This is an account of his time in Auschwitz by a man who in his former life had been a GP and also a specialist in forensic pathology. However, because of this expertise, Miklos Nyiszli, upon arrival at the death camp was chosen to help the infamous Dr Josef Mengele in his misbegotten biological `research'.
Nyiszli's medical background no doubt explains the concise and exact account of his time in the death camp, and his measured and controlled description of extermination. As he says in his opening declaration, "when I lived through these horrors...I was not a writer but a doctor. Today, in telling about them, I write not as a reporter but as doctor." From the selection process, where Mengele indicated whether those arriving at the camp were to be killed immediately or were to be used as slave labour for a few miserable months first, to the dispersal of the ashes, Nyiszli records every stage of the process meticulously and precisely. The book is all the more powerful for this approach, its careful enumeration of horror using the Nazis own predilection for methodical and systematic organisation to reflect their loathsome ideology unmercifully back on to them.
Only on rare occasions is there a breach in this neutral tone, where Nyiszli's contempt and loathing and repugnance are revealed, and the only words he can find are ones like 'evil' and 'diabolic' to describe human monsters like Molle, Mussfeld and most of all Mengele. Mengele he characterises as the `devil doctor' whose barbarity is best illustrated by Nyiszli disdainfully recording the fact that "the one place, the one environment my soft-brained superior really felt at home [was] the blazing glow of the pyres and the spiralling smoke of the crematorium stacks; the air heavy with the odor of burning bodies; the walls resounding with the screams of the damned and the metallic rattle of machine guns fired pointblank; it was to this that the demented doctor came for rest and relaxation after each selection, after each display of `fireworks'. This was where he spent all his free time; here in this man-made hell."
This edition also includes the Foreword by Bruno Bettelheim which accompanied the earlier publication of the book in 1960. This has now been relegated to an Afterword and a newer introduction is provided by historian Richard J Evans. As Evans explains, the original Foreword is now of historical interest in its own right, reflecting as it does Bettelheim's now discredited views, namely that only an inherent racial death wish could account for the compliance by European Jewry in its own destruction and his condemnation of the supposedly indefensible actions of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who in exchange for being allowed to live a few months longer, in Bettelheim's view aided and abetted their own murderers. Bettelheim goes on to accuse Nyiszli of being "a participant, an accessory to the crimes of the SS" because he "worked as the assistant of a vicious criminal." Evans calmly rebuts this (wilfully?) bizarre misreading and misrepresentation of the circumstances.
Like John Hersey's Hiroshima, an equally slim volume that also says what it needs to say and no more, and which again contains enough horror to fill a library, Auschwitz; A Doctor's Eyewitness Account is an essential book.
Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew sent to the extermination camp in 1944 was 'fortunate' enough to be selected for work rather than the gas chamber. As a well qualified and experienced forensic physician, he was chosen to work within the Sonderkommando who kept the 'processing' of the extermination process working. His role was to act as doctor to the kommando and the SS and act as pathologist on those killed in whom Mengele had a 'scientific' interest, due to their potential as evidence in proving the degeneracy of non-Aryan races. The Sonderkommando teams were comparatively well looked after, but knew that after 4 months they would meet the same fate as their fellow prisoners and be replaced with fresh workers. This book is Nyszli's account of his experiences.
This is, I think, a remarkable book, the almost understated spareness of the account making the terrible experiences of the author all the more shocking because there is so little sense that he is trying to manipulate one's emotions. The events speak for themselves, without the (entirely excusable) hand-wringing and wailing that other writers might employ in creating a 'literary' work. Moments of unspeakable awfulness linger in the memory because so straightforwardly recounted: the hand-picked father and son, hunchback and 'cripple', respectively, who are selected by Mengele to serve as research into proving the 'degeneracy' of the Jewish race - Nyiszli is required to calibrate their living anatomies (they and Nyiszli are unaware of their immediate fate)and literally hours later, perform autopsies on their corpses and arrange for the reduction of their bodies to skeletons for despatch to a respected Berlin university as research items; the young girl who inexplicably survives the gas-chamber, is revived by Nyiszli who pleads strenuously that she be diverted to another part of the camp so that she might live, but who is shot by the SS in the back of the head because she is too immature to maintain her silence about the reality of the extermination programme; the barely mentioned but truly awful-to-contemplate dual autopsies performed on tiny twin babies to further entirely spurious 'research'.
