During World War II, Maria Stromberger (Figure 1) was employed, by her own choice, as the Oberschwester (head nurse) in the SS (Schutzstaffel, Nazi security Staff) infirmary of Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany's most infamous concentration camps. While there, she risked her life numerous times to save Polish inmates from torture and death. For this, she was made an honorary member of the Austrian Union of Former Prisoners of Concentration Camps,1 but she has otherwise received little recognition for her bravery.
Auschwitz has come to symbolize the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. It was both the largest concentration camp and the largest killing center.2 It is located on the outskirts of Oswiecim, Poland, 50 kilometers (km) southwest of Krakow and 286 km from Warsaw.3 The idea to build a camp in Poland began in 1940 by the SS and the district police because there was no facility adequate to hold the large number of Polish resistance prisoners. The first buildings of what was to become the Auschwitz concentration camp were fourteen one-story army barracks and eight two-story buildings built during World War I as "a seasonal emigrant workers' station for the national employment bureau."4 When the decision was made to enlarge this complex to a concentration camp, 300 Jewish residents of the town of Oswiecim were brought to the site to prepare the foundations for additional buildings.5 In May 1940, thirty German political prisoners were brought to Auschwitz to become functionaries (minor officials) in the camp hierarchy. These men received the first Auschwitz prisoners' serial numbers. The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners arrived on 14 June 1940. Auschwitz became the main concentration camp in Poland and eventually covered 40 square km. By March 1941, there were 10,900 prisoners, most of them Poles. Construction continued with the idea of eventually housing 30,000 prisoners in the main camp and establishing a second camp (Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II) 3 km away for 100,000 more prisoners. By 1943, the main camp, Auschwitz I, held 30,000 prisoners.
Construction began on Birkenau in October 1941, with much of the work done by women who were going to be imprisoned there.6 Portions of Birkenau consisted of long wooden buildings originally designed as stables. With the addition of Birkenau, the prisoner population of Auschwitz was 80,839 in January 1944.7 Auschwitz eventually was comprised of three separate camps-Auschwitz I, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and Monowitz (Auschwitz HI)-and became the largest extermination center for the implementation of the "final solution,"8 the Nazi plan to kill all Jews.
The SS Revier
Eventually there were several hospital blocks for prisoners in Auschwitz I and Birkenau, and the Revier (infirmary) for SS personnel located directly across from Crematorium I in Auschwitz I. The SS Revier was a well-equipped field hospital, staffed by SS physicians, orderlies, and, beginning in 1942, Red Cross nurses.1' From the SS Revier, one was able to look through the windows and see the gas chamber and Crematorium I (three furnaces capable of burning 340 bodies per day10). The nursing personnel of the Revier were able to see the trucks bringing the prisoners to the gas chamber and the SS men climbing on the roof to drop the Zyclon B (hydrogen cyanide) that was released into the gas chamber to kill all those inside.11 A former prisoner who was assigned to work in the gas chamber described the scene from hell on earth:
Two of the SS men took up positions on either side of the entrance door. Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport. We removed suit-cases, rucksacks, clothes and shoes and piled them higgledy-piggledy in a great heap in a corner. …