Poison, the last resort in Auschwitz: Dr Jan Zygmunt Robel

How to cite: Kłodziński, Stanisław. Poison, the last resort in Auschwitz: Dr Jan Zygmunt Robel. Kantor, Maria, trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. July 25, 2022. Originally published as “Rola trucizn jako „Ultimum refugium” w obozie w Oświęcimiu. Dr Jan Zygmunt Robel.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1964: 122–124.


Stanisław Kłodzinski, MD, 1918–1990, lung specialist, Department of Pneumology, Academy of Medicine in Kraków. Co-editor of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. Former prisoner of the Auschwitz‑Birkenau concentration camp, prisoner No. 20019. Wikipedia article in English

Dr Jan Zygmunt Robel, for many years a researcher at the Faculty of Medicine of the Jagiellonian University, died on 24 May 1962 at the age of 76. He became committed to a career in medicine when he was still studying chemistry and received guidance from the distinguished scientist, Prof. Leon Marchlewski.1 For many years, Dr Robel carried out research on the structural relations between hemoglobin and chlorophyll in the Department of Medical Chemistry of the Jagiellonian University. In 1912, he obtained a PhD with honors in chemistry.

Over the next years, he worked tirelessly in Kraków, teaching students of medicine and pharmacy, taking classes and delivering lectures. Medicine and pharmacy graduates remember him as an outstanding scientist and excellent tutor, expecting a lot from himself and others. He was able to instill his diligence and love of discovering the secrets of Nature in undergraduates, prospective medical practitioners. Camouflaging his commitment to his students behind a mask of austerity and inaccessibility, he taught them a serious and honest approach to their studies and made every effort to eradicate superficiality and laziness.

At the beginning of the Nazi German occupation of Poland, Dr Robel and other academics of Kraków’s institutions of higher education were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen2 concentration camp. During his detention in the camp, he proved his heroic fortitude, modesty, and self-sacrificing attitude toward fellow-inmates.

After his release, he did not break down even though he was extremely exhausted by the dreadful experience he had been through in the camp. He went back to work in chemistry, his favorite scientific discipline, as head of the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Criminalistics. After the War, the Institute, which boasted a long tradition of service, was transformed into the Institute of Forensic Research,3 a unit of the Jagiellonian University’s Department of Medical Chemistry. Under German occupation, Dr Robel did his best to protect the Institution from looting and destruction. He spent long hours from morning until late in the evening watching over its equipment, for which he felt a personal responsibility. The Department of Medical Chemistry was the Jagiellonian University’s only facility to survive Poland’s occupation without considerable damage and could start training medical staff as soon as the city of Kraków was liberated. The devastated country was in desperate need of doctors and nurses.

Dr Jan Zygmunt Robel. Source: Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1964. Click the image to enlarge.

During the War, Dr Robel’s institute employed many medical practitioners and chemists and offered a secret refuge for members of the Polish underground resistance movement. Dr Robel himself took an active part in the resistance, serving as a leader for the young combatants. His Sachsenhausen experience helped him adopt an attitude of fearless yet calm and above all steadfast defiance against the Nazi German invaders. As an excellent specialist, he managed to find successful solutions to numerous chemical problems related to underground resistance operations.

The experience Dr Robel had accrued in his whole life, his calmness and prudence allowed him to consider a given situation precisely, professionally and rationally in order to ensure effective assistance. Indeed, he was approached not just with simple problems. Members of the underground resistance movement fighting against the SS, the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht relied on his commonsensical decisions concerning matters of life and death. One of his secret contacts was Teresa Lasocka-Estreicher,4 leader of the Auschwitz Group operating in Kraków. She used to come to his laboratory for professional advice and help, as did the leaders of several other underground organizations, such as the PPS5 and the Home Army.6

Two decades after the events, this paper recalls one of Dr Robel’s activities which is quite unknown to the general public: how he managed to “organize” and smuggle various kinds of poison into Auschwitz. The Auschwitz Group’s extant kites7 mention words like “poison,” “cyanide,” “fluoride,” “arsenic,” “strychnine,” and the names of other poisonous chemicals needed in Auschwitz and smuggled into the camp in large quantities.

