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Survivor's Guilt in Concentration Camp Inmates: Orli Wald

Featured Spotlight and Article for "I Have to Save Them" by Bookouture's Ellie Midwood

Survivor’s guilt is a profound psychological response that often plagues those who have lived through traumatic events where others perished. Among the survivors of the Holocaust, this phenomenon was particularly prevalent due to the unimaginable horrors witnessed in Nazi concentration camps. Orli Wald, a former inmate physician at Auschwitz, exemplifies the devastating impact of survivor’s guilt. After her liberation, Wald suffered from multiple mental breakdowns and made several suicide attempts, burdened by the weight of her experiences. This article delves into Wald’s past as a camp inmate physician, the horrors she witnessed, and the reasons behind their profound effect on her mental well-being.

Most concentration camp stories end with liberation. Most of mine have always ended with it, too; after all, it seems that the most horrific, hellish part is over with. The hero is walking out of the gates and into a new life; often having lost family and friends but ready to continue their legacy, rebuild the new world where such hatred would never exist.

Orli Wald’s story is quite a different one. 

Orli’s story is a story of a hero who saved countless lives in Auschwitz and yet, who needed saving herself. It’s a story of a woman strong enough to defy the camp physicians and yet so very fragile that mere few notes of music reminding her of the camp orchestra would reduce her to the darkest state long after she had left Auschwitz gates. When I first came across Orli’s name in one of the survivors’ memoirs it was Orli’s Auschwitz past that grabbed my interest initially. But the more I learned about her, the deeper I plunged into the depths of her mental state, the more I realized that this was exactly what I needed to write about: that existence behind the camp walls, when the entire world moved on, but she simply can’t. 

For those unfamiliar with this incredible woman, here’s a little backstory: active in political resistance in Nazi Germany, she was betrayed by her own husband and a fellow political movement ally, who quickly switched sides when the Nazis came to power and chose clout and ambition that came with the Nazi membership over his own wife and former ideals. After spending several years in different political prisons, Orli was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and later, to the newly opened extermination camp Auschwitz. Assigned to a camp medical block, Orli did everything in her powers to help her patients with whatever meager medical supplies were allotted to her block. But it was when the infamous Dr. Mengele, rightfully called the Angel of Death, arrived in Auschwitz that Orli had to witness true horrors of his medical experiments firsthand. She was present when Dr. Mengele conducted his experiments on twins which he used as his own guinea pigs; she was present when he tried to change brown-eyed children’s eye color by injecting their eyes with adrenaline or chemical dyes in the effort to make them blue. She watched him studying Roma children suffering from Noma and callously sending them to gas once he lost interest in them and their condition. And yet, surrounded by such horror, Orli still didn’t lose her humanity and desire to help. Despite the threat of immediate execution in case she were uncovered, Orli decided to section off a part of her medical block masking it as an infectious ward where the typhus cases were supposedly treated, knowing that the SS would steer clear of it. It was in that ward that she hid inmates—many of them Jewish—who needed a few extra days to recover or who would otherwise be sent to the gas by the SS. Her brave, selfless actions soon earned her the name that was the direct opposite of what Dr. Mengele was: the Angel of Auschwitz. 

The trauma experienced by survivors of concentration camps often manifests as survivor’s guilt, a deep and profound sense of culpability for having survived while others did not. Orli Wald was no exception. As an inmate physician, she was forced to assist monsters like Dr. Mengele knowing that most of the children she cared for would be dead within weeks or even days. This unbearable burden of responsibility weighed heavily on her conscience, fueling her survivor’s guilt and amplifying her psychological distress.

In the aftermath of her liberation, Orli Wald embarked on a tumultuous journey to find meaning and redemption in her life. She grappled with the questions of how she could have survived when so many others perished and what she could do to honor their memory. Wald’s search for meaning led her to speak out against the atrocities of the Holocaust and Nazi regime, to share her firsthand accounts through her writing and bear witness to the unimaginable suffering inflicted upon millions of innocent lives.

