To understand Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Rudolf Vrba recommended three books.

The first was his own. The second was Sonderkommando Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (1979).

Miklos Nyiszli

Miklos Nyiszli

The third was a memoir by a much lesser-known, Romanian-born, Jewish physician named Miklós Nyiszli who first released Dr. Mengele boncolóorvosa voltam az auschwitzi krematóriumban (I was Dr Mengele’s autopsy doctor at the Auschwitz crematorium) in Hungarian in 1946 after it was first presented in a serialised form in the Hungarian newspaper Világ (The World).

Nyiszli’s insider’s view of both unprecedented mass murder and vile “scientific” experiments at Auschwitz has since appeared with various titles such as Auschwitz: An Eyewitness Account of Mengele’s Infamous Death Camp and I Was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant. In France, some portions of his deeply disturbing account from a 1946 Hungarian edition appeared within Jean-Paul Sartre’s monthly review, Les Temps Modernes, in 1951. An English translation in the avant-garde journal Merlin appeared under the title SS Obersturmführer Doktor Mengele so it’s possible Rudolf Vrba could have learned about Miklós Nyiszli prior to writing his own memoir first entitled I Cannot Forgive. A new Hungarian edition of Nyiszli’s memoir was published in Bucharest in 1964 as Orvos voltam Auschwitzban (I was a Doctor in Auschwitz), followed by editions in German, Italian, Romanian and Polish. Nonetheless, Miklós Nyiszli himself lived in relative obscurity behind the Iron Curtain, largely unheralded and often criticized. It has been noted Nyiszli does not appear as a Jewish author in the two-volume Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work, edited by S. Lillian Kramer in 2002.

Answerable only to his SS supervisor Dr. Josef Mengele (Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine), Miklós Nyiszli was an exceedingly rare prisoner in Auschwitz due to his freedom of movement. Mengele issued an unprecedented Passierschein that stated: “Prisoner A 8450 is authorized to move freely in KL Auschwitz without an escort. The above order is to remain valid until cancelled. [Signed] Dr. Mengele, Haupsturmfuhrer SS.”

Chiefly, Mengele valued and needed Nyiszli to perform sophisticated post-mortems on the twins and dwarfs who were frequently murdered during so-called medical experiments. Trained at the University of Breslau in Germany, Nyiszli was therefore given expensive clothing and escorted by Mengele, in his private car, without a guard, to his comfortable private lodgings on the first floor of one of the red-brick buildings that was constantly spewing flames from its chimneys.

While housed and well-fed at Crematorium II, as of June in 1944, Nyiszli was also obliged to serve as the lone physician for the isolated SS men at the Crematoria and approximately 200 Sonderkommando prisoners—the twelfth such doomed Sonderkommando unit—that operated both the gas chambers and crematoria for several months until they, too, would be murdered and cremated after several months of soul-destroying labour.

Nyiszli’s and Filip Muller’s memoirs provide the best (and therefore worst) accounts of how precisely and routinely at least one million people were murdered at Auschwitz. Better educated than Muller, and privy to Mengele and Nazi officialdom, Nyiszli’s account of his approximately months within the Auschwitz complex is an unforgettable and undeniable eyewitness testimony. It is easy to misinterpret the title I Was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant as a boast. That title can be far better likened to a confession, and as an attempt at truth.

Miklós Nyiszli was born in Szilágysomlyó (Simleu Silvaniei) in Transylvania, on June 17, 1901, when it was still part of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. Still a teenager in 1920, he commenced medical studies in Cluj-Napoea, moved to Germany to study at Kiel (Germany) and eventually graduated in Breslau (Germany) in 1930. Until he was deported to Auschwitz in late May of 1944, in a shipment of Jews within forty boxcars, he had practised medicine and raised a family in Oradea (Nagyvarad/Grosswardein), a city in the Crișana district of Western Romania, before moving to the small town of Viseu de Sus (part of Hungary. as of 1940) with his wife, Margareta, who he had married in 1927, and their daughter Zsuzsana, born in 1929.

Nyiszli’s boxcar carrying 26 physicians, eight pharmacists, and their families was met by Doctor Josef Mengele. Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, his wife and daughter were spared. According to Nyiszli’s memoir, he was almost immediately selected by Mengele to work on Mengele’s medical staff; in fact, Nyiszli first worked as a construction labourer for the Buna factories in an area later dubbed Auschwitz III.

