Book Review: Auschwitz – by Miklos Nyiszli

Reading Auschwitz was very difficult for me. Every sentence I read, every page I turned, made me feel more ashamed for my ancestors of not long ago and embarrassed about the country where I was born and raised. The world should not forgive the German people for the wrong it has inflicted on so many people. The Third Reich was supposed to last a thousand years. It’s going to take a thousand years before Germans will be absolved, and it should be so.

Dr. Nyiszli was a Rumanian pathologist and a Holocaust survivor who spent eight months as a prisoner in Auschwitz.

While some concentration camps were “mere” prisons for political opponents of the Third Reich, others were killing machines, designed and organized to exterminate as many people as possible. None killed more people more efficiently than Auschwitz.

When Nyiszli arrived at Auschwitz in a cattle car, like millions of others, he was singled out by Dr. Mengele, the “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz, as an assistant.

He was assigned to the “Sonderkommando” (special detail), the group of prisoners whose job it was to dispose of the murdered masses. Each Sonderkommando consisted of 860 prisoners who worked for four months, collecting the mountains of corpses and burning them in the crematoriums. In exchange for this macabre duty, they were well fed, had good shelter and were even given luxuries like alcohol and cigarettes. However, when their tour of duty was over, they were mowed down by SS guards with machine guns, all 860 of them to the last man, and then they were burned by the next Sonderkommando, as their initiation duty. The terrible thing is that the Sonderkommando men knew their fate. After all, they had cremated and disposed of their predecessors. Not only did they know that they were the living dead, they even knew exactly the day when their death would come.

The Nazis organized the death camps so that once you were in, you would never leave. Those of the Sonderkommando were killed themselves so nobody would ever get out and tell the world what was going on inside the camps. The Nazis were extremely efficient in ensuring that no witnesses survived.

Dr. Nyiszli, due to his skill of dissection and as a forensic pathologist was extremely valuable to Mengele, who was conducting his beastly human experiments at Auschwitz. He could not himself dissect hundreds of corpses, so he needed help. Nyiszli earned Mengele’s respect and thus reached an elevated position for himself at Auschwitz, notwithstanding that he knew he would die at the end of the Sonderkommando’s four month shift with all the others. Through a combination of unforeseen circumstances, his own indispensability to Mengele, and sheer good luck at a few critical junctures, he ended up leaving Auschwitz when the Nazis fled from the Russians in January 1945, and after a few more months of flight and imprisonment, was liberated when the Third Reich finally collapsed.

He lived to tell the story of Auschwitz from a point of view that is completely unparalleled. Nyiszli saw things very few human beings saw and lived. He was forced to commit acts of unspeakable horror upon fellow prisoners.  At one time he had to examine and interview a father and a son as a doctor. Then the SS took them away, shot them in the back of the neck, and brought their corpses back into the examination room where Nyiszli then had to dissect the men he had just examined when their corpses were still warm.

Nyiszli tells his story in a succinct manner, with simple language, almost in diary or report form, seemingly detached, somewhat scientific and doctorly. It is easy to read. But I must warn you, I made sure I did not read from this book at night before going to sleep, lest I digest all night in my nightmares the terrible human evil that was perpetrated by the Germans between 1933 and 1945.

Auschwitz is an eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities from an unbelievable view point. The meanness, the cold-blooded arrogance, the fiendishness of the regime is exposed in this book on a scale ten times worse than my worst expectations ever. Life is not quite the same ever again after reading Auschwitz by Miklos Nyiszli.

Rating: ****

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