A book not just about World War II, Auschwitz or the Nazi regime but even more about perseverance, compartmentalizing your brain to survive and making the best rational decisions while under inhuman distress. That is what it is about to me but read it yourself and then tell me what you think.
Nyiszli begins to relate how he saved his own life by stepping forward when Mengele asked for people with special medical skills. Nyiszli, his wife, and young daughter, were transported to Auschwitz in June 1944. Not knowing his family’s fate, he begins to perform autopsies. As you know, Mengele had a keen interest in race biology but he was not a pathologist. So as long as the autopsies were needed, Nyiszli was needed and thus “safe.”
Nyiszli describes the cremations, the executions, and finding people still alive buried underneath a pile of dead bodies. You ache when he describes saving a girl’s life only to have to hand her over again to be shot dead.
Nyiszli meticulously describes his work, his routine and the support he tried to give to others while all the time wary that his life could end in a few months. Nyiszli was part of the Sonderkommando. Their future was defined by four months. “The very first job of any new Sonderkommando crew was the cremation of its predecessor.” These four months of hellish work were made as comfortable as possible by anyone who dealt with them. Extra food, cigarettes, alcohol and more were supplied to the Sonderkommando and Nyiszli did his share of supplying guards with items that would make their last four months more bearable.
He discovered that the Nazis used several ways to kill people: death by gas, chloroform injections in the heart, a bullet in the neck, being burned on a pyre, and death by phosphorous bomb or by flame throwers. Eventually, Nyszli manages to persuade Mengele to authorize him free access to the camps to search for his wife and daughter. You have to read for yourself how he saves them and how he vows never to lift a scalpel again. Nyiszli died May 5, 1956 after suffering a heart attack.
Highly recommended reading but be ready to read a clinical description of the extermination processes and the autopsies.