In late June, Nyiszli was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau having already received his tattoo number A8450. Until May of 1944, Jewish arrivals had been numbered within the cumulative arrivals, sequentially; then in May of 1944 they were registered in a separate series beginning with the letter A. After 20,000 arrivals, male Jews were marked with a new sequence starting with the letter B, and so on.

Due to his expert knowledge of forensic medicine, Nyiszli, who spoke German more correctly than most Germans, was soon supplemented with a staff of three highly qualified doctors as assistants. Often they undertook the dissections and autopsies, mainly of twins and dwarfs, including a pair of two-year-olds. This highly skilled quartet were not volunteers undertaking this work willingly. The penalty for non-cooperation would have been death. Nyiszli was especially important because his forensic expertise greatly enhanced Mengele’s ability to send his crackpot research reports as well as physical evidence (including skeletons, with the flesh boiled off) to the Institute of Anthropological, Biological and Racial Research in Berlin-Dahlem.

“‘The great goal’ of all this research,” Nyiszli writes, “was to increase the birth rate of ‘super humans’ who were destined to become the ‘master race’. More specifically this would in the future mean every German mother giving birth to twins.”

With Mengele’s permission, Nyiszli was able to locate his wife and daughter within the Birkenau camp and arrange for them to be sent to Bergen-Belsen just prior to the planned liquidation of their barracks.

Soon after Mengele fled Auschwitz en route to South America, Nyiszli and his trio were able to evacuate their lodgings within the crematoria and join a five-day death march to Mauthausen at the end of January, 1945. He survived various ordeals such as a ten-day fast followed by standing naked. after a hot bath, for half an hour in -18 degrees amid icy winds.

From Mauthausen, he was put on a train with 700 other prisoners and sent to a concentration camp in Melk, on the Danube. On April 7, 1945, he joined seven thousand prisoners on a death march through the mountains to his fourth camp at Ebensee until the Nazis raised a white flag of surrender on May 5, 1945. Three American soldiers arrived to take over the camp.

Nyiszli is not asking for either pity or forgiveness. Like Rudolf Vrba and Filip Muller, he feel obliged to record the facts.

“The bloody past was taking its toll on my sick heart,” he writes. “My eyes had seen hundreds of thousands of people enter the gas chambers. I had seen people being burnt on pyres. On the orders of a fanatic regarding himself to be a genius, I had had to open up the corpses of hundreds of victims. I had worked for a man who was willing to exploit the death of millions for the purposes of some pseudoscientific, crackpot theory. I had had to cut out flesh from healthy young women, so that Dr. Mengele could breed bacteria. I had bathed the bodies of cripples and dwarfs in calcium chloride solutions or boiled them in cauldrons, so that their skeletons could be displayed in Third Reich museums for future generations and to justify to them the necessity of exterminating the ‘lower races’. I had faced death twice when standing before an SS execution squad. I had seen the bloody corpses of 1,300 of my companions [in the aftermath of the Sonderkommando revolt] and was now the only living witness…”

Nyiszli subsequently worked as a doctor in Oradea, an industrial city in western Romania, near the border with Hungary, and he died of a heart attack in May of 1956.

He reportedly never worked with a scalpel after World War II.


Miklós Nyiszli’s book is exceedingly important for multiple reasons. He was able to record the names of significant SS officers, such as Steinberg, Seitz, Hollander, Eidenmuller who were among “the crematoria’s cruelest killers,” and he records some of the valour displayed by a doomed Sonderkommando unit, including details of their attempted revolt.

According to Nyiszli, when the 12th successive Sonderkommando unit was required to recondition a “huge double-bed-cum sofa” for the vile Oberschafuhrer Mushsfelt’s bourgeois home in Mannheim, the doomed prisoners decided to insert a document within a specially fabricated cylinder sleeve to be fitted between the mattress springs.

Some 200 Sonderkommando members at Crematorium I signed this document that described in detail the atrocities perpetrated at the camp, naming the chief perpetrators, estimating the number of victims, etc., and Nyiszli records that a copy of this document was made, bearing the same signatures, and buried in the courtyard of Crematorium II.

