Lengyel, Olga. Five Chimneys. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1947.
Five Chimneys is a first-hand accounting of a woman who survived life inside the German concentration camp, Auschwitz. Olga Lengyel describes the experiences she underwent along with numerous other internees with an unflinching, graphic determination. Olga was the wife of a leading surgeon of Cluj in Transylvania. She too was interested in medicine and attended the University in Cluj qualifying herself to be her husband’s first surgical assistant. Olga begins her story by describing the happy, idyllic lifestyle she lived with her husband, their two sons, Thomas and Arvad. Her parents also lived with them. The stories that had filtered into their community during the war seemed too bizarre to give any credence and felt a world away. The Germans came, however, and life for the Lengyel’s was forever altered. Unbeknownst to this doctor’s wife, within seven months she would be the sole survivor of her family.
It was 1944, nearly five years after Hitler had invaded Poland when the Gestapo infiltrated Cluj. Dr. Miklos Lengyel was brought in for questioning and accused of being against the Nazis because he boycotted pharmaceuticals made by the German Bayer Company. Interestingly, the German pharmaceutical company lost its US business during World War I and World War II in which the company participated in Nazi war crimes, however by 1978 it brought its name back to the US. No matter if Dr. Lengyel was guilty of the accusations or not was of little import, he was scheduled for deportation to Auschwitz. Neither he nor his family was Jewish. Olga describes the Gestapo’s trickery upon her inquiring of her husband. They indicated that doctors were needed and she could, of course, join her husband if she wished. Convinced all would be well if the family stayed together, Olga packed a few belongings for her and her parents and husband and their two children.
The reality was slow to surface, denial was still concealing the truth. They were not the only family at the station joining husbands who had been arrested. Olga’s family was stuffed with so many others into one of the train’s many cattle cars. No food, water, or latrines were provided. Amongst the dead and moaning of the sick, the tightly wedged group suffered for seven long days traveling to an unknown destination. The first step off the train car did not bring the relief that had been so wished for. The desperate passengers were greeted by barbed wire and emaciated humans with shorn heads with ragged bits of cloth covering parts of their bodies. Even these fantastical sights, Olga writes, were difficult to digest. The guards forced the elderly women and children to the left and the rest were put to the right, men and women separated. Olga did not find out until a few weeks later that any person selected to go left was condemned immediately to the gas chamber and later the crematory.
In this book, Olga describes the seven months that she lived at Auschwitz. She takes a surprising, matter-of-fact approach in describing and informing the reader of what she and others endured. With little inflection, Olga says they were stripped of their belongings and clothing, forced to bear a thorough examination in the Nazi manner, which included oral, rectal, and vaginal. (p. 28) Their hair was clipped and shaved before being forced under a shower of freezing water and then given bits and pieces of clothing to try and cover themselves the best they could.
The barracks the prisoners slept in were beyond horrible. Wooden crate-like structures stacked one upon another continually cracking and collapsing, killing and injuring many. The guards allowed only twenty bowls for every fifteen hundred women to ration out the meager “tea” or “coffee”, which was breakfast. The twenty bowls had a dual purpose in the barracks, at night they were also communal chamber pots. There was no way to clean them before breakfast. In the evening, the ladies got six and a half ounces of bread with a considerable amount of sawdust mixed in. Olga believes the camp was run without rhyme or reason. The educated were given the most backbreaking jobs and the illiterates were sometimes assigned office jobs.
What might strike the reader as interesting is that even in these inhumane conditions, humans still managed a bartering system and stolen goods were always up for sale. Some of these items could be obtained with the exchange of a spoonful of margarine. Margarine was like gold at Auschwitz. Food was exchanged for sex in the latrines though Olga insists that she never partook of the trade. Men were always around to fix roads and do repairs, so they were able to parcel out some of their rations in this way. Women who managed to get a regular ‘friend’ in the latrines were envied.
Within a few weeks of her incarceration, Olga writes that a call was put out for anyone with medical training to come forward. She was fortunate to be chosen to work and reside in another barrack that had been set aside for the infirmary. The living conditions were still bad, but slightly more bearable. Unfortunately, most of the patients were headed for the gas chamber regardless of treatment. One of the infirmary worker’s jobs was to deliver babies. If the child was stillborn, the mother was allowed to live, but if the child lived, both were taken to the gas chamber immediately. It was the decision of the ladies working to poison the infants who lived so that the mothers could stay alive. Bitterly, Olga writes that “…the Germans succeeded in making murderers of even us.” (p. 114) She goes on to write that even if those children whom she helped to kill, would have grown up to be nothing, that her crime was no less terrible.
