There cannot be many people alive who aren’t aware of the Nazi’s persecution and extermination of Europe’s Jewish population and the subsequent ‘Final Solution’. The extermination of millions of Jews across Europe during World War II remains one of the biggest atrocities ever committed. Today marks National Holocaust Memorial Day, a day that acts as a sad reminder that with every year that we get further away from the Holocaust; the more voices able to speak about it fall silent.
Miklos Nyiszli was one such voice, captured by the SS along with his wife and daughter in 1944. As a doctor, he was transferred from manual duties to pathological ones. There he was observed by Josef Mengele, the so-called ‘Angel of Death’ and moved to a new, modern and better equipped dissection room. It was here that Prisoner A-8450 was forced to conduct experiments on Jewish citizens, often children under duress from the SS. Worse still was that Mengele’s research wasn’t even required by the SS – it was driven by Mengele’s scientific curiosity.
As such, Nyiszli, under his own admission not a writer, kept an account of life in the concentration camps, providing for future generations an invaluable account. Ever more astonishing is the degree of access given to Nyiszli which allows for this to be a very privileged – and extremely distressing piece of work.
Nyiszli was present for some of the key moments in Auschwitz’s life. Such recollections include rescuing a teenage girl who survived the gas chambers only for her to taken out and shot by the waiting guards. Or the Sonderkommando uprising, where the so-called ‘Special Squad’ of Jewish prisoners who were tasked with removing bodies from the gas chambers, and then collating personal effects such as gold teeth and hair, fighting back against their SS oppressors and burning Crematorium IV to the ground before their brutal massacre are documented. Naturally, Nyiszli’s account is confused and patchy, such is the nature of his being on the fringe of such events, but his voice carries much historical weight.
And it is this historical weight that makes A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account not only compelling, but vital reading. It is not an easy book to read, much the events within are unsurprisingly, not only emotional, but utterly immoral.
Nyiszli struggles with the human element. Was it better to survive to tell the tale to warn future generations, or was it better to have died, not having to live with the crimes that were committed? It’s a tough moral question that outweighs any fictional representation of the war. For history graduates like me, it’s an impossible question to answer – especially when confronted with an account as visceral and real as Nyiszli’s.
Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account stands one of the most memorable, shocking and frankly astounding memoirs of our time. It’s only occasionally that Nyiszli’s outrage and repugnance at the actions of Mengele and the SS penetrate his otherwise clinically cool tone. This may not be the only account of Auschwitz, but it is a grippingly stark warning for future generations, and for past ones, a shocking reminder of one of Europe’s darkest hours.