Olga Lengyel was a young woman in Transylvania during WW II. Her husband was a surgeon, she helped as a nurse, and together they built a small hospital in Cluj, the capital of Transylvania. She had two small children. They were Jewish.
Germany occupied Transylvania. One day in 1944, the Nazis came calling and Olga, her family and even her elderly parents were all hauled away in a cattle car fit for 8 horses. And so starts the first chapter: 8 Horses – or 96 Men, Women and Children.
Olga tells the story of her journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she lived under utterly dehumanizing conditions as an inmate of the concentration camp.
In the beginning, those who were condemned to death at Birkenau were either shot in the forest of Braezinsky or gassed at the infamous white house in the camp. The corpses were incinerated in a “death pit.” After 1941 four crematory ovens were put into service and the “output” of this immense extermination plant was increased enormously.
At first, Jews and non-Jews were sent to the crematory equally, without favor. After June, 1943, the gas chamber and the crematory ovens were reserved exclusively for Jews and Gypsies. Except for reprisal or by error, Aryans were not sent there. But generally, Aryans were executed by shooting, hanging, or by poison injections.
Of the four crematory units at Birkenau, two were huge and consumed enormous numbers of bodies. The other two were smaller. Each unit consisted of an oven, a vast hall, and a gas chamber.
Above each rose a high chimney, which was usually fed by nine fires. The four ovens at Birkenau were heated by a total of thirty fires. Each oven had large openings. That is, there were 120 openings, into each of which three corpses could be placed at one time. That meant they could dispose of 360 corpses per operation. That was only the beginning of the Nazi “Production Schedule.”
Three hundred and sixty corpses every half hour, which was all the time it took to reduce human flesh to ashes, made 720 per hour, or 17,280 corpses per twenty-four hour shift. And the ovens, with murderous efficiency, functioned day and night.
However, one must also take into account the death pits, which could destroy another 8,000 cadavers a day. In round numbers, about 24,000 corpses were handled each day. An admirable production record—one that speaks well for German industry. — (Kindle Locations 1041-1054)
The entire book is a string of one shocking paragraph after another. She describes the utter evil committed by the Nazis on millions of innocent people whose “crimes” were in some cases completely trivial: Stealing a loaf of bread; helping another person in need; having a different religion or viewpoint; disagreeing with the regime; and of course, the most vicious crime of all – being Jewish.
Reading about her journey, I found it hard to believe that anyone at all could survive these ordeals. I kept reading, of course, because I knew that she would make it out – I held her book in my hand, and somewhere in that wasteland of the absolute dregs of humanity, there was a good end. The author would survive.
She published the book in 1947. Her commitment to getting out, surviving and telling the story to the world of what really went on behind the gates of the lie “Arbeit Macht Frei” was the only driving force that kept her from giving up. There was nothing else to live for but the need to bear witness of the monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime.
Five Chimney’s is a crushing account of the horrors of the Holocaust. After reading this book, the adversities in my own very fortunate life seem but trifles compared to the gargantuan tortures inflicted by the Nazis upon millions of innocent beings.
I am changed.