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Nyiszli, book cover

Book Essay on Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account

Book Essay on: Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz:
A Doctor's Eyewitness Account

(New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993), 222 pages.

by Joseph Sarafian
March 14, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links

About Joseph Sarafian

I am a Senior Global Studies major with a minor in history. Over the summer I spent five days in Berlin and visited a concentration camp outside of Berlin. I chose to write about Dr. Miklos Nyiszli's book because I wanted to have a better understanding of life at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. I also wanted to see how Dr. Nyiszli dealt with his struggle as a Jewish doctor working for a Nazi.

Abstract (back to top)

Auschwitz: A Doctor Eyewitness by Dr. Nyiszli is about a Jewish doctor experience as an assistant for a Nazi, Dr. Mengele. Dr. Nyiszli arrived to the Auschwitz concentration camp with his family unsure if he and his family would survive. Dr. Nyiszli volunteered to be an assistant for Dr. Mengele, a Nazi war criminal that conducted experiments on prisoners. During his time Dr. Nyisizli was exposed to the extermination of innocent people and other atrocities committed by the SS. Dr. Nyiszli was also convinced that his death was coming but he did everything possible to survive so that he would one day tell the world what happened in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Dr. Nyiszli makes it out alive after a series of events and unites with his family afterwards. This book is important because it is an eyewitness account of what happened in Auschwitz and should always be a reminder of the evilness mankind is capable of.

Essay (back to top)

In Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli tells the story of his time in Auschwitz. Dr. Nyiszli is a Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp located in Poland. His story provides the world with a description of horrors that had taken place in camp in 1944. Separated from his wife and daughter, Dr. Nyiszli volunteered to work under the supervision of the head doctor in the concentration camp, Josef Mengele. It was under Dr. Mengele’s supervision that Dr. Nyiszli was exposed to the extermination of innocent people and other atrocities committed by the SS. Struggling for his own survival, Dr. Nyiszli did anything possible to survive, including serving as a doctor’s assistant to a war criminal so that he could tell the world what happened at the Auschwitz concentration camp.This hope for survival and some luck allowed Dr. Nyiszli to write about his horrific time at Auschwitz.His experiences in Auschwitz will remain apart of history because of the insight he is able to provide.

Dr. Nyiszli writes he was driven to survive so that he would be able to inform the world of what had taken place in Auschwitz. He knew if he survived he would be able to give a firsthand account of what happened and how the Nazis operated. However, survival would prove to be a challenging task for Dr. Nyiszli and he knew it. When Dr. Nyiszli volunteered himself as being someone who could comply with Josef Mengele’s tasks, he drastically changed the direction of his life. As soon as Dr. Nyiszli agreed to being an aide to Dr. Mengele, he indirectly asked to be a Sonderkommando. A Sonderkommando had the privileges of wearing civilian clothes and getting better meals. In return they did special work for the Nazis, which was assisting Dr. Mengele, a war criminal who was doing medical studies on human subjects. After every four months they would kill the Sonderkommandos because they knew too much of what was happening. By doing this, everything that had taken place in Auschwitz remained a secret because there were no survivors to tell the horrors. Dr. Nyiszli understood this situation and writes: “ Whoever among them practiced the Jewish faith could thus begin on the day of his arrival, the purification ceremony in preparation for death. For death would come to him as surely as it had come to every member of all the preceding Sonderkommandos “(Nyiszli, 40).

As one of the Sonderkommandos who was given the most responsibility, Dr. Nyiszli was exposed to many of the cruelties in Auschwitz. After the first time Dr. Nyiszli was made aware of 3000 innocent people being killed with gas, he made a vow to himself. He writes, “ I felt it my duty to my people and the entire world to be able to give an accurate account of what I had seen if ever, by some miraculous whim of fate, I should escape” (Nyiszli, 52). Seeing the bodies and smelling the gas made all of this a reality for Dr. Nyiszli. He now understood the steps the Nazis went through to exterminate their innocent victims and is able to give a detailed testimony as to what happened. After the people were killed, the kommando was responsible for pulling out any gold teeth and any other valuables the dead had. After the murdered had their personal belonging and life stolen from them, they were put into ovens and cremated. Dr. Nyiszli was emotionally distraught after seeing what he saw but all he could do was say nothing and count his blessings for he was not the one being burnt to death.

