Seweryna Szmaglewska

SEWERYNA SZMAGLEWSKA was born on 11 February 1916 in Przygłów near Piotrków Trybunalski. She studied psychology and literature in Piotrków, Warsaw, and Łódź to become a teacher. After the beginning of German occupation of Poland, she worked in one of the hospitals in Piotrków Trybunalski as a volunteer nurse and was engaged in illegal education. In 1940 she joined a student resistance organization that run an underground library of Polish literature.

For her involvement in the resistance she was arrested by the Gestapo and after some time spent in a prison in Radom, she was transported to Auschwitz in a group of 47 women. On October 6, 1942, she became a prisoner of the Auschwitz camp. She was registered with the number 22090.

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Immediately after escaping from an evacuation transport near Wodzisław Śląski on January 18, 1945, she began to write her memoirs which became one of the first – if not the first – personal books about the experience of Auschwitz, an eloquent and important analysis of the individual experience of modern war. In her book she writes about her personal story, but also tries to depict the universe of the camp – the cruelty of the SS, torture of slave labour and long roll-calls, people on their way to gas chambers, constant humiliation as well as the attempts of saving the human spirit in the world in which there seems to be no future. It was ready for print before the end of 1945, after several months of feverish work. In February 1946 the International Tribunal in Nuremberg included it in the material making up the charges against the Nazi perpetrators and called upon the author to give testimony.

Since 1945, Smoke over Birkenau has been reprinted frequently and widely translated. Critics and three generations of readers praised it for truthfulness, accuracy, and lasting literary merit: as memories of war-time genocide fade with the passage of time, Szmaglewska’s readers are able to stay in touch with extremes of experience which must never be forgotten. “Smoke over Birkenau is not a book about death or hatred,” one critic wrote. “It is a powerful act of the will to live and a profession of the noblest humanism. The victorious idea of life is woven through every page. Maintaining, cultivating, and instilling in oneself the imperative: You must endure! You must live! – a plan carried out unswervingly despite everything.”
Seweryna Szmaglewska died on 7 July 1992.


Author: Auschwitz Memorial and Museum
Editor: Séamus Bellamy
Sponsored by: Michael Frank Family Charitable Fund.

6 thoughts on “Seweryna Szmaglewska

  1. This is such an important project. I will never forget my experience at Auschwitz in Gleiwitz, Poland back in 2014. We can never forget or stop having this conversation. Otherwise we are doomed.

    1. Judith, I looked her up. After the war she moved to the city Łódź, married an architect and moved to Warsaw.
      She wrote a book for youth called “Black feet” about Polish scouts. In 1986 a movie “Black feet” was made based on her book.

  2. I have been visiting the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum years ago. I have not heard about Seweryna’s book that time and now “Smoke over Birkenau” is in my list of next reading books. Many thanks for this information.

  3. This is amazing work you are doing…preserving the precious memory of these victims of violence and discrimination. May their stories move us all to live unity and peace! God bless your work.

  4. Hi I came across this site via my research on Heather Morris & her book Tatooist of Auschwitz. The young girls colorized photo was riviting. That the photog specifically remembered her as well is so touching in the details. I am one of those ppl who is quite aware that the new memory holocaust is going. On in the blank minds of so many younger people who never study the Holocaust & a good deal have Never HEARD of it. So hard to believe but true. It’s staggeringly Ignorant and dangerous to not know this Storey backwards and forwards. I feel the Colorized photos & the bios make them come to life so VIVIDLY. I think it’s great to have the black and white for record but their colorized images just look so TODAY it’s even more shocking and perturbing. GREAT project I am surprised never happened until now —but SO important that the teens KNOW and get in deep to this history. THANK YOU for this project it’s phenomenally brutal but so important.

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