If you decide to read one and only one Holocaust memoir, you must consider Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story Of Auschwitz [Illustrated Edition] by Olga Lengyel, the wife of a Transylvanian physician who ended up in the Nazis’ most notorious death camp only because she could not believe, even as late as May of 1944, how treacherous they could be.
She learned quickly — starting with her first step on the platform of the train station at Cluj. Her husband, Dr. Miklos Lengyel, director of a 72-bed hospital and a Berlin-trained surgeon, had been detained and was to be deported to Germany. An S.S. officer graciously assured her that she was welcome to join him if she wished. She, their two sons, and her parents realized her mistake when the entire station was surrounded by armed sentries and they were forced with 90 others into a railcar designed to hold eight horses. It was the first, and perhaps the easiest, of the many lessons she would learn at the hands of the Nazis.
Mrs. Lengyel’s painfully poignant memoir — “Mea culpa,” she begins, “my fault, mea maxima culpa!” — was published within two years of the end of World War II. It has been on my Wish List since I read that Albert Einstein praised it as the best Holocaust memoir. Indeed, he wrote her personally to thank her for her “very frank, very well written book. You have done a great service by letting the ones who are now silent and most forgotten speak,” he wrote.
That, she tells us, is exactly why she wrote it. The few who survived carried a burden to tell the world what had happened there, to ensure the justice was served, and, more, to work to see that this should never happen again. It can be hard for us to realize now how successfully the Nazi regime concealed the atrocities that were carried out so blatantly behind the battle lines . . . even as similar atrocities happen again and again elsewhere around the globe.
“The Germans sinned grievously, but so did the rest of the nations, if only through refusing to believe and to toil day and night to save the wretched and the dispossessed by every possible means,” she wrote.
I have read many, many such memoirs, including in the last year those of two women who also survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of which I would recommend to anyone (see my review of Here There Is No Why) and one of which I would not recommend. Each woman has a different perspective. Mrs. Lengyel’s is both as personal and intimate as either and more comprehensive. Hers is a story of deeply painful, personal tragedy, yet she also saw and observed what went on throughout the camps and ensured that she survived to record it so that those who suffered it should not suffer in vain. Her account is detailed, and damning, and it includes lessons that cost more than anyone should ever be forced to pay.
“Perhaps the greatest crime the ‘supermen’ committed against us was their campaign, often successful, to turn us into monstrous beasts ourselves,” she writes in the final pages. Earlier chapters detail exactly how they did this, and how those of once unimpeachable integrity could be, and were, reduced to the lowest moral level. But that wasn’t all she saw, or all she learned. She also wrote of those who resisted on every level. “Because of these few, I have not entirely lost my faith in mankind. If, even in the jungle of Birkenau, all were not necessarily inhuman to their fellow men, then there is hope indeed. It is that hope which keeps me alive.”
That faith is one of the reasons her memoir is indispensable. If she, who witnessed and suffered all of this, could hold on to hope for us, we can’t be entirely lost. Yet.
Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story Of Auschwitz [Illustrated Edition] by Olga Lengyel, 234 pgs., biography & memoir, Holocaust, WWII history. Hardcover and paperback editions also available.