. He often visited “our” block, so I got to know him a bit better. Just a few conversations were enough for me to realise that I was talking to an informed antifascist, who had not ended up in the camp by chance but because of his patriotic commitment. He was a Christian, but had no religious or racial prejudices, and although there were many differences between us, we soon became friends.
Of course, Bernard could not learn everything there was to know about the mechanisms of the “powers that be” in Block 10 merely from his short visits. As we know, women were sent there to be used as guinea pigs for medical experiments and as such were not sent out to work. Apart from other facts like being next to the execution yard of Block 11, living in a crowd of hundreds of victims of the experiments was an awful experience in itself.
Apart from the SS physicians who were heads of particular experimental projects, the other authority who ruled the block was an SS-woman, Frau Aufseherin, called the aufzejerka by Polish inmates. This office was generally held by crude young women, some of whom had sadistic habits like pushing or kicking elderly women. Most of them were obtuse, insensitive to what was going on around them, greedy and eager to lay their hands on the goods brought into the camp by the people deported for extermination from all over Europe. In order to perform certain tasks in the block, a special team was chosen from the prisoners, led by the block elder and under the supervision of the Aufseherin. There was a fixed hierarchy in the team, which correlated with certain privileges. Nearly all the inmates in the team considered themselves superior to other prisoners, and showed it by flaunting their power over others in various ways. They could, for example, pilfer by cutting down other inmates’ food rations or doling out smaller helpings of soup. They pushed others about and mistreated them, especially those who had just arrived at the camp. Of course, that did not apply to all the functionaries, as there were a few exceptions, though they were rare.
That was the situation we encountered in August 1943, when the transport from France I was on was sent to Block 10. While we had no influence over the general matters in the camp, our group of political prisoners, members of the French resistance movement, tried to improve the conditions in our block, which depended on the amount of tension between the inmates. And we managed it. Bernard was one of the important figures who helped us in our task. He influenced Różenka who was in charge of a lot of things because she was the deputy block elder. At the time, “power” was in the hands of the Slovak girls. I tried to use my Czech to appeal to their conscience, but to no avail. They kept pulling out the same argument that they had already spent two years in the camp, and had endured worse things. As long as I was just another woman with a clean-shaven poll, in the ridiculous red dress with golden sequins that I received for my first camp gear; the well-dressed and well-fed Slovaks paid no attention to my logical reasoning.
But Bernard understood my way of thinking immediately and resolved all the problems I could not handle. He had an effect on Różenka, who liked him. Bernard quickly grasped her mindset and could influence her views and behaviour with just a few words. He made a huge contribution towards improving her attitude to us—prisoners of Block 10. I do not know what he told her, but the effects of his words were clear and immediate. Różenka changed so much that she started to use our own arguments in conversations with the other Slovaks, explaining to them that prisoners should not help the SS-men torment others, but instead should support each other and treat others with respect. Różenka stopped yelling at us and made sure the others did the same. Since she also had some influence over the Aufseherin, she was an intermediary in arranging many useful things. The effect Bernard had on the mind of that primitive though sensible girl, who was not so bad in fact, was a big improvement in the situation of us women prisoners.
Bernard Świerczyna did not survive the camp. He wanted to escape to join a combat partisan unit. The attempted escape of the in-camp resistance leaders made in October 1944 was not successful. They were captured and, after a long investigation, hanged in a public execution in the roll call square on 31 December 1944. Bernard was one of the men hanged.
Most Auschwitz survivors have heard of his tragic story. I think of him quite often because for me, he is a great example of how your mutual influence on other people can determine their lot in practically any circumstances. Especially because the reality in the camp was a picture of life in absolutely abnormal and inhuman circumstances. It was a background which highlighted generous feelings and good deeds which certainly deserve to be remembered.
Translated from original article: Lorska, Dorota. “Z pobytu w Oświęcimiu.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1967: 206–208.
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