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The Angel of Death's Assistant

by Kate Hart 7 months ago in Historical

The true story of Olga Lengyel, a survivor of the Birkenau extermination camp, a member of the underground resistance, and a forced assistant to Dr. Josef Mengele - The Angel of Death.

Olga Lengyel

Reader's Discretion Advised - This material contains mention of sexual assault, medical experimentations, and abuse.

"You have done a great service by letting the ones who are now silent and most forgotten speak." - Albert Einstein in a letter addressed to Olga Lengyel in regards to her memoir that she released in 1946.

Rumours Too Horrific To Believe

In 1941 construction on Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Birkenau, an extension of the horrific work camp that would later be used as an extermination camp, would begin. In the early years of World War II rumours spread across Europe telling tales of horrific camps that were created for the destruction of the Jewish religion and race, along with any others deemed undesirable. Few believed that even the tyranny of the Third Reich could go as far as genocide. Many shook off the rumours and moved on to much more enjoyable conversations. Olga was one of these people. She lived in Cluj, Hungary, a small region that now belongs to Romania but has strong Transylvanian roots; so strong in fact she refers to herself as Transylvanian. There she lived a peaceful life with her husband, two sons and her parents. Her husband was the owner and head doctor of a successful hospital and she was his surgical assistant. The rumours circling through Europe seemed just that, rumours until Olga's husband Dr. Miklós Lengyel was arrested under accusations of refusing to use German pharmaceuticals. He was to be sent to work in Germany on the front lines and Olga asked to go with him in an attempt to keep her family together. Her two young boys and parents ended up accompanying them to a death train destined for Auschwitz.

Map of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Birkenau

Olga and her family spent 7 days stuffed into a cattle car along with 96 people, no food, and no water. Upon her arrival at Auschwitz, many thought they were finally going to be liberated from the 7 days of hell that they had just experienced. Anything would be better than the death trains. Olga's story is alike to many of those who arrived at Auschwitz. After the men and women were divided from her family she was separated from her mother and two young boys, whom she would never see again.

The train tracks to Birkenau

In Olga's memoir Five Chimneys... she paints a vivid and horrifying picture of her first few days at Birkenau. She was barely clothed leaving her partially exposed and made to share a space built for 400 with 1500 women that had 1 blanket for every 10 people. She very quickly was singled out for her lack of knowledge of how life at Birkenau was conducted, which left her vulnerable to being preyed on by other prisoners and the guards. A few days after her arrival Olga learned the fate that her family faced. Despite the glaring truth of the tall chimneys constantly burning and the sickly sweet smell that overtook the camp, some of the prisoners in Birkenau still didn't believe the stories of what took place in what they referred to as the "bakeries." Today we call these the crematoriums.

Every morning and afternoon a "selection" would take place in which every inmate had to be present. Those chosen would be sent to the gas chambers. Some went willingly having thought that they were being taken to a hospital for their illness. Olga was soon "selected" and while on her way to the trucks that would transfer her to the gas chambers she quickly slipped away, switched her clothing, and hid in her koia seemingly unnoticed.

The Infirmary

The living conditions of Birkenau were horrific with no proper sanitation or way to clean one's self. Olga asked Dr. Klein, the chief S.S. doctor of Birkenau, to let her do something with her medical training to relieve the sufferings of the other inmates. Her request was later granted, to her surprise, and she was joined by four other women to meet the medical needs of over 40,000 women in the camp in what was to be their new infirmary. To call their new medical centre an infirmary was but a bad joke. They were given no way to sterilize equipment and had to decide which tools they would use on patients to ensure that they would not be spreading disease. The five women worked around 16 hours a day, with one small break in the afternoon. They were given one small piece of soap to share between them, of which they were some of the only prisoners in the camp to be given such a luxury. Through her time in Birkenau Olga would learn that the origin of the soap came from the crematoriums, made from the excess fat of the burned bodies. They weren't able to do but little to aid the sick and unfortunately the infirmary served as a way to single out those most vulnerable and weak for the selections.

Dr. Josef Mengele - The Angel of Death

Medical Experiments

While Olga worked in the infirmary and "hospitals" of Birkenau she was tasked to take care of the hundreds of thousands that were experimented on. Many prisoners with medical experience were forced to conduct these experiments led by Dr. Josef Mengele, otherwise known as the Angel of Death. He is most known for his experimentation on twins, however, Olga describes his greatest passion as those with Dwarfism. Along with Mengele's experiments and those conducted by other doctors to breach the limitations of the human body, German pharmaceutical companies sent chemicals, vaccines, and new drugs to be forcibly tested on Holocaust prisoners. The nurses and doctors, Olga included, would have to inject unlabeled medicines into healthy and already sick patients. They were given no knowledge of what these vials contained, but very rarely did the patients ever survive. Olga recounts the medical company Bayer, a subsidiary of IG Farben, purchasing 150 women to conduct experiments with medicines unknown to her. Olga theorized that this could be for hormone tests. When all of the women in this experiment died Bayer proceeded to purchase another 150 prisoners.