Of course some readers will despair at Nyiszli 'co-operating' with the system and using his refined medical skills to carry out autopsies, though never to injure the living. However, I would suggest that one of the vilest aspects of the Nazi regime was the way quite grotesque moral dilemmas were forced on perfectly decent people who had the starkest of choices: co-operate to extend one's survival or die. Each of us can only wonder what, god-forbid, we might have to do in such circumstances. It is a bold human being who can claim moral superiority over this Hungarian Jew, shipped to Auschwitz as part of the 'Final Solution'.
Other reviewers have described the foreword as dull and boring: I disagree. It is a fairly academic piece, of course, but is valuable in giving some background about the key protagonists (Nyiszli confines his account to the Auschwitz experience and ultimate escape). It also illuminates the outlines of a very interesting debate that has taken place over the decades regarding the nature of the Jewish responses to the persecution and the reasons for the responses. I found it fascinating. The afterword by Betelheim embodies a particular range of attitudes to the topic: though in many ways a disagreeable response, it is worth reading for the questions it raises about the ways humanity deals with monstrosity.
I don't think I will ever want to read this again, but I am very glad to have done so.
This memoir by Miklos Nyiszli was first published in English in 1960, but there has been an alteration made to that original text. Bruno Bettelheim's original foreword has now been placed at the back of the book as an afterword, and a new introduction by Richard J Evans takes its place at the front. If you are coming to this book for the first time then I would strongly urge you to read both of these, and even if you have read a previous edition I would recommend Evans' introduction which is excellent. Bettelheim's piece is if you read it quite controversial, but his ideas at the time were held in greater credence than in today's world.
In all, even taking in the introduction and the afterword this book is quite slim and is a relatively quick read. Nyiszli never had any pretensions about being a great writer and this is thus an easy read, he doesn't get fancy in his writing, just gives us what he thought and saw at the time. So who was Miklos Nyiszli? By the time he was interred in Auschwitz he was an established pathologist, and this ultimately led to him surviving to tell his tale. Being of use Josef Mengele took him under his wing and he became part of the Sonderkommando, those Jews who did the dirty work for the Germans, disposing of the bodies after gassing, etc.
I could go on about the harrowing life for Jews and others in the infamous death camp, but I know we already know all that, and I suspect some people get bored of books like this. Why this works is because in some ways it shows a different aspect of the camp and life. People tend to think of all the deaths of Jews, but as shown here with the extermination of the gypsies, others were also included. The place was rife with disease and starvation, and you had Mengele carrying out his infamous experiments, but at the same time it is worth being reminded that such a place was to a certain extent a town, with people working away at jobs, and even a 'black market' in place.
This isn't just about the Holocaust, but about how people manage to survive in such dreadful conditions, and how the pursuit of science can blur ethics and morals for some people. I always think it is ironic that Mengele had to go on the run and under cover to escape a War Crimes tribunal, but his Japanese counterpart, Shiro Ishii, who conducted awful experiments on people in Harbin on the Chinese mainland was given immunity from being tried for War Crimes by the US Government, due to his research being given to them and its implications with regard to biological warfare. Obviously it matters on what studies you do when you commit attrocities on how you will be treated at a later date.
After the war Miklos Nyiszli went from being a pathologist for Mengele to giving evidence at Nuremberg, after all he was a good witness after seeing what he had.
on 11 October 2001
I have always had an interest in the Holocaust, but until I read this book some fourteen years ago, it had always remained at a distance.
A reputable colleague at work handed me a copy of this book and said 'this is worth a read'.
Having begun, I could not put the book down. The book gripped me from start to finish. The story is horrific but, nevertheless, it is a story that we all owe it to ourselves to be familiar with.
The story and the author's experiences were so profound and penetrating that I have spent the last fourteen years studying and reading as much about the Holocaust as I can. I have visited the Concentration Camps at Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Birkenau and Plaszov, together with other areas in Poland directly connected with the Jewish Holocaust.
I have seen the buildings full of human hair from the Jewish victims, the gas chambers, crematoria and the other hideous instruments of mass murder referred to in this book.
