Olga Lengyel: A Continuing Legacy


Since 2007, Holocaust survivor and author Olga Lengyel’s former home in New York City has been the site of a summer seminar for teachers offered by The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), a professional development organization for teachers across the United States and overseas. For 11 days, middle school, high school, and college faculty in TOLI’s capstone seminar in New York meet around what is in actual fact “Olga’s table,” transforming the dining room into a space for meaningful professional exchange as they hear from survivors and scholars and share best practices for teaching about the Holocaust. Participating teachers return to their classrooms with new ideas and fresh perspectives, helping to fulfill Lengyel’s desire that her legacy be used to further Holocaust education.

Lengyel’s home in New York is where the TOLI seminars have come into being, but before her death in 2001 it was also where she wrestled with the “insomnia” caused by her memory of the Holocaust, as she describes in her video testimony for the USC Shoah Foundation (1998). In particular, she was tormented by a decision she made upon her arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Born in Cluj, a city in the northwest of current day Romania, mother to two young sons, married to a doctor and possessed of medical training herself, Lengyel was deported along with her family in 1944. As she recounts in Five Chimneys: A Woman’s True Story of Auschwitz (1947/1995), the memoir she wrote immediately after the war, during the brutal selections performed as prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, Lengyel asked that her mother and her older son be allowed to join “the children and aged” in hopes that this would protect them (24). Her request resulted not in their greater safety but rather their immediate death in the gas chambers. Overwhelming guilt plagued Lengyel for the rest of her life, and she ultimately felt that she had “condemned her entire family to death” (1998).

If elements of Lengyel’s wrenching decision seem familiar, it may be because Five Chimneys served as an important source of inspiration for author William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice (1979). Her memoir has also been recognized by scholars for its ability to offer greater understanding of women’s experience during the Holocaust, as demonstrated by its inclusion in Carol Rittner and John K. Roth’s critical volume Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (1993) which aimed to rectify an absence of women’s narratives in the growing field of Holocaust studies. Lengyel’s perspective was sharpened by her work in an infirmary, which brought her in close proximity to the mental and physical anguish of other women in the camp. Five Chimneys presents unflinching descriptions of women’s lives and deaths in Auschwitz and offers insight into some of the gendered dimensions of their experience, including specific forms of suffering, degradation and torture inflicted on women by the Nazis; the chilling consequences of pregnancy and childbirth at Auschwitz; and the small and large ways women found to resist, from trying to keep clean (and therefore healthier) to more outright acts of rebellion.

In Five Chimneys Lengyel writes that she found a strong sense of purpose in aiding the resistance while she was at Auschwitz; she also repeatedly stresses the urgency of wanting to live in order to tell her story as an indictment and a warning. Throughout her memoir, she expresses frustration at her own and others’ inability or unwillingness to see and confront the cruelty and violence that endangered the lives of so many, and she sought to prevent that from happening again. After the war, Lengyel traveled across multiple continents and finally to New York City, where she founded an institution dedicated to the memory of World War II. The TOLI seminars, which have now been offered not only in New York but in twenty other states and ten countries across Europe, have emerged from her commitment. Today, educators within TOLI’s network continue to honor Lengyel’s story, and by teaching about the Holocaust, genocide, and social justice, to help their students build a better future. ■


 Jennifer Lemberg is the Associate Director of U.S. Programs at The Olga Lengyel Institute of Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI).

*Jennifer’s article, “Olga Lengyel: A Continuing Legacy” was part of a special supplement published annually by the Columbia Holocaust Education Commission and featured in newspapers across South Carolina. The theme of the 2021 supplement was Women of the Holocaust. The issue reached close to 2 million households across the state and can be accessed in full here.


For more information about The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), please contact info@tolinstitute.org

TOLI is located at 58 East 79th Street in Manhattan. (get directions)