Likel, that cylinder inside the sofa was never discovered in Germany and that buried duplicate copy inside a cylinder had yet to be unearthed—but Nyiszli’s record of such attempts being made to leave behind buried evidence at Auschwitz was a factor in the subsequent recovery of buried testimonials. After three were uncovered in 1945 (before his book was published), another was unearthed in 1952, another was found in 1962 and another surfaced in 1980. Four of these documents were found in the vicinity of Crematorium II. The Auschwitz Museum published the first five of these “underground” documents in 1973 as Amidst a Nightmare of Crime: Manuscripts of Members of Sonderkommando.

Ostensibly, Nyiszli attempts to limit himself to direct reportage, but there are some places in the manuscript when he cannot refrain from expressing his contempt and disdain for the Nazis. In this respect, he and Rudolf Vrba were somewhat similar as raconteurs. They both aspired to be truthful reporters, but their disdain frequently surfaces:

“Dr. Mengele wanted to solve the problem of the multiplication of the race by studying human material, especially twins that he was free to experiment on as he saw fit. Dr. Wolff was searching for causes of dysentery. Actually, its causes are not difficult to determine; even the layman knows them. Dysentery is caused by applying the following formula: take any individual – man, woman, or innocent child – snatch him away from his home, stack him with a hundred others in a sealed box car, in which a bucket of water has first been thoughtfully placed, then pack them off, after they have spent six preliminary weeks in a ghetto, to Auschwitz. There, pile them by the thousands into barracks unfit to serve as stables. For food, give them a ration of moldy bread made from wild chestnuts, a sort of margarine of which the basic ingredient is lignite, thirty grams of sausage made from the flesh of mangy horses, the whole not to exceed 700 calories. To wash this ration down, a half liter of soup made from nettles and weeds, containing nothing fatty, no flour or salt. In four weeks, dysentery will invariably appear. Then, three or four weeks later, the patient will be ‘cured’, for he will die in spite of any belated treatment he may receive from the camp doctors.”


It makes no sense that Nziszli’s account is not more famous. In fact, if one was to pick only one book about the Holocaust that should be a deemed a must-read for someone in their late teens, this could be it—moreso than Vrba’s riveting account of heroism and historical clarity. That’s because I Was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant affords both an eyewitness verification of the unprecedented, industrialized genocide as well as rendering clear evidence of the absurd and cruel perpetration of the Master Race theory (and practices) that elevated racism into a form of religious, pseudo-scientific lunacy.

Nziszli, who worked within and alongside two successive Sonderkommando units, was also one of the few witness survivors of the revolt attempt by the 12th Sonderkommando; he had direct and repeated access to Mengele as a personality; he writes better than Filip Muller and he was able to see the entirety of the Auschwitz operations. Therefore, his story is more stunning and ghastlier than any other account.


The following excerpt/portion of Chapter VII has herein been given a simple title:

How It Was Done

It took five or six minutes for the transport to reach the gates. They swung open and, as usual, the column entered the courtyard in five. No one else in the world knew what was about to happen next, for no one who had crossed the threshold ever returned. The road taken by the left column led to the crematorium, and not to the ‘rest camp for the infirm, aged and very young’, as the Germans had told those who had been deemed fit for work and were made to join the right-hand column.

The exhausted people proceeded very slowly. The children, half asleep, clung onto their mothers’ dresses. The infants were held in their father’s arms. Some of the parents were pushing prams. The SS escort remained behind the gate. A notice warned them that access was denied to all unauthorized personnel, including the SS!

The newly arrived immediately noticed the taps in the courtyard. They broke ranks and swarmed around them with their pots and pans in order to quench their terrible thirst. This mad, chaotic rush was hardly surprising: they had had virtually no water for the past five days and what little there had been to drink was stagnant. The SS guards who had now taken over were used to this scene and waited patiently for everyone to fill their vessels. Order could only be restored once everyone had quenched their thirst.

Then the people slowly returned to their ranks. They proceeded another hundred metres or so down a gravel path leading to some iron railings where concrete steps took them underground into a concrete chamber. Before descending the steps they saw a large notice board informing them in German, French, Greek and Hungarian that this was a bathing and disinfecting facility. The sign reassured not only those who suspected nothing buy also those who had been expecting the worst. They went down the steps almost joyfully.

The transport entered a spacious, white-washed, brightly lit chamber, about 200 [50 – FP] metres long. There were columns running down the centre. Around the columns and beneath the walls on either side, benches. Above the benches, numbered coat hangers. Everywhere there were notices in various languages informing the newly arrived that they had to tie their clothes and shoes up in bundles, hang them on the hooks and memorize their coat hanger numbers in order to avoid unnecessary confusion when they returned from the bath.

