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"The Prisoner Hospital: a Haven at Auschwitz" - Bookouture's Amanda Lees

GUEST POST from Bookouture's Amanda Lees


From the beginning of the horror that was the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration

camp, there was resistance from the prisoners, with the prisoner hospital acting as a

hub. The hospital was overcrowded, and medical supplies and facilities were basic.

At first, sick prisoners were sent to barracks designated for the task where they

received little or no treatment but were expected to wait to die. From 1942 onwards,

conditions improved with better facilities set up, not least due to the efforts of the

prisoner doctors and medical staff along with the teams of people who helped

smuggle in vital medications.

Those teams included local people who worked in the camp or lived nearby

and were eager to help those incarcerated there. They would drop medical supplies

for the gardening detail to pick up and take into the camp as well as sending

messages and communicating with the Polish resistance on the outside. Officially,

Poles were not permitted to act as doctors in the camp but the hospital director or

Lagerältester, a German criminal prisoner named Hans Bock, ensured they could

practice and saw to it that those who worked in the hospital were treated well,

protecting them from the camp administration and guards. Bock was no saint and his

weaknesses for morphine and young boys, along with his loyalty to the SS,

demoralised the staff who had to work under him but the arrival of a new chief

physician from Dachau, SS Sturmbannführer Dr Eduard Wirths, in 1942 ushered in a

better era.

Wirths brought with him dozens of fellow Austrian and German Communists

who were political prisoners, all of them close friends who had forged bonds working

in the underground and being imprisoned together in concentration camps. These

Communist prisoners began work as nurses in the Auschwitz hospital and were

given preferential treatment by Wirths who tacitly supported them in their

revolutionary activities in the hospital. The hospital improved to the extent that its

wards were worthy of the name, Block 21 acting as a surgical ward with an operating

theatre while Block 28 was an internal medicine ward. Block 20 was for those with

infectious diseases while Block 19 and later Block 9 were for patients suffering from

emaciation as well as convalescents. All this was overseen by the German and

Austrian Communist prisoner nurses who acted as administrative heads of the

hospital while the Polish prisoner doctors served as their deputies.

The prisoner doctors played a major part in ensuring that sick prisoners were

protected as much as possible from execution and the attentions of Dr Josef

Mengele and his ghastly experiments by falsifying records and test results. Knowing

that Mengele had a morbid fear of rashes, they also faked those along with high

temperatures so that he would leave those patients alone, a fact I included in the

story of The Midwife’s Child, my new book. The sickest prisoners were the subject of

regular selections by Mengele and his cohorts, including a young female guard

known as the Hyena. She was notorious for her vicious cruelty towards prisoners,

delighting in carrying out her own selections in Mengele’s wake. The character of the

Beast in The Midwife’s Child is based on her and several the doctors in the book

bear the real names of some of those who did so much to save their fellow prisoners.

The pharmacists, orderlies, nurses, and other hospital staff all played a part in

the resistance with almost every member active by the end of 1944, when the last

known informer was outed. Pharmacists would grind up the drugs that had been

smuggled in so that they were not discovered by the SS. Before every SS selection

to choose those to be sent to the gas chambers, the stronger patients would be

discharged for work and then readmitted as soon as the danger had passed. Very

emaciated patients were taught how to respond to the SS officers and doctors and

given advice on how to appear strong enough not to be selected for execution. The

prisoner doctor accompanying the selections would keep quiet about the patients’

real medical data and prognosis, concealing the length of time sick inmates had

been in the hospital and assuring the SS doctors that all the patients would recover.

The sickest patients were hidden in attics and other nooks and crannies just before a

selection or moved to a room that had already been inspected.

The camp director sent spies and provocateurs into the hospital and several

members of staff were demoted or sent elsewhere to curb the activities there but the

appointment of a new Lagerältester, Dr Władysław Dering, a gynaecologist from

Warsaw, helped to calm things as he quietly permitted the resistance without openly

defying the Nazis. Dering was a controversial figure who was later added to the list

of those who carried out war crimes in Auschwitz, something which was considered

unfair by the man who succeeded him in 1944, Dr Władysław Fejkiel, thanks to the

intervention of the resistance movement. He remained in charge until the evacuation

of the camp on 17th January 1945 and during that time resistance activities in the

hospital continued to grow as the last of the Nazi spies were outed.

One of the hospital’s most spectacular achievements during that time was to

stop the sadistic behaviour of the kapos and overseers who ruled the individual

barracks. Thanks to pressure from the hospital staff, the SS chief physician got the

commandant to issue an order that cases of prisoners being beaten up at work were

to be reported by prisoner doctors and the perpetrators were to be held

accountable. This, along with all the other clandestine work carried out by the

hospital staff, ensured that many more lives were saved.

Despite fears that the Nazis might exterminate the hospital patients in the

event of liberation, those that could walk were evacuated along with the other

prisoners while the sickest were left behind to be found by the Red Army. There is no

doubt that the resistance in the hospital saved their lives along with many others and

provided hope for the entire camp, a rare and precious commodity in Auschwitz.

Amanda Lees 2023

Featured Book:

Book Blurb:

‘Save her,’ she begs, drawing her last, quavering breaths. ‘Save my baby. Find her father. And reunite them.’ Both of our tears fall on the tiny creature in my arms, only minutes old and already in terrible danger. There’s never any doubt – of course I’ll do all I can. But will it be enough?

Auschwitz, January 1945: forced on a terrifying death march from the notorious concentration camp, midwife and former secret agent Maggie must find the strength to protect the tiny baby girl her dying friend left to her care. Only weeks old, little Leah is in terrible danger – from the Nazis, from the freezing weather, from starvation.

So when a company of soldiers led by brave Captain Jamie Maclean rescues the marching women, Maggie’s relief knows no bounds. But it soon turns to astonishment when Jamie vows to help Maggie reunite Leah with her father – he has fallen in love with Maggie, and will do everything in his power to assist her.

Maggie can’t yet trust her own, budding, feelings. But she accepts Jamie’s help, and slowly starts to dream of a life together. Until Maggie gets the news every survivor dreads. The most fearsome Nazi of all, Dr Mengele, the terror of Auschwitz, has escaped – and she may be the only person strong enough to track him down.

Looking at baby Leah’s trusting eyes, Maggie’s heart is torn. But she has to find Mengele and bring him to justice. Can she succeed on the most terrifying mission of her life, when so many others have failed? And if she does, will she find her way back home to the ones she loves, or will the heartbreak of everything she has suffered destroy any chance of happiness, forever?

A compelling and heart-breaking historical novel about sacrifices, determination and love that conquers all. Perfect for readers of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Nightingale and The Alice Network, this emotional read will leave you filled with hope.

Featured at The Courier UK:

Author bio:

A broadcaster as well as an actress and novelist, Amanda appears regularly on BBC radio and LBC and was a contracted writer to the hit series Weekending on Radio 4. She researched and edited the leading directory for banks, The Banker’s Almanac, for Euromoney publications while also covering stories of shady dealings in the City for them. She has written for, or contributed to, The Evening Standard, The Times, New Woman, US Cosmopolitan, Bulgaria's Vagabond and Company Magazine as well as numerous online publications and has two non-fiction books published under a pen name.

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