The book by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli will not take you long to finish. The voices of the victims referred to have long since disappeared. Many people today are not even aware of the Holocaust and others deny it's very existence.
Books like these, written by people who were actually there, are essential if our this and forthcoming generations are to be made aware of "man's inhumanity to man" and to prevent such a horror from occurring again.
I must confess that I find the details of the Holocaust deeply disconcerting and until recently, I have avoided seeking details.
An industry has grown over the years to try to claim that much of what we know about this terrible episode from history is in fact a myth. In some ways I should be grateful for such scepticism because it has made me face up to and try to understand the events. I know far more than I really want to know about the Holocaust through reading first hand accounts and general history.
This account is very interesting. It was written by a doctor who was part of the transportation of Jews from Hungary which was sent to Auschwitz towards the end of the Second World War. He was fortunate that he was healthy and fit for work so that he was not sent for extermination the moment he arrived there. However, he was too valuable to the Nazis because he was skilled in pathology.of
Nyesli's skill as a pathologist kept him alive when all around him were eventually killed. He became Dr Mengele's assistant whose job it was to dissect the corpses to aid Mengele's research. This aspect of the Nazi regime is one about which I feel particularly squeamish and Nyesli gives a very straightforward account of his observations of Mengele's obsessive pursuit of proving the degeneracy of the Jewish race and the superiority of the Aryan race. He attests to Mengele's sadism and is unequivocal in his view that Mengele was practising a pseudo science. I learned much more about the actions of the Sonderkommando squads, Jewish prisoners who were required to do much of the extermination work before they themselves were rounded up and shot by submachine gun fire.
The descriptions of the various forms of mass killing are quite heart rending and sickening - more so because they are written with a medical objectivity.
This is a very important book which I am glad to have read.
This is a difficult book to think about and review. Nyiszli was a Hungarian Jew who was sent to Auschwitz with his wife and daughter. His background as a doctor and forensic pathologist meant that he was assigned to the Sonderkommando - a group of prisoners who lived in relatively comfortable conditions and helped to run the gas chambers and crematoria. It was as part of this group that Nyiszli assisted Mengele in his various experiments. Nyiszli was always conscious of the fact that every four months, in order to keep the camp's activities secret, the Sonderkommando would be killed and a new one formed.
"Auschwitz" describes unspeakable evil: the gas chambers, the experiments, and the dehumanization of millions of people. The camp is run very efficiently and the people who pass through it are treated as units to be stripped of their resources, such as labour, hair, and gold fillings, before being liquidated. Nyiszli is an intelligent and clinical observer (he claims 'I write not as a reporter but as a doctor'), determined for the truth of what happened to reach the outside world, and his account raises many questions, perhaps unanswerable, about how people can commit such evil, and in such a bureaucratized way.
Nyiszli's account was first published in an English translation in 1960 where it was accompanied by a introduction by Bruno Bettelheim, reprinted here. Bettelheim's introduction is troubling and wrong-headed as he, himself a camp survivor, blames the Jewish people for what he sees as their acquiescence in their extermination and castigates Nyiszli for his actions whilst in the camp. The introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition is by Richard J. Evans, author of the excellent Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial, who puts Nyiszli's account in its historical context, corrects places where he is in error or confused, and also discusses Bettelheim's controversial introduction.
There have been many books written about the Holocaust and rightly so. This one is different in that it is written by a Jewish pathologist who worked for Doctor Death /The Angel of Death; Josef Mengeles. It reveals the practical nature of all humans wanting to survive in whatever way they can. Morality goes out the window. The Nazis wanted rid of gypsies, gays, disabled and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. The immaculately turned out Dr Death's experiments contributed nothing to human knowledge. They just heaped pointless depravity upon pointless depravity. What a waste of human talent. People were too afraid to criticize him. It is so horrific to think that this little village of death functioned so cruelly and meaninglessly for so long. This depressing book could be read in two hours; so everybody in the world who can read should read a book like this. It mentions how Jewish prisoners went into the gas chambers after their fellow Jews and families had been gassed to collect the bodies. They weren't scattered about the floor but in a pile with women and children at the bottom! They were trying to get higher to get away from the gas at any cost. The bodies were then stripped of gold teeth etc; cremated and the ashes were thrown into the Volga. UNBELIEVABLE! It is true and it 100% happened; but it is still unbelievable that people could act like this to save their own skins. Presumably we would all be the same.