‘True German sense of order!’ commented those who admired this particularly German attribute. And they were right! This was indeed all done for the sake of order, so that citizens waiting in the Reich did not get shoes that were mixed up. The same concerned the clothes—it was important that the bombed German people received them in good condition.

There 3,000 people in the room. Men, women and children. Then the SS soldiers entered. The command was immediately given: ‘Everyone is to undress.’ And a time limit was set: ‘Ten minutes!’ The old, children, husbands, wives all stood transfixed. The women and girls felt ashamed and looked around at each other helplessly. Perhaps they had misunderstood the German words? But the order was repeated. The voice was now impatient and menacing.

The people expected something very bad was about to happen. Their first instinct was to resist. But after a while they gave in. Jews had grown accustomed to situations when they could be forced to do anything. Slowly they started to take their clothes off. The very old, the cripples and the mentally ill were assisted by members of the Sonderkommando.

Within ten minutes, everyone was naked. Their clothes were hung on the coat hangers, their shoes looked as if they were standing at attention. Everyone had memorized their coat hook number.

Some SS men pushed their way through the dense crowd to a very wide, oak double door at the other end of the room. They opened both doors. The naked people thronged into the next chamber, which was also very brightly lit. The chamber was half the size of the dressing room. There were no benches or clothes hangers. Instead, in the centre, there were some huge, four-sided pillars. These weren’t supporting columns but enormous metal conduits with grates or a sort of latticework down their sides.

Everyone was now inside. A loud command rang out: ‘SS and Sonderkommando leave the room.’ They left, making sure that none of their colleagues remained behind. The doors slammed shut, and then the lights in the shower room went out. Meanwhile, in the courtyard, one could hear the roar of an engine.

A deluxe Red Cross ambulance arrived. An SS and an SDG official (Sanitatsdienstgehilfe – a member of the SS auxiliary health service) got out. The latter held four green tins. They went across the lawn and stepped onto the shower room’s flat, concrete roof, towards some low, concrete chimneys. They approached the first one, and put on gas masks before proceeding to remove the chimney’s heavy concrete cover. One of the tins was opened with a special patented device attached to it and its contents—greenish pellets the size of beans—was poured down the shaft.

The crystals fell down the metal conduit into the underground shower room. They reached the bottom of the drain but did not spill out beyond it. This was Zyklon B. On contact with air it immediately began to vaporise. The gas seeped through the grates: within a few seconds it filled the chamber crammed full of people. Within five minutes the whole transport was dead.

The Red Cross ambulance arrived every time there was a new transport. The gas was brought in from somewhere outside. No full tins were held in the crematorium building. A clever precaution, but not half as clever and cynical as the precaution of making the vehicle delivering the Zyklon B tins with the sign of the International Red Cross!

The two executioners who had delivered the lethal gas waited another five minutes to make sure they had done the job properly. Then they both lit up cigarettes and climbed back into the ambulance. They had just murdered three thousand people!

After twenty minutes the extractor fans were switched on to remove the gas. The doors opened. Some lorries pulled up. One of the Sonderkommando groups started loading the people’s belongings. The separated the clothes from the shoes. They were taken for disinfecting. From there the spoils would be sent to various distribution centres in Germany.

The state-of-the-art ventilators extracted the gas efficiently, but its residues still remained in various crevices in among the dead bodies. The inhaling of even a small quantity would cause choking, even after several hours. That was why another of the Sonderkommando squads, equipped with rubber hoses, entered the chamber wearing gas masks. The room was once again now brightly lit. The prisoners entering it encountered a ghastly sight.

The bodies did not lie scattered on the floor but were tangled, one on top of the other, in an incredibly tall, macabre pile. The gas emitted from the green crystals spread at ground level and then proceeded to rise higher and higher. Thus these unfortunates instinctively clambered up on top of one another to avoid inhaling it. Those highest up were the last to die. Such was the ghastly struggle for life that took place there. Life extended by one or two minutes!

Were they still able to think straight, they would have understood the futility of trampling over their parents, wives and children; but they had stopped thinking, by then they were only driven on by the instinct of self-preservation. I observed that the infants lay at the very bottom, the children lay on top of them, then the women and the old, and on the top the very strongest men.

