Olga Lengyel tells, frankly and without compromise, one of the most horrifying stories of all time. This true, documented chronicle is the intimate, day-to-day record of a beautiful woman who survived the nightmare of Auschwitz and Birchenau. This book is a necessary reminder of one of the ugliest chapters in the history of human civilization. It was a shocking experience. It is a shocking book.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
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By Olga Lengyel
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1947 Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.
All rights reserved.
8 Horses — or 96 Men, Women, and Children
Mea culpa, my fault, mea maxima culpa! I cannot acquit myself of the charge that I am, in part, responsible for the destruction of my own parents and of my two young sons. The world understands that I could not have known, but in my heart the terrible feeling persists that I could have, I might have, saved them.
It was 1944, nearly five years after Hitler had invaded Poland. The Gestapo ruled everywhere, and Germany fattened on the loot of the Continent, for two-thirds of Europe lay under the talons of the Third Reich. We lived in Cluj, a city of 100,000, the capital of Transylvania. Formerly it had belonged to Rumania, but the Vienna Award of 1940 had transferred it to Hungary, also one of the New Order's satellite countries. The Germans were the masters, and though one hardly dared to hope, we sensed — nay, we prayed — that the day of reckoning was not far off. Meanwhile, we tried to stifle our fears and go about our daily tasks, avoiding, whenever possible, any contact with them. We knew that we were at the mercy of ruthless men — and women, too, as we later learned — but no one could have convinced us then how truly pitiless they could be.
My husband, Miklos Lengyel, was the director of his own hospital, Doctor Lengyel's Sanatorium, a modern two-story seventy-bed institution, which we had built in 1937. He had studied in Berlin, where he had devoted a great deal of time to charity clinics. Now he specialized in general surgery and gynecology. Extremely skillful, and devoted to his science, he was widely respected. He was not a political man, although he understood fully that we were in the center of a maelstrom and in constant peril. He had no leisure for outside occupations. Frequently he had to see 120 patients in a single day and was in surgery till the wee hours of the night. But Cluj was a thriving community, and we were proud to operate one of its chief hospitals.
I, too, was devoted to medicine. I had attended the University in Cluj and had qualified to be my husband's first surgical assistant. Indeed, I had helped to finish the new hospital, bringing to its decor a woman's love for color; and so had brightened the appointments in the most modern fashion. Yet, although I had a career, I was even prouder of my little family, for we had two sons, Thomas and Arvad. No one, I thought, could be happier than we were. My parents lived with us and so did my godfather, Professor Elfer Aladar, a famous internist who was doing cancer research.
The first years of the war had been relatively calm for us, though we listened with dread to the never-ending accounts of the Reichswehr's triumphs. As the Germans ravaged more and more territories, doctors and especially capable surgeons to serve the civilian populace became fewer. My husband, though prudent and sufficiently circumspect, made little effort to conceal his hope that the cause of humanity might not be entirely engulfed. Naturally, he spoke freely only to his confidants, but corruptible souls lurked in every circle and one never knew who might next turn informer. However, the authorities in Cluj left him in peace.
As early as the winter of 1939 we caught an inkling of what was going on inside the lands which the Nazis had occupied. At that time we gave sanctuary to a number of Polish refugees who had fled their homes after their armies were surrounded. We listened, we sympathized, and we helped. Nevertheless, we could not fully credit everything that we heard. These people were overwrought and distracted; they might be exaggerating.
As late as 1943, frightening accounts reached us of atrocities committed inside the concentration camps in Germany. But, like so many of those who read this today, we could not believe such horrible stories. We still looked upon Germany as a nation which had given much culture to the world. If these tales were at all true, the shameful acts must be due to a handful of madmen; this could not be national policy, nor part of a plan for global mastery. How little we understood!
Even when a German major in the Wehrmacht, who was billeted in our home, spoke of the fog of terror with which his country had blanketed Europe, we could not accept it. He was not an uneducated man; I was therefore convinced that he was trying to frighten us. We tried to live apart from him, until one evening he demanded to join us. It seemed that he only wanted to talk, but the longer he spoke the more bitterness he spewed out. Everywhere, he declared, the subject peoples gazed at him with eyes that brimmed with hatred. Yet from his family at home he received only complaints that he was not sending back enough loot! Other soldiers, privates and officers, were sending home so much more in jewelry, clothes, art objects, and food.
I had to listen. What impressed me was his violent self-hatred as he told of marching his troops down roads that were literally flanked by bodies swinging from gallows. I vowed that he was either mad or drunk, though I knew that he was neither. He told us about motor vans, constructed expressly to gas prisoners. He spoke of huge camps devoted solely to the extermination of civilian minorities by the millions. My flesh crawled. How could anyone believe such fantastic tales?
