Profiles In Nursing

Maria Stromberger (1898–1957) – Austrian Nurse Who Risked Her Life to Aid Auschwitz Prisoners

She risked her life to ease suffering, then after the war testified against the Nazi guards

Groups of people in a concentration camp are behind barbed wire fencing and wearing striped uniforms

Moments of crisis can challenge the courage and ethics of any nurse, but we may all pray that our strength of character never faces the kind of tests Austrian nurse Maria Stromberger endured during her two and half years practicing at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.

Living Nightmare

The atrocities of the Nazi regime began early, but even after the outbreak of World War II, many citizens of the Reich continued to turn a blind eye, whether out of self-interest, fear or incredulity. Nazi administrators took pains to suppress the worst crimes, making them easier for non-victims to ignore or dismiss. As she testified after the war, Maria Stromberger, a 44-year-old Red Cross nurse originally from Sankt Veit, Austria, could not quite believe the sinister rumors from the East.

In July 1942, she volunteered for a new assignment in an infirmary in Königshütte, Poland, hoping to see for herself. In the infirmary’s infectious disease ward, Stromberger heard fragmentary but chilling firsthand evidence from two German-speaking typhoid patients, recently transferred to Königshütte after being released from Auschwitz. Feverish and “in the grip of unimaginable angst,” the two men  “shouted out terrible things in their deliriums,” raving about the horrors they had witnessed at the camp.

Stromberger might have dismissed this as nothing more than fever dreams, but when the two patients recovered, they swore her to secrecy. “Nurse, if you value your life and also our lives, you will never mention these things,” they implored her. “They are based on the truth.”

Walking into Hell

Realizing that what she had heard might only be the tip of a monstrous iceberg, Stromberger decided she had to investigate further. In October 1942, she became head nurse of the SS infirmary at Auschwitz. In a letter to her sister, Karoline Gräbner, Stromberger wrote, “I want to see how things really are; perhaps I can do some good there.”

Stromberger nearly walked away before she even started. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess prohibited most photography at the camp and required functionaries and even nurses to sign a host of secrecy and nondisclosure agreements.

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When she arrived, Stromberger could not ignore the “inhuman howling and screaming” taking place around her. According to Edek (Eduard) Pys, a Polish prisoner who worked in the infirmary’s kitchen, she was badly shaken after witnessing an inmate commit suicide by throwing himself against an electrified fence.

Stromberger befriended Pys and became determined to help. “Thanks to him, she crossed over completely to our side,” recalls Artur Radvansky, a Jewish inmate from Prague who had been transferred to Auschwitz shortly after Stromberger arrived. “She scrounged up medicines for us, or also tried to save our relatives and friends.”

Small Kindnesses

Her help started with small things, such as allowing inmates to steal and distribute food intended for the SS guards, as well as the guards’ leftovers. On at least one occasion, she took responsibility for food the inmates were trying to smuggle out, further establishing her trustworthiness.

Although she was not permitted to treat prisoners, Stromberger did so anyway, which was no small kindness. Pys, whom she nursed through a fever in late 1942, later explained that to fight the typhoid epidemic in the camps, “both the lice that carried this illness and the patients were sent to the gas.”

This fear of typhus occasionally worked to the prisoners’ advantage. The guards were so afraid of contaminated linen that dirty laundry could be used to conceal contraband. Stromberger even used the threat of dirty linen to keep the guards out of a stall in the infirmary restroom where the feverish Pys was resting.

Inevitably, her superiors noticed disapprovingly. Her supervisor, physician Eduard Wirths, warned her that she was being “too motherly and humane about the prisoners,” reminding her that the prisoners “are not criminals, but they are our enemies.”

Stromberger took the warning in stride, telling Wirths, “Please remember that I am neither an SS man nor a guard. I am a nurse, and as such I am not duty bound to act the way they do.” Wirths was apparently impressed with her courage and later took steps to protect her from official reprisals.

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Throughout 1943 and 1944, Stromberger’s assistance to the prisoners became riskier. She aided Polish resistance leaders within the camp by smuggling information, letters, packages and even weapons, sometimes working with the few SS functionaries who were sympathetic to the prisoners.

Bearing Witness

These surreptitious activities took their toll on Stromberger’s health. She eventually spent weeks in the hospital herself, suffering from polyarteritis nodosa, a form of vasculitis. Her hospitalization was followed by accusations that she had become a morphine addict, which led to her being transferred away from Auschwitz. She never returned.

Stromberger was puzzled and irate at the charges of addiction, which she said were baseless. However, at least one of the prisoners later concluded that it was actually a stratagem concocted by Wirths to get Stromberger out of the camp before her support of the resistance was exposed.

Even if it was not a trick, the transfer may have saved her life. After the war ended, the French occupation authority arrested Stromberger — not for her support of the resistance, but on suspicion that she had helped to murder prisoners by injecting them with phenol. She spent six months in a prison in Brederis, Austria, before Pys and another former Auschwitz inmate secured her release in late 1946.

Months later, Stromberger testified at the Nuremburg trial of former commandant Rudolf Hoess, who went to the gallows in April 1947. She later testified against Claus Clauberg, a gynecologist who had performed grotesque, sadistic experiments on the camp’s female prisoners. Clauberg spent most of the rest of his life in a Soviet prison.

“Empty and Exhausted”

The scars of Stromberger’s wartime experience ran deep, and she was never able to return to nursing.

“I feel so empty and exhausted and have no joy,” she wrote to Pys while imprisoned in 1946. “My wealth of love I have, it seems to me, scattered in Auschwitz. I fulfilled my purpose. What more could I do? You know, it’s so hard to live without illusions, but what should I do?” Stromberger worked for the last decade of her life in a textile factory, living in seclusion. She died suddenly in 1957 after a dental procedure.

It was not until decades after her death that there was any official acknowledgement of her extraordinary courage. Her achievements were little-known in the U.S. until Susan Benedict, CRNA, DSN, FAAN, published an article about her in the February 2006 issue of Nursing History Review.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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