The Auschwitz Group used short, laconic kites to ask for deadly poisons: “Send me efficacious poison powder for 2–3 people,” (April 23, 1943). “Recommend precautions and distribute to all go-betweens—anything can happen, big ratting risk...” (May 12, 1943). “Thanks for four pills. Trying to meet your request . . . . All the poisons you mention may come in handy” (May 16, 1943). “. . . use this go-between to send calcium and the poisons you promised, urgently” (June 14, 1943). “Ter., why aren’t you sending me these poisons via Ryc,8 we need them!” (June 20, 1943). “Please send poisons via Ryc, and a bottle of cholera-, para- and bauchtyphus9 vaccine. Quick, it’s important!” (June 28, 1943). “Please more cyanide and anti-cholera shots. ASAP . . .” (June 30, 1943). “Cyanide needed. Loads of rats and arrests . . .” (July 4, 1943). “Please send cyanide quickly, (Fleckfieber10 jabs, and calcium via Ryc—as many shots as possible . . .” (July 14, 1943). “Rcvd pois[on], 6 pills for self and comp…”; “Thanks for poison and info” (August 4, 1943). “Send poison and 13,11 now most important. New warning—poison— clear rats . . . He’s12 out to expose go-betweens. Must poison (lace his drink) or shoot him. No time to lose, ASAP . . .” (December 16, 1943).

The secret messages of January 8 and 20, May 1, August 20 and 21, 1944 recurrently mention poisons code-named “1” and “13,” needed by the camp’s resistance movement. A memo from a military group in the camp’s resistance movement for a meeting with a Home Army commander had the following note: “We want grenades, weapons and poison from Kraków.” On August 22, 1944, the group wrote, “Rcvd poison pills, nice set. Write card from home how slow fluoride is; want to know how many hours or days, and describe symptoms, e.g. [in] a very sick auntie,13 want to try it out on an SS-man.” A kite dated August 29, 1944 asked the following question: “how many grams of fluoride per package in those you sent . . . ?” Finally, a message sent on November 2, 1944 said, “two died after taking the poison. . . .”

These excerpts call for a comment. Every activity performed by members of the underground resistance groups in Auschwitz, the nearby city of Oświęcim, and in Kraków could be discovered by the SS and the Gestapo; consequently, those involved risked death, torture, or mental breakdown, which would entail a chain of death sentences and an end to resistance activities. The operations of the Auschwitz Group were conducted by dozens of people in various places located between the concentration camp and Kraków. There were hidey-holes for successful fugitives, storage sites for weapons, medicines, and vaccines; there was aid in the form of food and clothing, there was the distribution of the underground press and the delivery of illegal correspondence, there were the records of the Nazi German crimes; it was also about the morale in the camp and the conscience of the conquered nation; it meant protest and activity.

For the inmates in the camp, there was only one remedy in the event of exposure: poison. They could not move to another barrack and in the event of danger, an improvised attempt to escape was doomed to failure.

If we take a closer look at the dates of these kites, we will see that the group in the camp sent them out when they were in a very dangerous situation, when communications between the camp and the outside world were not working, when go-betweens had been arrested. They knew that they could dispose of their lives if they had a little dose of poison which they could swallow under interrogation. So their death could occur at a convenient moment and it would be death against the enemy’s wishes. This awareness gave them a colossal advantage over the interrogator. Indeed, dozens of times this little dose of poison saved them from breaking down at seemingly final and hopeless moments.