We did have a few alarming experiences in Cluj, and, as I reflect now, I am sure that any one of these should have been a warning. The most serious occurred in early 1944. One day my husband was called to the police station for interrogation by the feared S.S. He was accused specifically of boycotting the use of German pharmaceutical preparations in his clinic.
Representatives of the German Bayer Company, many of whom were secretly members of the S.S., moved freely through Transylvania, to their personal profit, and to further the expansion of their firm. They had built a network of espionage, and a man who owned a large hospital, and was probably no friend of the Third Reich, was an easy target.
Fortunately, Dr Lengyel was able to supply a plausible explanation, and the S.S. released him. Privately, we agreed that the questioning must have been prompted by a denunciation. We were even certain that we knew the envious colleague who was responsible.
That episode should have prepared us for what followed. However, we could not imagine how cunningly the German masters laid their plans. They baited many traps, but they wanted a big haul for their trouble.
The first week in May, Dr Lengyel was summoned to the police station again. I became apprehensive the moment he left the clinic. When he did not return soon I made inquiries. Almost as though in a dream I received the news that he was to be deported to Germany immediately.
Frantically, I sought more information. All that I could learn was that he was to be sent away by train within an hour.
What went through my mind? My husband was a distinguished surgeon. Doubtless there was a shortage of medical men in Germany. He would be put to work in some metropolitan hospital or clinic. I asked where, and got only a shrug for a reply. I asked if the authorities would permit me to accompany him. The S.S. official blandly declared that they had no objection. If I chose to go, I was welcome. Indeed, they intimated that there was nothing to fear. So in a dozen little ways they mollified, and even encouraged me.
Instantly my decision was made. We would have to face many hardships; the pleasant life we had known might well be ended for years. But separation would be even worse. The war might continue for months, for years. The front lines were always shifting, and we might be cut off from each other forever. By going together we would at least be assured a common fate. In the future, as in the past, my place would be at my husband's side.
How fatal was to be this move which I was making so deliberately! For before an hour had passed I was to become the author of my parents' misfortunes, and of my children's as well.
For my parents tried to convince me to stay. "After all," reasoned my father, who had formerly been director of coal mines in Transylvania, "if your husband were called to the colors as a soldier, you would not be able to follow him."
I insisted. After all, had I not received assurances from a German officer that there was no danger?
There was no time for debate. The hour was nearly over. Seeing that I could not be dissuaded, my parents, too, decided to accompany us. Of course, we could not leave the two children behind. Hastily, we threw a few valuables and the usual articles for a journey into a valise, hailed a taxi, and dashed off to join my husband. He was being held at the municipal prison.
We had no inkling of the treachery of which we were the victims until we all stood together on the platform in the railroad depot. Then we discovered that hosts of neighbors and friends were there, too. Many other men had been similarly arrested and their families encouraged to go with them. Still it was not too alarming. The Germans were thorough. They had used the same technique. Why? We were puzzled, baffled, heavy-hearted, but there was no one to ask. Suddenly we learned that the entire station was encircled by hundreds of soldiers. Someone expressed a desire to turn back, but the phalanx of grim sentries made that impossible. We clutched each others' hands and tried to be cool for the children's sake.
There was a nightmarish quality to the scene. On the tracks, an endless train waited. Not passenger coaches but cattle cars, each filled to bursting with candidates for deportation. We stared. People called to each other fearfully. The insignia on the car indicated their points of origin: Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania — only God knew where this train had first been assembled.
Protest was useless. It was our turn. The soldiers began to close in and push us. We were driven like sheep and compelled to climb into an empty cattle car. We tried only to keep together as we were wedged in. Then the single door was rolled shut behind us. I do not remember whether we wept or shouted. The train was under way.
Ninety-six persons had been thrust into our car, including many children who were squeezed in among the luggage — the pitifully meager luggage that contained only what was most precious or useful. Ninety-six men, women, and children in a space that would have accommodated only eight horses. Yet that was not the worst.
We were so crowded that half of us had no place to sit. Pressed against one another, my husband, my older son, and I remained standing to provide a space for my father. He had undergone a serious operation a short time before and absolutely had to rest.
Besides, as the first hour and then the second passed, we realized that the simplest details of existence would be extremely complicated. Sanitary disposal was out of the question. Fortunately, several mothers had had the foresight to bring chamber pots for their young. With a blanket for a curtain, we isolated one corner of the car. We could empty the bowls through the single tiny window, but we had no water with which to rinse them. We called for help, but there was no answer. The train moved on — toward the unknown.
As the journey stretched endlessly, the car jerking and jolting, all the forces of nature conspired against us ninety-six. A torrid sun heated the walls until the air became suffocating. The interior was almost completely black, for the daylight that filtered through the little window could light only that corner. After a while we decided that it was better that way. The scene was becoming more and more unattractive.
