I HAD MANAGED TO LAY MY HANDS ON a copy of the French dictionary, Petit Larousse. With the help of the maps it contained I tried to situate the names of the various localities mentioned in the newspaper reports. Alone in my room, I studied the military situation along the southern and eastern fronts. Heavy footsteps resounded in the hallway. I quickly flipped the pages and looked impatiently towards the door. The crematorium commander came in to inform me that an important commission was arriving at 2:00 P.M. and that I should have the dissecting room ready to receive them.
Before the commission arrived a hearse pulled up, completely closed and draped with black. Inside lay the body of an SS captain. I had it placed on the dissecting table, still dressed, just as it had been delivered to me.
The commission, consisting of high-ranking, impeccably dressed officers, arrived punctually: an SS Medical Corps Colonel, a judge advocate, two Gestapo officers and a court-martial recorder. A few minutes later Dr. Mengele appeared. I offered them seats. They proceeded to hold a short conference, during which the Gestapo officers related in some detail the circumstances of their colleague’s death.
His wounds, caused by a firearm, pointed to either murder or assassination. Suicide was ruled out: the captain’s revolver had still been in his holster at the time his body had been discovered. As for the hypothesis that he had been murdered, the crime, they believed, might well have been committed by a fellow officer, or perhaps some subordinate who had had a grievance against him. But assassination seemed even more likely: it was a fairly common occurrence in the Polish city of Gleiwitz and the surrounding area, where groups of partisans were active.
The purpose of the autopsy was to determine whether the shot had been fired from in front or behind, what the caliber and characteristics of the murder weapon were, and from what approximate distance the crime had been committed. At that time there was no doctor at Gleiwitz qualified as a coroner; that was why the body had been brought to Auschwitz for an autopsy, for Gleiwitz was only 40 kilometers away, and Auschwitz was consequently the nearest spot where an autopsy could be performed under satisfactory conditions.
In my role of observer, I stood at a respectful distance from the group while this discussion was taking place, and waited, with the mute patience expected from all KZ prisoners, for Dr. Mengele’s instructions.
I had never thought that I, a Jewish prisoner of the KZ, would be allowed to sully—by my contact—the body of an SS officer. As for my performing the autopsy, I would never even have dreamed of it, especially since, even when I had been a so-called “free citizen,” racial laws had invariably kept me from giving medical attention to Christians, or, more exactly, to Aryans. So I was quite surprised when Dr. Mengele turned to me and asked me to get on with the dissection.
The first job, far from a simple one, was to undress the body. Two men would be needed to remove his boots alone. I therefore requested permission to call in a couple of assistants. While the body was being undressed, the members of the commission became involved in a heated discussion and paid hardly any attention to me and my helpers.
As I made the initial incision I found myself fighting off an attack of stage fright and a feeling of inferiority. I cut the skin of the skull and, with a quick, precise movement, turned half the skin down over the face and the other half over the back of the neck. The following step was more difficult: it consisted of sawing the skull and removing the brainpan. Almost mechanically I followed, in due order, the prescribed steps.
It was now time to examine the two wounds caused by the bullet. If it had gone all the way through the body there would of course be two holes, one at the point of entrance, the other at the point of exit. In the majority of cases the physician has no trouble telling which is which: the place where the bullet enters the body is always smaller than the point where it emerges. But in the present case there were two holes, exactly the same size, one below the left nipple and the other close to the upper edge of the shoulder blade.
The matter was far from clear, and therefore all the more interesting. What could have caused the uniformity of the two wounds? Dr. Mengele was of the opinion that there might well have been two bullets fired, one from in front and the other from behind. This could easily have been the case if the officer had fallen after the first shot and been hit by the second while he was lying on the ground. Neither bullet went all the way through the body, thus explaining the two identical wounds. This theory sounded plausible enough, but remained to be verified. To do this I had to study the path of the bullet, or bullets. In doing so, I found that the bullet which entered the body below the left nipple pierced the heart, then grazed the left extremity of the spinal column and continued upward at an angle of 35° till it reached the upper edge of the shoulder blade, a tiny portion of which it had crushed before leaving the body. There could be no doubt about it; only one bullet had been fired, and that from in front of the victim, for the path of the bullet moved upward and from front to back at the aforementioned angle of 35°. The reason the two holes were the same size was that the bullet had grazed the spinal column and chipped off a section of the shoulder blade; considerably slowed by these obstacles, it had left the body after most of its energy had been expended. Besides, it is doubtful that anyone would aim downward at an angle of 35° when shooting. To do so would require the murderer to raise his arm well above his head. So it seemed obvious to me that the bullet had been fired from in front, that the weapon had been pointed upward from the horizontal at the time of firing, that the shot had been made at close quarters and that, in all probability, the killer had been prevented by some intervening obstacle from raising his gun any higher. But this was a matter for the inquest to decide.
I saw that my remarks satisfied the members of the commission, for they announced that in the future all cases requiring an autopsy would be sent here. They found this a very satisfactory arrangement. Thus I became, with this one autopsy, the coroner for the KZ in charge of all matters pertaining to forensic medicine in the Gleiwitz district.