Slowly earning respect from Dr. Mengele and other SS officers, Dr. Nyiszli was given more responsibility and trust. Dr. Mengele had assigned Dr. Nyiszli to work on twins and asked him for a report of his dissection. Dr. Nyiszli was able to impress his peers with his findings. His contributions and cooperation helped his reputation as a Sonderkommando, but he was still convinced that by knowing so much his fate was already pre determined. He writes, “I had the feeling I was already one of the living- dead. I was certain I would never get out alive. Was it conceivable that Dr. Mengele would ever allow me to leave this place alive” (Nyiszli, 65). Despite Dr. Nyiszli’s feelings of uneasiness and guilt he remained a big part of the medical research in Auschwitz. Dr. Nyiszli solidified this when he was asked to do an autopsy of an SS officer. He did a satisfactory job that earned him the job of being responsible for all other autopsies. He was surprised that he was given such a job especially as a Jew in Auschwitz. Dr. Nyiszli also did a good job of listening to whatever Dr. Mengele told him. In one scene, Dr. Mengele told Dr. Nyiszli to “make the woman doctors responsible” on a diagnosis they made even though the women were right. He just wanted the women doctors to get punished. Dr. Nyiszli recognized what he was doing was unethical but still went through with this because he was intimidated by Dr. Mengele and wanted to do anything to survive.

During this time Dr. Nyiszli did not know whether or not his family was alive. Most Jews in Auschwitz did not really know what happened until the war was over, and the worst was usually assumed. Dr. Nyiszli was able to take advantage of his status in Auschwitz and was granted the opportunity to search for them. Surprised and pessimistic, Dr. Nyiszli went to look for his wife and daughter. He was able to find them at the C camp. For three weeks Dr. Nyiszli visited his family daily. On his visits he brought necessities that would enable them to survive. These supplies were extremely valuable at the time. They were often used as gifts to bribe officers. Following the three weeks, Dr. Nyiszli heard of plans to exterminate the C camp. In return for a box of 100 cigarettes an SS officer informed him if his wife and daughter volunteered for a convoy that they had a chance ofsurvival. His wife and daughter made it to the convoy along with some friends. Dr. Nyiszli was relieved with his family situation. He knew he did all he could to save them. This did not stop him worrying for his own life though. He was convinced that his own days were numbered. He describes his days as being “spent in idleness, my nights were sleepless. I was terribly depressed; all desire had left me. Since my family’s departure, I had been filled with loneliness and haunted by my own inactivity” (Nyiszli, 149). Waiting for his own death, Dr. Nyiszli needed any sign that would give him hope.

All of the Sonderkommandos believed that their death was coming. They knew they had spent four months assisting the SS and it was now time that they would be vanished so the outside world would not know anything about Auschwitz. With this in mind the Sonderkommandos decided they might as well go down with a fight. The 860 members planned on escaping out of the camp, and Dr. Nyiszli was aware of the plan. With the SS caught by surprise, the Sonderkommando attacked the SS troops. They were effective for the first few minutes when the SS troops had no idea what was going on. Dr. Nyiszli decided to stay inside while all of this was going on, since he did not know who exactly was attacking. He thought he would be safe if he remained inside because the fighting began before the scheduled time. The Sonderkommando acted early because the SS was made aware of the Sonderkommando’s plan. After about ten minutes the fighting stopped when SS troops had gained control of the situation. Following the revolt the SS troops rounded up all the Sonderkommandos and had them lay on the ground face first. Dr. Nyiszli was convinced that he was minutes away from having his head blown off until he heard a car and Dr. Mengele’s voice. Dr. Mengele asked the doctors to get up and asked the role they had in this. Dr. Nyiszli informed him that they were actually working on an autopsy while the attack was transpiring and was then excused along with his assistants. The SS then proceeded to murder the rest of the Sonderkommandos by shooting them. Dr. Nyiszli was able to escape death with the help of luck but at the same time he also realized his worth to Dr. Mengele. He writes, “ I was fully cognizant of the importance of my work: for the moment I was indispensable. Besides myself, there was no physician in the KZ qualified to meet Dr. Mengele’s requirements” (Nyiszli, 161). The importance of the Sonderkommandouprising should not be overlooked either. Unlike many prisoners before them, they fought for their lives and made clear that the SS was not invincible. They may have not left the camps alive but the Sonderkommandos displayed will and courage that should be admired.

With the Russians just 40 kilometers away from Auschwitz, Dr. Nyiszli says he began to hope. “ A ray of hope began to grow inside me. Perhaps we would after all succeed in leaving here alive”(Nyiszli, 201). This dream began to become reality on January 17th. With the arrival of the Russians, the SS troops fled and Dr. Nyiszli’s journey to freedom began. After surviving freezing weather and not admitting to working in Auschwitz when a German officer asked, Dr. Nyiszli was even closer to liberation. The Ebensee concentration camp, the fourth camp Dr. Nyiszli stayed at, was his last. After a year of being a prisoner, Dr. Nyiszli was a free a man. The war had ended and Dr. Nyiszli had endured a horrible experience.