The SS doctors and the incidents that Olga witnessed are mentioned throughout the book. The Camp Commandant Joseph Kramer, or the beast of Auschwitz and Belson, as he was known by, was a cruel man, however, Dr. Joseph Mengele is the one that she despises most. He enjoyed his job of chief selector, deciding which women would be killed next, whistling operatic tunes as he went along. Mengele was also big on experiments. Olga writes that there was no scientific benefit to any of the testing, only that “Human beings were sacrificed by the hundreds of thousands, and that was all.” (p. 185) The experiments ranged widely, from how long a man could survive in extreme conditions, how long it took to die from scalding to attempts at changing hair and eye color. Olga saw many people, children even, who had gone through some of the testings in the infirmary.
Auschwitz had an underground revolt of which Olga writes that she was recruited, and undertook many risky assignments. Most people in the underground hoped for freedom, to at least hamper the Germans in some way, like when they managed to blow up one of the five crematories, but also in the hopes that someone would survive and make sure that others knew what had happened to them. Many were caught and shot, but it still gave the members something to focus on besides their hardships. Olga includes some extermination statistics that a French doctor passed along to her. In 1944, between the months of May and July, 1,314,000 people were gassed and cremated.
The author does an excellent job of showcasing all the ways that the German’s used deception to first get internees for their concentration camps and to keep them there. The family whose loved one had been arrested was desperate to believe that the Germans offered a kindness by allowing them to go along. Once inside the concentration camp, the guards gave women postcards to send loved ones reassurance of their survival. The Gestapo used these addresses to arrest the families. They also put out the story that the crematoria were the camp bakery. The deception continued with the tattooing of inmates. The numbers never climbed above 200,000. Once a prisoner died or was killed the numbers were reused. This subterfuge helped cover the enormousness of the German’s crime.
There is no doubt that Olga Lengyel has done the world a great favor when she used her second chance at life to write down her experiences and tragedies endured during her seven months at Auschwitz. However, there are a few remembrances by the author that are contradictory. At times she makes broad, sweeping statements about the thoughts and feelings or actions of others that she could not possibly know. For example, she writes “As we began to undress, weird sensations swept over us.” (p. 26) Olga can only know her own mind at that moment. S.S. woman Irma Griese, the notorious beastly beauty, paid for her horrendous behavior by hanging, having been found guilty of numerous war crimes. Griese was a particularly cruel woman that Olga despised, however, she writes that “She spent hours grooming herself before her mirror and practiced the most seductive gestures.” (p. 160) Olga writes a great deal about what Griese did in the privacy of her room and though she could have received this information from another who might have witnessed it, she is insinuating that she had firsthand knowledge, which she did not, as her various jobs never included a personal attendant to Griese. She also has an innumerable quantity of specific examples of how Dr. Mengele performed his experiments. She knew what excited the doctor and which of his experiments were performed in an “abnormal fashion.” (p. 187) This knowledge had to have been gleaned from hearsay around the camp or after she was freed but certainly nothing she witnessed with her own eyes.
There were only a couple other bothersome tales. Olga describes one day kneeling for hours with other women in the camp, arms stretched overhead, glass cutting painfully into her knee, but when Dr. Klein called to her, she writes that she got up and ran to the camp gate to attend him. (p. 106) At this point, she was as malnourished as the other women and weary from kneeling in the cold. It seems hard to imagine any type of alacrity was possible. Again, Olga describes Irma Griese using the butt of her revolver to strike Olga’s head “…once, twice, again and again,” and struck her in the face with her fist again and again. Once again, she was able to hear roll call while unconscious and she picked herself up and ran toward her barrack. (p. 108)
It should be made clear that regardless of a few inconsistencies or exaggeration, all of which are forgiven due the horrific situation, it is a well-documented fact that Auschwitz was the hell on Earth Olga lived in and then lived to write about. Five Chimneys read easily and stayed interesting and fairly focused from beginning to end. This review would be best ended with Olga’s own words. “I was number 25,403. I still have it on my right arm and shall carry it with me to the grave.” (p. 119)
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