In practice, the poison smuggled into the camp was only rarely used inside it. It was given to prisoners who were liaisons and smuggled in illegal materials such as camp books, medicine, poison, weapons, cameras, illegally taken photos, kites. Also, those who acted as go-betweens on the Oświęcim–Kraków route had phials of poison on them. They could use them during encounters with bribed SS-men, while escorting fugitives or smuggling illegal “documents.” Moreover, poison was distributed to inmates whose escapes were being organized by the underground resistance movement. We know of two Auschwitz prisoners, Zbyszek Raynoch14 and Czesław Duzel, who took poison to avoid being interrogated by the SS after Roth, an SS-man, betrayed their escape plan. Members of the underground resistance and escapees from camps who had removed the prison numbers tattooed on their forearms kept a dose of poison in their pockets.

Poison was also used to kill the notorious informer Stefan Olpiński15 who snitched on fellow prisoners. Significant quantities of poison were collected to kill the SS-men when their plan to exterminate all the prisoners was due to be carried out. Tasteless and odorless poison was to be a last resort to lace their food. It was to be done by the prisoners who worked in the SS, NCO and officers’ canteens. Poison was to be used to kill the Birkenau “dog column.” This was a unit with 160 trained dogs and posed a serious threat to inmates. However, the plan was never implemented.

Prisoners came on the idea of poison as a method of (self-)defense when they saw the practices of their enemies, who murdered hundreds of thousands with Cyclone B in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and killed sick inmates in the prisoners’ hospital with phenol jabs straight into the heart.

Robel the chemist was the fighter who produced lethal chemical compounds, determining and adjusting the composition to the needs of the resistance groups, testing toxic substances in titration experiments and writing up his observations on the effects, designing the chemical composition of the comfort food used as a last resort in those horrific years under Nazi German occupation. The ingredients were delivered from Home Army headquarters in Warsaw. Two decades after the War, Dr Helena Szlapak,16 a member of the Auschwitz Group, donated a new exhibit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum: a few small boxes with poison pills, tokens to prove that freedom is worth more than life.

After liberation, Dr Robel joined a project to collect evidence of Nazi German crimes. He examined the content of Cyclone B in the hair of Auschwitz victims. Before he died, this great man whose life had been so hard managed to perform an onerous task of national importance: he made a key contribution to the conservation project for the Veit Stoss Altarpiece,17 one of Poland’s greatest historic monuments.

Dr Robel was awarded the Knight’s Cross18 of the Order of Polonia Restituta for his distinguished service and courage in the underground resistance movement.

His memory lives on.


Translated from original article: Kłodziński, Stanisław. “Rola trucizn jako „Ultimum refugium” w obozie w Oświęcimiu. Dr Jan Zygmunt Robel.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1964.

