The International School for Holocaust Studies
Im Jenseits der Menschlichkeit: Ein Gerichtsmediziner in Auchswitz
(Beyond Humanity: A Forensic Doctor in Auschwitz)
Reviewed by Dr. Gideon Greif
Second edition edited by Andreas Kilian and Friedrich Herber
Karl Dietz Verlag, 2005
The publication of the autobiography of Miklos Nyiszli is an important event for historical research on Auschwitz in general and especially in the field of research on the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nyiszli's memoirs were the first publication on the unknown subject of the Sonderkommando and shed new light on this subject when it was first published in March, 1946. The importance of the information included in this book derives from the duality of the author's duties in Auschwitz-Birkenau: he simultaneously worked as a pathologist for the infamous SS-physician Dr. Josef Mengele and as a physician for the staff of the Sonderkommando-prisoners. In light of this situation, he relates to the "medical experiments" performed by Mengele and his team, and at the same time supplies us with extremely important facts about the inner life of the Sonderkommando-prisoners.
Since the memoirs were written in 1946, we can be assured that the memories of the author were still fresh. He remembered numerous facts which are essential for us to gain a better insight about these events. For many years Nyiszli's book was the only source on the experiments carried out by Mengele and on the Sonderkommando and thus, the importance of the book was not diminished despite the presence of some factual mistakes. For this reason, the new edition of this important source, which has recently been published in Germany with many scientific remarks and notes, prepared especially by the young German historian Andreas Kilian, contributes a lot to the existing literature on Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Sonderkommando. In comparison to the old edition, this one includes corrections of the numerous mistakes which are part of Nyiszli's text. The barbarity and cruelty of German physicians, who attributed no importance to human lives and dignity are described in a strong realistic manner and make a quick and powerful impression on the reader. For example:
"The bodies were not lying here and there throughout the room, but piled in a mass to the ceiling. The reason for this was that the gas first inundated the lower layers of air and rose slowly towards the ceiling. This forced the victims to trample one another in a frantic effort to escape the gas. Yet a few feet higher up the gas reached them. What a struggle for life there must have been! Nevertheless it was merely a matter of two or three minutes' respite. If they had been able to think about what they were doing, they would have realized they were trampling their own children, their wives, their relatives. But they couldn't think. Their gestures were no more than the reflexes of the instinct of self-preservation. I noticed that the bodies of the women, the children, and the aged were at the bottom of the pile; at the top, the strongest. Their bodies, which were covered with scratches and bruises from the struggle against each other, were often interlaced. Blood oozed from their noses and mouths; their faces, bloated and blue, were so deformed as to be almost unrecognizable. Nevertheless some of the Sonderkommando often did recognize their kin. The encounter was not easy, and I dreaded it myself. I had no reason to be there, and yet I had come down to be among the dead. I felt it my duty to my people and to the entire world to be able to give an accurate account of what I had seen if ever, by some miraculous whim of fate, I should escape."
Who was Miklos Nyiszli? The Jewish doctor Miklos Nyiszli was born in Samlyo (today's Simleul Silvaniei), which was then part of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. He graduated from high school in 1920 and began to study medicine in the city of Kolozsvar (now known as Cluj-Napoea) in the same year. After two semesters he continued his studies in Kiel (Germany) and finished them in 1930 in Breslau. At the end of the year he returned home and began to work as a general practitioner in Oradea (Nagyvarad/Grosswardein). In May, 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz.
He first worked in Auschwitz III during the construction of the Buna-factories. At the end of June, 1944 he was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There he was forced to work until July, 1944 as an Obduzent under Dr. Josef Mengele and became part of the Sonderkommando. At the end of January, 1945, Nyiszli was deported to Mauthausen after a five-day march; he was liberated by American troops on May 6, 1945.
After the war he returned to the city of Ordea and started to work again as a doctor. His wife and his daughter were liberated in Bergen-Belsen after having suffered in Auschwitz. He suffered in his last years from illness. In May, 1956, Miklos Nyiszli died of a heart attack.
The maps of Birkenau and the Krematoria-building maps have been prepared especially for this publication and represent the most advanced state of research in the field of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The aerial photos chosen for this edition, in which the most significant details of the killing-process can be seen (the undressing-barracks, the pits, and the big trucks) are an important addition. All those elements contribute significantly to the understanding, interpretation, and analysis of Nyiszli's autobiography.
Nyiszli's cynical descriptions, very vivid and realistic, depict the cruelty and the sadism of the SS-physicians, who sought to promote their own careers. He states:
"Dr. Mengele wanted to solve the problem of the multiplication of the race by studying human material, especially twins that he was free to experiment on as he saw fit. Dr. Wolff was searching for causes of dysentery. Actually, its causes are not difficult to determine; even the layman knows them. Dysentery is caused by applying the following formula: take any individual – man, woman, or innocent child – snatch him away from his home, stack him with a hundred others in a sealed box car, in which a bucket of water has first been thoughtfully placed, then pack them off, after they have spent six preliminary weeks in a ghetto, to Auschwitz. There, pile them by the thousands into barracks unfit to serve as stables. For food, give them a ration of moldy bread made from wild chestnuts, a sort of margarine of which the basic ingredient is lignite, thirty grams of sausage made from the flesh of mangy horses, the whole not to exceed 700 calories. To wash this ration down, a half liter of soup made from nettles and weeds, containing nothing fatty, no flour or salt. In four weeks, dysentery will invariably appear. Then, three or four weeks later, the patient will be 'cured', for he will die in spite of any belated treatment he may receive from the camp doctors."
The book also provides a lot of integral information about the daily life and death of the Sonderkommando-prisoners, about their relations with the SS-crew in the Krematoria, and about their attempts to help other prisoners with food and other items which they were able to collect in the undressing-rooms. This is an important book for readers who want to know more about the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Sonderkommando, and most importantly – about the criminal acts of the SS-physicians, who were allowed to freely carry out their crimes without limitations, using human beings as guinea pigs.
The cruelty of the Nazi regime receives maximum documentation in this edition. Dietz Verlag in Berlin deserves our gratitude for publishing this new edition, which enables us to read the annotated and corrected text of Miklos Nyiszli, one of the most important historical sources on Auschwitz and the Sonderkommando ever published.