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Maria Orwid

Maria Orwid

To survive. And what then?

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Among other things we wanted to understand how these experiences [in the Auschwitz concentration camp] influenced clinical symptoms of ex-prisoners and their later life in freedom, and what let them survive in those dehumanising conditions. Faith? No. Thinking about family? No. That thought was actually a burden, as it was always accompanied by fear for the loved ones. From that point of view it was easier for those who had no families. It turned out that apart from luck and coincidence, the most important thing was help from other people. A slice of bread, a good word, encouragement to force oneself to endure, to make the simplest things like washing oneself… Quite recently in Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness I found all those phenomena of camp life that we have described in our doctoral dissertations on the basis of the studies we have conducted. Although Kertész has no scientific tools, although the only person he talked to was himself, many years after the war, with the use of literary language he showed the deepest truth about camp and post-camp experiences of a young man. That is why in my opinion his book is a masterpiece …

I remember once talking to a charming gentleman, ex-prisoner, who was surprised why such a young girl is asking him about his tragic experiences, when instead she could be sitting in a café with friends. When I told him I was Jewish, he said: “That is another matter. In that case we’re in the same boat.”


In camp conditions a slice of bread given to the weaker one would not always save life. It was by all means important but sometimes a word was even more meaningful. A word uttered perhaps in passing could determine whether someone gained motivation to live and released in themselves the will to fight for it or whether they would give up, become a Muselmann and eventually die. Finding another person is probably nowhere as important as in the reality of a concentration camp.

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Maria Orwid

Née Pfeffer (23 July 1930, Przemyśl – 9 Feb 2009, Kraków), outstanding doctor of psychiatry, pioneer of family psychiatry and therapy, founder of the first Children and Adolescents’ Psychiatry Clinic in Poland, member of the research team exploring the psychological affects of the concentration camps on former inmates – one of world’s first research projects on post-camp trauma, and founder of the therapy program for Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation of Survivors. After the war, which she survived with her mother on “Aryan Papers” in Lviv, she studied medicine at Medical Academy in Kraków, where she later co-created Polish psychiatry. Considered Antoni Kępiński’s successor, she gained recognition in world psychiatry circles with her work. Actively participated in Kraków’s scientific and artistic life. Her life story, as told to Katarzyna Zimmerer and Krzysztof Szwajca, was published in a book called Przeżyć… i co dalej? (Survive… and then what? 2006).
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