  1. Leon Marchlewski (1869–1946), distinguished Polish chemist; pioneer of chlorophyll chemistry; professor of applied medical chemistry and head of the Department of Medical Chemistry at the Jagiellonian University Faculty of Medicine; Rector (head) of the University, 1926–1928. https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Marchlewskia
  2. Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp was established in 1935 about 30 km (19 miles) north of Berlin. On 6 November 1939 the German authorities occupying Poland arrested the senior academic staff of the Jagiellonian University and other institutions of higher education in Kraków—a total of 182 men, most of them senior academics—and sent them to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp. Following strong protest from public opinion worldwide, the Catholic Church, the Italian government, and neutral countries, 100 academics over 40 were released. Over a dozen died in Sachsenhausen in the first two months of detention and others who were not released died later; several more died just after their release and return to Kraków. For more on the arrests, known as Sonderaktion Krakau, see the Jagiellonian University’s monthly magazine Alma Mater, 178 (2015). Online at https://almamater.uj.edu.pl/archiwum-2015. See also Jan Miodoński’s autobiographical article, “A few recollections of Sonderaktion Krakau, 1939” on this website.b
  3. Currently, the official name of this institution is Instytut Ekspertyz Sądowych in. Prof. Dra Jana Sehna w Krakowie (the Professor Jan Sehn Institute of Forensic Research, Kraków).c
  4. For a potted biography of Teresa Lasocka-Estreicher, see Stanisław Kłodziński, “Teresa Lasocka-Estreicher” on this website https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz/journal/english/263535,teresa-lasocka-estreichera
  5. PPS, Polska Partia Socjalistyczna (the Polish Socialist Party), was a large political party with several wings or splinter groups spanning a broad ideological range from moderately socialist to radical or almost Communist views. In 1948, after the Communists came to power, they enforced the amalgamation of PPS with PPR (the Polish Workers’ Party, a communist group), thereby creating the PZPR (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, the Polish United Workers’ Party, i.e., the Communist Party that held power in People’s Poland until 1989). See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_United_Workers%E2%80%99_Partyc
  6. AK, Armia Krajowa (the Home Army)—the main underground resistance movement in Occupied Poland during the Second World War.c
  7. A kite is a secret letter smuggled into (or out of) a prison.c
  8. Józef Cyrankiewicz (1911–1989)—a prominent member of the PPS before the War, involved in the wartime underground resistance movement both at liberty and when held in Auschwitz. After the War, Cyrankiewicz joined the PZPR (Communist) Party and served for many years as Prime Minister of People’s Poland. Cyrankiewicz’s leadership of the resistance movement inside Auschwitz has sparked controversy with regard to his relations with the anti-communist resistance leader Capt. Witold Pilecki, who was imprisoned and executed by the Communists in 1948, when Cyrankiewicz was prime minister of People’s Poland. For more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witold_Pileckic
  9. Typhus and abdominal paratyphoid, diarrheal diseases caused by Salmonella typhi and Salmonella paratyphi bacteria.b
  10. Typhus.b
  11. Code name for an unidentified poison.b
  12. The informer, prisoner Stanisław Dorosiewicz, escaped from the camp and inmates feared he would betray those involved in the underground resistance (note translated from the original).
  13. In the slang used in the Polish resistance movement, “Auntie” (Pol. ciotka) meant a female go-between, especially one providing assistance to paratroopers secretly dropped into occupied Poland from an Allied country (usually England). Ciotka also means “menstruation”; so the reference might be to a heavy hemorrhage.c
  14. Zbigniew Raynoch (1910–1944) Polish sculptor, involved in the wartime underground resistance movement. Arrested in 1942 and deported to Auschwitz (camp No. 60746); one of the artists making a secret pictorial record of camp life. On October 27, 1944, Raynoch and Czesław Duzel (No. 3702) were due to escape but the plan was betrayed by SS-Rottenführer Johann Roth, who was to transport them hidden in a truck. Instead, he drove straight to “Death Block.” Realizing the situation, the fugitives tried to commit suicide by taking poison. Raynoch and Duzel died on the spot. https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zbigniew_Raynoch#cite_note-3a
  15. Stefan Olpiński, a Pole from Tarnów. Worked in Gleiwitz Nazi radio station before the War. After the fall of Paris in 1940, spied and informed on Poles in France. Sent to Auschwitz as a prisoner to inform on the camp resistance movement. Exposed by Polish intelligence and killed in the prisoners’ hospital by the camp resistance movement. https://bazhum.muzhp.pl/media/files/Przeglad_Historyczny/Przeglad_Historyczny-r1967-t58-n3/Przeglad_Historyczny-r1967-t58-n3-s481-505/Przeglad_Historyczny-r1967-t58-n3-s481-505.pdfa
  16. See Dr Szlapak’s biography (by Stanisław Kłodziński) on this website.c
  17. The Germans removed the Veit Stoss Altarpiece to Germany. It was recovered after the War. Few of the thousands of artworks the Germans looted and carried off from Poland have been found and returned. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veit_Stoss_altarpiece_in_Krak%C3%B3wc
  18. Krzyż Kawalerski Orderu Odrodzenia Polski.c

a—Translator’s notes; b—notes by Maria Ciesielska, Expert Consultant for the Medical Review Auschwitz project; c—notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Head Translator for the Medical Review Auschwitz project.

A public task financed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of Public Diplomacy 2022 (Dyplomacja Publiczna 2022) competition.
The contents of this site reflect the views held by the authors and do not constitute the official position of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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