Through her advocacy and writing, Wald attempted to channel her survivor’s guilt into a force for change. By sharing her experiences and educating others about the Holocaust, she aimed to ensure that the memory of the victims would not be forgotten and that such horrors would never be repeated. In this way, Wald sought redemption by dedicating herself to the preservation of memory and the prevention of future atrocities.

Orli Wald’s legacy lies not only in her personal struggle with survivor’s guilt but also in her tireless efforts to ensure the memory of the Holocaust lives on. Through her advocacy work, she aimed to educate future generations about the horrors of Auschwitz and the importance of tolerance, compassion, and standing up against injustice. By speaking out, Wald hoped to inspire others to learn from history and work towards a world free from hatred and genocide.

Orli Wald’s experience as an inmate physician in Auschwitz and her subsequent struggles with survivor’s guilt highlight the profound psychological impact of the Holocaust. The horrors she witnessed, coupled with the ethical dilemmas she faced, left an indelible mark on her mental well-being. However, Wald’s journey towards healing and redemption serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Through her advocacy and determination to prevent future atrocities, she transformed her survivor’s guilt into a catalyst for change, ensuring that the memory of the victims lives on and that the world never forgets the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, it was her desire to re-live the horrors of the past by taking a witness stand at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials that ultimately led to her demise. Already a voluntary patient in a sanatorium in Sehnde, Germany, she disregarded her psychiatrist’s advice to put her mental health first and instead began to assemble her testimony for the upcoming trials. I must admit, as an author, writing those chapters from the psychiatrist’s point of view were the most challenging as I knew how this all would end and I’m quite certain so did he; otherwise, he wouldn’t be so insistent on stopping her from spiraling further and further after burying herself in lists of charges brought up against her former tormentors and re-living each day as though she was still an inmate, as if the walls of Auschwitz were still around her.

But Orli was called an Angel for a good reason. Her own life didn’t matter much. Justice for those who never made it out did. Orli Wald’s story is indeed a tragic story—the story of a survivor who didn’t, in fact, survive. But it’s also a story of hope, bravery, resilience and self-sacrifice above all. Even though Orli is no longer with us, her memory shall forever live on and remain a beacon for all those following in her steps, knowingly or unknowingly, putting others before themselves, defying the cruelty of the world by sheer power of their love for the humanity.


Ellie Midwood is a USA Today bestselling and award-winning historical fiction author, whose works have been translated into 14 languages. She owes her interest in the history of the Second World War to her grandfather, Junior Sergeant in the 2nd Guards Tank Army of the First Belorussian Front, who began telling her about his experiences on the frontline when she was a young girl.

In her free time, Ellie is a health-obsessed yoga enthusiast, neat freak, adventurer, Nazi Germany history expert, polyglot, philosopher, a proud Jew, and a doggie mama. Ellie lives in New York with her fiancé and their two dogs.


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Auschwitz, 1942: Her entire body trembles as she stands in the infirmary and realises the horrifying truth. She’s a nurse, but instead of saving her fellow inmates, she’s about to be ordered to kill them…

Surrounded by thick fog from the nearby forest, Orli stumbles from the cattle truck onto the frostbitten grounds of Auschwitz. Betrayed by her own husband for being a German resistance fighter, she has no one left in the world, and this is now her home.

Orli breathes a sign of relief when her nursing skills mean she’s assigned to work in the infirmary. Even in this hell on earth, she can still try to save some lives. But when she’s instructed to assist Dr Josef Mengele, she soon learns that he is known as The Angel of Death, and is the most feared man in Auschwitz. At his evil hands, thousands of inmates are cruelly killed and experimented on. And if Orli is to survive, she will have to help him. But how can she live with herself if she sentences her fellow inmates to death?

As she stares into his eyes, she soon realises her resistance work is not over. She has to stay and find a way to stop this monster—even if that means she will pay the ultimate price.

Inspired by the incredible true story of Orli Reichert, this unforgettable World War Two novel brings to life the powerful tale of a woman who risked everything to fight against evil. Fans of The Choice and The Tattooist of Auschwitz will be utterly gripped by this unputdownable page-turner.

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