The travelers were mostly people of culture and position from our community. Many were Jewish doctors, or other professional men, and members of their families. In the beginning, everyone tried, despite the common terror, to be courteous and helpful. But as the hours slipped away the veneers cracked. Soon there were incidents and, later, serious quarrels. Thus, little by little, the atmosphere was poisoned. The children cried; the sick groaned; the older people lamented; and even those who, like me, were in perfect health, began to pay attention to their own discomforts. The trip was incredibly morbid and gloomy, and although the same could have been said of every other car on our train, and indeed, of the innumerable trains from every corner of Europe — from France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Poland, the Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and the Balkans — which were all moving toward the same inhuman destination, we knew only our own problems.
Soon the situation was intolerable. Men, women, and children were struggling hysterically for every square inch. As night fell we lost all concept of human behavior and the wrangling increased until the car was a bedlam.
Finally, cooler heads prevailed and a semblance of order was restored. A doctor and I were chosen captains-in-charge. Our task was herculean: to maintain the most elementary discipline and hygiene, to care for the sick, to calm those who were agitated, and to control those who went berserk. Above all, it was our duty to maintain the morale of the company, an utterly impossible assignment, for we ourselves were on the border of despair.
A thousand practical problems had to be solved. The food problem was overwhelming. Our guards gave us nothing, and the slender provisions we had brought along began to give out. It was the third day. My heart rose in my throat. Already three days! How much longer? And where were we bound? Worst of all was the knowledge that many of our companions had concealed part of their food. They naively believed that they would be put to work upon arrival at our destination, and that they would need what they had to supplement the regular rations. Fortunately, our misery reduced our appetites. But we observed a rapid deterioration in the general health of the group. Those who had been weak or ailing when we started were suffering, and even the hale were weakening.
The head of an S.S. guard appeared at the window. His Luger gestured threateningly. "Thirty wristwatches, right away. If not, you may all consider yourselves dead!"
He had come for his first collection of a German "tax," and we had to supply enough valuables to satisfy him. So it was that my little Thomas had to part with the wristwatch we had given him after his successful third-grade examination in school.
"Your fountain pens and your briefcases!"
"Your jewels, and we will bring you a bucket of fresh water!"
One bucket of water for ninety-six human beings, of which thirty were small children. That would mean a few drops for each soul, but it would be the first we had tasted in twenty-four hours.
"Water, water!" the sick groaned as the bucket was lowered.
I looked at Thomas, my younger son. He was staring at the water. How parched his lips were! He turned and gazed into my eyes. He, too, understood our predicament. He swallowed his spittle and did not ask for any. He was given nothing to drink, for so many needed the precious drops more than he did. I suffered for him, but I was also proud of his stamina.
Now we had more sick in our car. Two people were tormented by stomach ulcers. Two others were stricken with erysipelas. Many were tortured by dysentery.
Three children were lying near the door. They looked hot and feverish. One of the doctors examined them and stood back aghast. They were ill with scarlet fever!
A shudder ran through me. In these close quarters the entire company would be exposed to the disease.
It was impossible to isolate the youngsters. The only "quarantine" we could enforce was to have those who were near the infected ones turn their backs.
At first everybody tried to keep away from the sick to avoid contagion. But as the days passed we became indifferent to such dangers.
On the second day one of the leading merchants from Cluj suffered a heart attack. His son, a doctor, knelt beside him. Without drugs he was powerless, and could only watch his father expire while the train rattled on.
Death in the car! A gasp of horror ran through the tightly packed mass of humans.
Piously, the son began to murmur the traditional mourners' chant, and many lifted their voices with him.
The train stopped at the next station. The door opened and a Wehrmacht soldier entered. The dead man's son cried," "We have a corpse in our midst. My father has died."
Excerpted from Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel. Copyright © 1947 Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsI 8 Horses — or 96 Men, Women, and Children,
II The Arrival,
III Barrack 26,
IV First Impressions,
V Roll Call and "Selections",
VI The Camp,
VII A Proposal in Auschwitz,
VIII I Am Condemned to Death,
IX The Infirmary,
X A New Reason for Living,
XII The Morgue,
XIII The "Angel of Death" Vs. The "Grand Selector",
XV Accursed Births,
XVI Small Details of Living Behind Barbed Wire,
XVII The Methods and Their Madness,
XVIII Our Private Lives,
XIX The Beasts of Auschwitz,
XX The Underground,
XXI "Paris is Liberated",
XXII Scientific Experiments,
XXIII Love in the Shadow of the Crematory,
XXIV In the Death Car,
XXV On the Threshold of the Unknown,
XXVII I Still Have Faith,