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July 27, 2013

Five Chimneys

by Anne Paddock

We lived to resist and we resisted to live.

Five Chimneys was written in 1947 by Olga Lengyel, a 38-year old survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who wrote the book as a memoir; a personal account of the year she spent in a concentration camp. In 1944, Olga was living in a small city in Transylvania (which was part of Hungary at the time) with her husband, Miklos Lengyel, a surgeon, their two sons, Arvad (11) and Thomas (9), and her parents when they were told they were being deported to Germany.

After 6 days in a cattle car (designed to hold eight horses) with 90 other people, they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau (2 camps separated by a railroad) and were immediately sorted: older adults and children to the left (Birkenau) while younger adults to the right (Auschwitz). Unbeknownst to them at the time, Birkenau was an extermination camp while Auschwitz was a work camp. Those on the left were immediately taken to the gas chambers and crematory while those on the right were deemed fit to work, at least for a short period of time before most died or were eventually sent to the gas chambers, also.

9781258116613_p0_v1_s260x420Olga survived the initial selection and was eventually assigned to work in the camp hospital which helped ensure her survival although she faced the threat of death daily. There was the twice daily roll calls when they were forced to stand at attention or kneel with their hands in the air for hours waiting for the “daily selection”; there was disease, insufficient food and water, and arbitrary punishments for non-defined infractions, all of which were inflicted on the inmate population to break them down and reduce them to “the lowest moral level.”  When Olga is about to give up, a patient tells her:
You have no right to throw away your life. If this existence has no more attraction for you, personally, you must go on if only to try to relieve the sufferings of the others around you….The essential thing is to have a goal, a purpose.
And, so Olga joins the underground resistance and finds a reason to live, despite the obvious danger in participating in such activities. In explaining why she decided to risk death, Olga writes:
…death and the so-called danger of death had a different meaning for us, who lived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Death was always with us, for we were always eligible for the daily selections. One nod might mean the end for any of us. To be late for roll call might mean only a slap in the face, or it might mean, if the S.S. became enraged, that he took out his Luger and shot you. As a matter of fact, the idea of death seeped into our blood. We would die, anyway, whatever happened. We would be gased, we would be burned, we would be hanged or we would be shot. The members of the underground at least knew that if they died, they would die fighting for something.

Reading Five Chimneys is like sitting across from a war survivor and listening to a horror story as told by a witness. Written 66 years ago, Five Chimneys is not a great literary work whose sentence structure awes the reader; nor is the book known for its descriptive passages or character development. Instead, Five Chimneys is an important book because of what is written, not how it is written.

Initially published in French in 1947, the 212-page book was translated into English in 1995. Divided into 27 short chapters, Five Chimneys sometimes seems to be a series of related short stories about life and death in a concentration camp and the lengths that people will go to kill one another and the lengths that others will go to survive.  Towards the end of the book, Olga becomes introspective and writes:

Fundamentally, is man good or bad? At Birkenau one was tempted to reply that he was unalterably bad. But this was a confirmation of the Nazi philosophy; that humanity is stupid and evil and needs to be driven with the cudgel. Perhaps the greatest crime the “supermen” committed against us was their campaign, often successful, to turn us into monstrous beasts ourselves. Useless discipline, humiliations, inhuman privations, the constant menace of death, and finally, a sickening promiscuity.

I want the world to read and to resolve that this must never, never be permitted to happen again.

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