Friday, October 1, 2010

The Curious Case of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli

Common wisdom states that individuals who are not mindful of the past will continue to repeat themselves. For this reason, Mankind has made an effort to record every bleak moment, hoping to stop the tides of atrocity long before they begin to swell.

It is small wonder that much of history is centered around war and tragedy. In a way, it is easier for people to measure the events of the world by the gruesome sign posts created by battlefields and metaphorical Hell-mouths left by man’s uglier side. Hotel Rwanda, a 2004 film by Terry George, exposed many people for the first time to the horrors of the animosity between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of central Africa. The Khmer Rogue executed approximately 200,000 of it’s own people from 1975-1979, and would later be chronicled by director Roland Joffe in his 1984 film The Killing Fields. Bookstores and Cinemas are awash with media telling us of people and cultures enduring a “Dark Night of The Soul,” surrounded by horror that, if they hadn’t actually occurred, no one would believe possible.

Somewhat lost amongst the piles of literature, poetry, and cinema of War and subsequent violence is the story of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli. A Hungarian pathologist and medical practitioner, Dr. Nyiszli found himself in a position that few humans could ever endure, attempting to survive a one of the places where inhumanity went on full display, a name which will likely be acid-etched into the collective Shadow archetype of Humanity; the Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Dr. Nyiszli wrote his only book, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, shortly after returning home to Hungary from the camps as a document for the rest of history to study. He attempts to tell the unadulterated and uncensored tale of The Third Reich’s systematic murder of any individual who did not fit into their worldview. Where as many accounts of the Nazi’s concentration camps comes from the lives of the prisoners who were starved and tortured, Dr. Nyiszli came from a position that has made his book as well as his memory (he passed away in May of 1956) both invaluable and reviled.

In the summer of 1944, The Nyiszli family arrived by train to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland, with a convoy of Jews from Eastern Europe. During the “selection” process," Dr. Nyiszli was separated from his wife and daughter after volunteering the information regarding his profession. Little did he know, he would end up serving as the primary physician and autopsy expert for one of the most infamous of the Nazi war criminals: Dr. Joseph Mengele So, from June of 1944 to January of 1945, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli served with the Sonderkommando (a group of Jewish prisoners, executed generally every four months, who worked the Crematoria and gas chambers in exchange for a slightly better lot in life) as well as serving as the physician to the SS, who were not only Auschwitz’s administrators, but also chief Executioners. Dr. Nyiszli would primarily, however, spent the majority of his time in the camp performing autopsies under the direction of Dr. Mengele, who was attempting to prove via pseudoscience, the “inferiority” of “non-Aryans.”

Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account is a gut-churning tale with an unflinching narrative manner. While there are plenty of other stories regarding “The Final Solution” and the associated Nazi camps, Dr. Nyiszli’s book can be a cause for argument, and has remained such since it’s initial publication in 1947. At the same time, Auschwitz is also a valuable document, giving a unique insider’s view at the functioning and organization of a veritable genocide machine. Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist who wrote the forward to the 1960’s paperback edition of Auschwitz (which has been included in most reprints since that time,) issued a scathing criticism of Dr. Nyiszli’s decision to assist as the chief pathologist at Auschwitz. Dr. Bettelheim also likened this to one of the most well-know stories of The Holocaust: The Diary of Anne Frank, arguing that the Franks, and by implication, Dr. Nyiszli and most other Jews, were led by the urge to attempt living life with “business as usual,” leading ultimately to the death of an entire family as well as approximately 6 million Jews and millions of other minority groups throughout Europe. This criticism, however, is light when considering the words of Michael Nevins, M.D., who wrote the essay Moral Dilemmas faced by Jewish Doctors during The Holocaust. Nevins flatly says “Dr. Nyiszli was a reprehensible individual who ingratiated himself with his masters in order to save his own skin.”

While it is difficult to understand how a seemingly rational person could take part in the activities of Auschwitz-Birkenau, leading millions to their deaths, does Dr. Miklos Nyiszli deserve the mountains of scorn that have been heaped upon him?

It is easy to find anyone who would take part in such atrocity as horrible or hate-worthy, but knowing that Dr. Nyiszli held no sympathy to The Third Reich turns the situation into a profound moral ambiguity. In Auschwitz, Dr. Nyiszli repeatedly points out that his concerns while in the camp were the safety of his wife and daughter, as well as trying to stay alive long enough to tell the public of the concentration camps. As well, the depth of violence being committed in the walls of Auschwitz-Birkenau was clearly a surprise to Dr. Nyiszli, and he repeatedly says that each new development he witnessed (I.e. the varying methods of execution and corpse disposal) disturbed him greatly.

Further, the argument that Dr. Nyiszli volunteered himself merely to preserve his own life is a somewhat problematic accusation. As a conscious human being, Dr. Nyiszli was determined to “save his own skin’ but could that same argument be thrown at the other members of the Sonderkommando? Without his instinct towards self-preservation (as well as his desire to save his family and preserve the tale of his hardship) the world would not have the intimate knowledge of “The Final Solution” that we do today.

Whether or not you agree with the choices made by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli from June of 1944 to January of 1945, this oft-forgotten story deserves to be retold, if not as a cautionary tale, but as a question of man’s instinct to survive versus the moral dilemmas that can face even the most common of people.


  1. Having been to Auschwitz and read Mikl√≥s Nyiszli's account told in his own words (‘I was Doctor Mengele's Assistant’), I don't think you could really consider his decision to volunteer as being hard to understand. Everybody was desperately trying to stay alive, he saw a chance and he took it.

    In his account he tried to save a woman who had survived being gassed, he tried to saved his colleague who was losing his mind, saved many inmates from the women’s camp shortly before it was ‘liquidated’ and had deep misgivings about reviving a colleague who tried to take his own life. In a world of madness, he managed to keep a sense of self, and I think, from the book, he was a million miles from being a Mengele.

    At the end of the day he was a mortician. Perform autopsies, or die. I think his actions are fairly understandable.

  2. I feel that no one in the world is qualified to judge or scorn Miklos Nyiszli. In any situation one has to chose an action one can live with. There is no right or wrong way to act, there are just individual choices people make based on their feelings, beliefs and morals.
    What Dr. Nyiszli did was not wrong, nor was it right, it just was. His life, his choice, his conscience. I am glad he was able to cope and live to tell the tale of horrors, so the rest of us can learn from it.

  3. This book is from a completely different angle, not just in the camps, but in the gas chambers. Survivors who worked in the gas chambers just did not happen. This man saw it all though. There is a section in there that was in a movie and shown a little differently. It is the Grey Zone movie. If you watch the section where they find the girl alive after the gas chambers, that is one of the sections talked about in the book. I thought this book was wonderful and it is an amazing book to read if you are interested in the Holocaust. You will be captivated and will not be able to put it down. At the same time you will realize that this all happened and this isn't some scary nightmare.