TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 6 February 2013
First published back in 1960, Dr Miklós Nyiszli's memoir of his experience within the notorious extermination facility, Auschwitz, was entitled 'Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account'. The book was published just four years after Nyiszli's death and contains a truly haunting but unique account of the atrocities performed within the vast extermination complex under the rule of the Third Reich.
It was May of 1944 when Hungarian Jewish Doctor Miklós Nyiszli, together with his wife, fifteen-year-old daughter, younger sister and aged parents, were first lumbered into locked cattle cars and transported to the largest extermination facility in Nazi Germany - Auschwitz. Located near the German-Polish border in Eastern Upper Silesia, near to the town of Oswiecim, as Nyiszli was soon to learn, the primary purpose of this vast complex of camps was for the mass extermination of Jews.
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Miklós found himself being instantly separated from his family. Whilst ninety-percent of the new arrivals were directed down a left-hand path, Miklós found himself being selected to join the remaining ten-percent along a right-hand path. A decision that was made by the chief physician of Auschwitz concentration camp, Dr Josef Mengele, as he met with the new arrivals.
Shortly after arriving, Miklós along with all of the other new inmates were stripped, scrubbed with calcium chloride, provided with a set of prisoner's burlaps to wear and then tattooed on their arm with blue ink, inscribing their new identification number. Dr Miklós Nyiszli was now merely KZ prisoner Number A 8450.
Soon after his arrival, Miklós Nyiszli found himself ordered into a line, with those that had any experience with pathology told to make themselves known. Having a strong background in such a field, Nyiszli stepped forward - a snap decision that would vastly alter the course and extent of his life from then on. A move that put him into the sights of Dr Mengele - the notorious 'criminal doctor'.
After having proven his knowledge and ability in pathology, Mengele instantly recruited Nyiszli s into the ranks of the latest set of Sonderkommando's, where he would assist the SS with their many ruthless experiments and day-to-day autopsies. Being a member of the Sonderkommando, Miklós could only expect to live for a mere four months before he and the rest of the specially selected prisoners were liquidated due to their increasing knowledge of the Quarantine Camp.
However, as Nyiszli took to his new role, dissecting victims on a daily basis for the criminal doctor, the pathologist prisoner was allowed a unique and unusually unrestricted view of life and more importantly, the vast deaths within the barbed-wire confines of the extermination camp. And over time, as Nyiszli proved to Mengele his abilities and worth in KZ, a strange relationship grew between the two men. One that allowed and entrusted Nyiszli with free reign of much of Auschwitz's extermination camp, including daily rounds of the four vast crematoriums. And here, over the ensuing months, Nyiszli witnessed horrors like none other, performed under the cruel rule of a criminal doctor and a Führer with a deeply evil ideology.
The vast funeral pyre's burned night and day, as the thousands upon thousands of prisoners were brought to their death, day in, day out. Life in Auschwitz was beyond tough. And death was brought upon the prisoners with far too much ease. And Nyiszli saw it all...
Okay, so the first thing I need to point out about Dr Miklós Nyiszli's memoir is that it's not an easy read. Although well-written and expertly translated, the account that is documented in the book's pages is difficult to digest due to the sheer magnitude of the truly horrendous atrocities performed in the vast extermination camp. Due to Nyiszli's unique position afforded to him during his time in the Nazi complex, the book provides the reader with such a detailed and involved insight, that what follows is nothing short of utterly harrowing.
To think that what you are reading actually took place, that only a handful of decades back in our history, mankind could enact such utter cruelty, in such vast proportions, sickens the reader to the very core. It's hard to take in such a veritable nightmare; to understand and accept such unbelievable acts of cruelty upon your fellow man. The account, covering just 162 pages, claws deep into your conscious mind, and makes you feel almost inhuman to know that this is something that your own kind is capable of - and worse still, was actually performed over such a god-awful length of time.
From the very outset, the reader is thrust into the confusion and disorientation of Dr Miklós Nyiszli's introduction to the extermination camp. His arrival, alongside so many thousands of others, is one that smacks you in the face with sheer unadulterated vicious cruelty. Even after just a handful of pages have gone by, you feel trapped in the horrors of the complex, with nowhere to escape to and death and suffering surrounding you eveywhere.
Although written from a very factual and in some ways an oddly removed perspective, the account nevertheless fills the reader with an incredibly disturbing vision of what went on within that barbed-wire enclosed facility. Each page details such shocking levels of suffering and barbaric ruling over the innocent prisoners; the stark and painfully vivid depictions depict an environment that can barely be accepted. However, as we know through much evidence and historical documentation, what Dr Miklós Nyiszli tells us of his time there is horrifyingly true.
The book reads with such unreserved honesty and compassion within a very troubled hindsight. Nyiszli was a man who was able to actually live for much longer than most, still as a prisoner, but nevertheless in a capacity that allowed him to later write such a memoir that detailed so much of what went on in Auschwitz. It's an account that manages to show an all-too-real hell, which from the comfort of our modern-day lives can be followed as his days passed, one after the other, amongst such unimaginable horror.
It's not a book that anyone will enjoy reading. It's one that is not overly buried in facts and figures or historical intricacies, but it is one that truly reflects what life for one particular Hungarian Jew was like in Auschwitz. Due to his (however unwanted) role in the extermination camp, Nyiszli brings to the page an account that shows the reader what so many hundreds of thousands went through there. It's an account that needed to be provided to the world. A memoir that is as important as it is disturbing. But it is nevertheless one that should be read and understood for what it is. So that hopefully, nothing even remotely like this, will ever take place again.
The later, more recent edition contains a forward by the academic and historian Richard J Evans which details much of the historical accuracy and importance of Dr Miklós Nyiszli's memoir. The book also contains an Afterword by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim who spent time in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. Bettelheim's Afterword was originally written and published as the book's Forward, but has since been moved to that of the Afterword to incorporate Richard J Evans' more recent addition.
The book runs for a total of 195 pages of which Richard J. Evans's Introduction covers 22 pages, Miklós Nyiszli's memoir runs for 162 pages, and Bruno Bettelheim's Afterword (originally published as an introduction) lasts for 11 pages.