“Remembering Olga Lengyel and Five Chimneys


Is it possible that a Holocaust memoir could be written too early? That was a question hovering  over a panel on April 6, commemorating Olga Lengyel, author of the 1946 memoir Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz. The book, one of the first published accounts of Auschwitz, did not receive much recognition until decades later. 

“One of the tragedies of Five Chimneys is that it appeared too early,” said Robert Jan van Pelt, scholar and chief curator of the exhibit Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. “There was not yet a word for Holocaust survivor. Shortly after the war there were many accounts,” he said, the most notable by Primo Levi in 1946. “But by the end of the 1940s, interest about the concentration camps disappeared … not to be revived for another 20-25 years.”

The panel, a virtual event convened by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI) on the 20th anniversary of Lengyel’s death, was moderated by Dr. Sara Horowitz, Professor of Comparative Literature in Jewish Studies at York University and an expert on women in the Holocaust. The other panelists were David Field, Chairman of TOLI, and Nancy Fisher, a member of the Museum’s Board of Directors who conducted a five-hour video interview with Lengyel in 1998, three years before her death. 

While the world had begun hearing stories of the “final solution,” the reality had not yet sunk in when Lengyel wrote her memoir. “It was written during the chaos of the moment, when survivors were dislocated, in transit, attempting to rebuild their lives,” said Dr. Horowitz.

It was only in 1979 that William Styron’s critically acclaimed book and movie Sophie’s Choice brought belated recognition to Olga. Styron had read her memoir, saying it “haunted him for years.” His apparent inspiration was Olga’s self-incriminations, for making choices under Nazi duress which, she believed, resulted in the murder of her family. “Of course,” said van Pelt, “this was a ‘choiceless choice’…she had no agency whatsoever to save them in that situation.”

Lengyel’s book was also critically important for another reason. “The memoir opens up questions as to how we understand women’s experiences during the Holocaust,” said Dr. Horowitz. The danger posed to pregnant women, who if discovered, would be immediately murdered was something Lengyel wrote about in grim detail based on her experience as a nurse in the infirmary. As Dr. Horowitz observed, “Women were faced with a choice: do you allow both the mother and child to be killed, or do you preserve the life of the mother?”

David Field, TOLI Chairman,  reflected on the legacy of Olga Lengyel and her dedication to education. He spoke with first-hand knowledge, remarking that “her main reason for survival was to tell the world what happened in the Holocaust so that it would never ever happen again.” After immigrating to the US, Lengyel set up the Memorial Library and Art Collection of the Second World War with the intent to develop an education non-profit. In 2014, TOLI was established with the mission to provide professional development for educators to teach about the Holocaust and apply its lessons to the present day. Over 2500 teachers in the US and about 1200  in Europe are alumni of its intensive seminars, said the TOLI Chairman. 

Nancy Fisher spoke about her five-hour interview with Lengyel in 1998. Of particular interest, she said, was a sleeveless black sweater Olga had, her only possession from Auschwitz. The sweater is marked by three distinct red circles which signified the freedom of movement she was allowed to have between the infirmary and barracks, but also the ease with which camp guards could shoot and kill her. She had it on when she escaped from the “death march” at the end of the war. The sweater will be on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.


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)