The corpses were entangled in mortal embraces, with bleeding noses and mouths, bodies scratched in the struggle to reach the top. Their faces pallid and swollen almost beyond recognition.

Despite this, members of the Sonderkommando did in fact frequently manage to identify their close ones in among the cadavers… an encounter I myself greatly dreaded.

There was no work for me there but, nevertheless, I went down to be among the dead. I had a duty towards my people and towards the entire world. If, by some incredible whim of fate, I were to get out of that place alive—though at that time cold reason prohibited me from thinking that way—I could testify to what my own eyes had seen.

The Sonderkomando squad, also wearing rubber boots, stood around the piles of corpses and hosed them down with powerful jets of water. One of the final effects of Zyklon B gassing before death was the emptying of the bowels—all the corpses were soiled.

Once ‘the bathing of the dead’ was done, the Sonderkommando proceeded, with great distress and self-abnegation, to disentangle the dead bodies from the pile. This was arduous work: thongs had to be used to grab the wet, clenched-fisted corpses by the wrists, wrench them from the pyramid and then drag to a lift in the next room. This was a large industrial lift which took twenty to twenty-five bodies at a time. A bell was wrung when the lift was ready to go. The bodies were winched up to the crematorium—the large lift doors opened automatically. There another Sonderkommando squad was already waiting for them. They once again used thongs to clasp the dead by their wrists and drag them over to the concrete floor, down an already slippery path towards one of the fifteen fiery ovens.

The corpses of the old, the young and the children lay in a long row on the concrete floor. The blood oozed out of their noses and mouths, and mingled with the water that continuously flowed from open taps.

Now ensued the next act of profiting from murder. The Third Reich had already appropriated their clothes and footwear. But hair was also a valuable commodity and could be used in the delayed-action detonators of bombs. The dampness or dryness of air does not affect the moment of combustion for human hair. This fact ensures an exact timing of detonation. Thus the corpses’ heads were shaved.

‘Not gold but human work is the fortune of the Third Reich,’ used to be one of the Nazi’s slogans. Yet the truth of the matter was quite different. There were eight members of the ‘Dentists’ Kommando’ standing in front of the ovens. Each held two instruments, or rather tools, in their hands: a chisel and a pair of pliers. They turned the corpses face-up and proceeded to do something appalling: they prised open the mouths and crudely broke off, rather than extracted, all the bridge work and gold teeth.

Members of this Kommando were top-quality dentists and surgeons. Doctor Mengele had summoned these specialists to come forward under the pretence that he was planning to provide the camp with dental care. They had applied convinced that they would be given tasks appropriate to their profession. Instead—like myself—they entered the crematorium hell.

The gold teeth were thrown into a bucket filled with hydrochloric acid, which dissolved away the pieces of meat and bone from the gold. Other items such as gold and platinum chains or rings were put into a special case that was always kept locked: they were thrown in through a slit in the lid.

Gold is a heavy metal; my rough estimate was that every day each crematorium collected 8-10 kilos of gold—naturally it all depended on the transport. There were rich transports and there were poor transports, depending on where they had come from. The transports from Hungary arrived at the Auschwitz ramp already plundered. However, the people on the transports from Holland, the Reich Protectorate (Bohemia and Moravia) and Poland, despite the years they had spent in the ghettos, managed to somehow stow away their jewelry, gold and silver. And that was another way in which the Third Reich enriched itself.

Once the last gold tooth had been extracted, the victims were handed over to the Kommando in charge of the ovens. In teams of three they loaded the corpses onto special steel stretchers on wheels. The heavy, iron oven doors opened automatically. The prisoners pushed the stretchers towards the opening, tipped the corpses into the white-hot interior and immediately retreated. By then the stretchers were already red-hot and two prisoners using rubber hoses had to cool then down with powerful jets of water.

It took twenty minutes for a body to incinerate. The crematorium had fifteen ovens, all working at once. The daily output of a crematorium was five thousand human bodies. All four crematoria had the same output. Every day twenty thousand people entered the gas chambers and eventually ended up in one of the ovens. Every day the souls of thousands of people were released through the crematorium chimneys. All that remained was a small pile of ash in the crematorium courtyard. The human ashes were loaded onto lorries and driven two kilometres to be dumped into the flowing waters of the Vistula [River].