The experiments that Olga witnessed ranged from fatal injections to the heart, vivisection experiments for grafting bones & muscles with no anesthesia, castration, but perhaps most haunting fertility experiments. Twenty miles from Birkenau was another camp that served as an experimental station that specialized in artificial insemination, of which Olga was not privy to. In the fertility experiments, X-ray treatments and the use of chemicals were conducted with the goal to sterilize the subjects. In one of these treatments, one thousand boys between the ages of thirteen and sixteen were experimented on. They were forced to masturbate to extract sperm, but for those that couldn't they were assaulted by the scientists with metal instruments. For the women who were subjects in this, if their infertility couldn't be proven they were raped. Some of the experiments even resulted in sex changes in the prisoners. Every prisoner of Birkenau was subject to a white powder that was sprinkled into their food meant to stop their menstrual cycle and disrupt hormone cycles.

Olga learned the supreme goal of these experiments from a German inmate who formerly had been active in German politics. The purpose of these experiments was to sterilize all non-German people still alive at the end of the war and create a workforce that could be used for thirty or so years before eradicating itself. Perhaps one of the most horrifying things about these experiments is that it's likely that the modern drugs we use for birth control and sex changes have origins to what took place in Auschwitz. IG Farben and the medical companies that it encompassed, including Bayer, were brought to court for their crimes during the Nuremberg Trials. However, the harshest sentence was 8 years in prison and some of the scientists and businessmen returned to work for the same companies after their release until they pleasantly retired.

Underground Resistance

During her time at the infirmary, she came to know someone who she refers to as "L," an elderly French man who was a regular visitor to their infirmary because of a foot injury. Very rarely were men allowed into the women's camp aside from making repairs to their barracks. L was their source for news of the war outside of the camp. How he received this news is a mystery to the reader. Life at Birkenau was taking its toll on Olga and she was wasting away day by day. L saw this and gave her, in her own words, "a new reason for living." He asked for her assistance in an underground resistance. Olga was to spread the news of the war within the camps, she was to transfer and deliver most often letters and parcels to other members, and lastly, she was to observe everything she saw at Birkenau so that upon their freedom the world could know the truth. To be caught was worse than certain death, but in a place like Birkenau "what was death?"

The underground resistance provided an in-depth look into the secrets of Birkenau. It was passed onto her, the experience of the Sonderkommando, a group of men who were made to work and operate the crematoriums. One of them, a French doctor by the name of Dr. Pasche, passed on his experiences to members of the resistance. He estimated that 1,314,000 people were killed in Birkenau from May to July 1944. A number much higher than our modern estimates.

For months the underground was able to smuggle gunpowder out of ammunition factories to other parts of Auschwitz. Olga slept with this under in her koia until she transferred the parcel of gunpowder forward. It would be used by the Sonderkommando to destroy one of the crematoriums, start an uprising and allow a few of those that survived to escape. The Sonderkommando were able to kill three S.S. guards, while 451 of them perished.

"We lived to resist and we resisted to live."

Olga during an interview for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute

Freedom

On January 17th, 1945 Olga and other prisoners were constructed to compile all case records from the infirmaries and experiments to be set on fire. They were subsequently herded away from the camp to escape the approaching Russian army. Olga managed to escape the death march and found refuge with a local family. Early one morning Olga slipped out from her hiding space and decided to bake some Transylvanian cookies to thank the family for their hospitality. She was met by German soldiers who mistook her as a local, which most certainly saved her from sudden death. However, the retreating army took her along with many other women from the town as they marched onwards. She was bound to a cart and made to walk behind it for three days until she chewed through the ropes. Olga tried to find refuge but was ill met as she was surrounded by the retreating army. A local woman led her to a river and pointed to another town across it. In the dead of the night, and winter no less, Olga swam across the river and found refuge in a nearby house. She stayed there as the town was bombed in a battle between the Germans and Russians. The next day the Germans had retreated and Olga was finally liberated.

Olga lived to be 92 and passed away in 2001. During her life Olga founded the Memorial Library and Art Collection of the Second World War. The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights was created in her honour. All of the information included in this article was sourced from her biography and the Nuremberg trials. Olga has an incredible story and I wish that I could have included every detail here. I urge you to read her memoir Five Chimneys: A Woman's True Story of Auschwitz and experience her story for yourself.

Glossary

Bayer - German pharmaceutical company that was previously owned by IG Farben until it's collapse after the Nuremberg trials. The corporate entities under IG Farben were split up into smaller companies. Bayer was one said company.

Birkenau (Auschwitz II) - Extermination Camp within Auschwitz.

IG Farben - Largest Pharmaceutical enterprise in 1940's Germany. Would be liquidated by the allies after their victory.

Koia - A three-tiered "bunk" within a barrack that was shared between 20-30 women.

Sonderkommando - A group of around 400 men that were forced to operate the crematoriums.

Historical

Kate Hart

Screenwriter, Film Producer and all around Camera Nerd with a BFA in Writing & Film Studies.

Find me on instagram @ashumanasiam

Rogue Raven Productions

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