The story of Dr. Nyiszli is an important one that has contributed to the history of the Holocaust. Dr. Nyiszli’s account of Auschwitz gives the rest of the world a sense of the cruelty and inhumane practices that took place there. He tells the story of humanity at its worse. He shows how the SS officers were transformed into heartless killing machines that put thousands and thousands of people in ovens with no remorse. The story of the girl who survived the gas chamber reinforces this idea to me. After a 16 year old girl had miraculously survived being in the gas chamber while everyone else had died, she was shot to death. He also shows how the SS used Jews as tools in achieving what they wanted. In this book you also see a personal story of a man struggling for his own sanity and life. In many ways Dr. Nyiszli sold his soul. He worked for a war criminal and did everything to satisfy him so that he could survive. Dr. Nyiszli’s reasons were selfish, but he was going to do anything possible to survive, which maybe what the Holocaust needed. He tried to convince himself that what he did was fine. He remained persistent in surviving so that he could make what he knew about Auschwitz public. He also had the distant hope of one day reuniting with his family. He created a purpose in his life that is something many prisoners in Auschwitz lacked. With some luck and smart decisions, Dr. Nyiszli was able to survive and tell a hero’s story.

People can be critical of the way Dr. Nyiszli behaved during his time in Auschwitz. I see his story as an inspiring one. Death was looming in Auschwitz and Dr. Nyiszli tried to avoid it. He had a purpose in surviving because he wanted to let the rest of the world know what happened from the perspective of someone who worked closely with Dr. Mengele, rather than a mere prisoner. Dr. Nyiszli had an outlook that not too many have, which shows the importance of this book and his story. With his text being published and read through out the world we have something that will always remind us of the evilness mankind is capable of. Stories like this should always be remembered and taught so that another Holocaust will never happen again. It seems like Dr. Nyiszli had this in mind when he was in Auschwitz, and was fortunate enough to tell it.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)

Book Reviews

Aull, Felice, “Review of Nyiszli, Miklos ?Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account.” 2/5/96. http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/Annotation?action=view&annid=807
In Felice Aull’s review of Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account she emphasizes the importance of Dr. Nyiszli’s perspective of the concentration camp as an a physician from a firsthand account. She questions his practice during this time as well and whether or not what he is doing is right. She is also sympathizing with what Dr. Nyiszli had to go through and all the horrific images he was forced to see.

Donaghey, Kathleen.“Doctor Reveals Horrors of Nazi Camp" Variety, 10 June, 2003. http://media.www.redandblack.com/media/storage/paper871/news/2003/07/10/Varietyl
This review by Kathleen Donaghey focuses on Dr. Nyiszli and what he goes through while serving Dr. Mengele. She is surprised by Dr. Nyiszli’s will to survive because of all the horrific incidents he was exposed to as an assistant. She credits Dr. Nyiszli’s confidence as a reason for his survival.

Web Sites

Holocaust Documents, "Dr. Miklos Nyiszli: An eyewitness from Auschwitz," http://www.auschwitz.dk/Nyiszli.htm.
Provides a small summary along with some quotes and pictures that show the brutality of what happen in the book and the Holocaust. It is useful because it gives the viewer a clear understanding of how violent and disturbing life was at Auschwitz.

Michael Nevins, M.D,Jewish Virtual Library, Moral Dilemmas Faced by Jewish Doctors during the Holocaust http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/dilemma.html
A discussion on whether or not Bruno Bettelheim’s critical response to Dr. Nyiszli is warranted. It also mentions other works of how doctors dealt with being in a concentration camp. These doctors included; Dr. Korczak, Dr. Adelsburger and Dr. Swajger.

Lee Shoquist, Reel Movie Critique, “The Grey Zone” http://www.reelmoviecritic.com/holiday2002/id1717.htm.
A Review is given on the movie based on the Dr. Nyiszli’s book. It gives a decent review of the movie and gives the book credit for the story.

Books and Articles

Friedrich, Otto. The Kingdom of Auschwitz. Harper Perennial, 1994. (amazon link)
This is a short and accurate history of the Auschwitz concentration camp, authoritative in its factual details, devastating in its emotional impact.

Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Basic Books, 2000. (amazon link)
Lifton offers a brilliant analysis and history of the crucial role that German doctors played in Nazi genocide. He gives accounts of the experiments and the role German doctors played during the Holocaust.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/24/09; last updated: 3/x/09
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