on 24 May 2013
'Auschwitz' is an eyewitness account of a Hungarian Jew, Miklós Nyiszli, who was sent to Auschwitz along with his wife and daughter. Upon his arrival Nyiszli is separated into the 'able' where his training as a pathologist meant he became Dr. Mengele's assistant pathologist performing autopsies aiding Mengele's twisted research into twins, dwarfs and other subspecies that risked polluting the Aryan race.
What follows is a dispassionate and heartbreaking retelling of his experiences and the impossible positions the SS savagery put him. Does he confirm the diagnosis of typhus and condemn the death of thousands in a camp, or contradict the doctors, sparing the the ill for a little longer but condemning the doctors to death?
A difficult and horrific, but important read.
A lot of books and films show us the holocaust from the outside -- from the victims' perspective. While Miklos Nyiszli was to an extent a victim of the Nazis, his profession of doctor saved him from Auschwitz's infamous four crematoria, which sit at the centre of this memoir, and gave him access to the inside of the Nazi regime, for whom he worked performing autopsies and experiments. As such, this is the holocaust shown from the inside.
Nyiszli shows us that not only were the victims forced to live on a pretence - forgetting about their fate as the only way of coping; wilfully ignoring the fate that the crematoria held in store for them (Nyiszli wrote: "It was absolutely necessary to forget if we wanted to keep from going mad") - but that the perpetrators did exactly the same. They convinced themselves that their work was contributing to medical advances, that it served some kind of moral purpose. And when they couldn't live within this pretence, they numbed their minds with whiskey.
Terrible as it is to say it, the fact of the atrocities that the Germans committed is somehow not the most shocking thing about what happens in this book. What astounds more is how human beings convinced themselves of the necessity of what they were doing, and acted the atrocities out as a routine activity over a sustained period. What is most shocking is what happened to the perpetrators to enable them to commit these acts.
Nyiszli's book gets somewhere towards unpicking this, for it seems that the perpetrators and victims passed a point of no return, where the holocaust going on around them robbed life of any meaning it could have. And as the war went on and it became increasingly evident to the Nazis that they would not win, the question he asks of the victims stands out as one that the perpetrators would have begun to ask of themselves: "What is life worth, even if, by some strange miracle, we should manage to remain alive?" He also goes on to say that escaping the camp would free him physically, but that it could never free him from "my bloody past, nor from the deep-rooted grief that filled my mind and gnawed at my sanity". The same would have been true of the perpetrators, and while one cannot defend in any way what they did, this book, through Nyiszli's fate as both victim and accomplice, it is evident that the Nazis' foot soldiers were also the Nazis' victims.
I have read several autobiographical accounts of concentration camps and other such methods of destruction employed by Nazi Germany, and this is by far the most harrowing, and the best. Whilst coming in at a minimalist 170-odd pages, each and every event packs a strong, emotive punch and really is deserving of the title 'modern classic'.
I suppose what is most remarkable about 'Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account' is the author - Miklos Nyiszli. Written in a reportive, engaging style, the doctor tells of all he saw without censor in full detail. The author is not necessarily a good man, and I doubt anyone would say he was a hero; he helped the Nazis in order to prolong his own life, watching hundreds of thousands of Jews go to their death and doing nothing about it. At least that's one view. Or was he perhaps just doing what any human would do, trying to preserve his life and taking any opportunity he could to save others, even if that wasn't very frequent. The book doesn't come down on one side or the other, Nyiszli leaves it up to the reader to decide. This is a brave decision, as it is by no means clear cut, but on balance I tend to believe that his reaction was as I would do in the same situation.
Despite claiming at the beginning to be the account of a doctor, written as a scientific report, emotion does get a good look in and the piece is all the better for it. Whilst some elements are described in cold hard facts which really bang the truth home, the effect of what he and others witness in their time at the camps have an incredibly moving element to them. I really can't fault the writing style in any way, and I certainly feel a lot more educated to have had the privilege of reading a true modern classic.