Survivor-doctor, in S.F. visit, tells gripping story of saving lives in camps

In the concentration camp Mauthausen, Hungarian oral surgeon Zoltán Frankl stitched together a shattered jaw using electrical wire he found dangling from the wall of his barracks.

Some years later, he operated on the Hungarian minister of defense while surrounded by armed security guards who the doctor believes would have shot him had the operation gone sour.

Such harrowing moments are mixed with humor and poignancy in the 87-year-old Frankl's just-published memoirs, "Whirlwind: The Life and Times of a Hungarian Doctor in the Twentieth Century."

BBC radio producer Piers Plowright, who has interviewed Frankl and encouraged him to publish the book, describes it "as one of the best arguments I know for being human."

After living through World War II, Frankl was sent to North Korea by the Hungarian Communist Party to operate on soldiers injured in the Korean War. There, a bomb collapsed Frankl's bungalow and he had to be dug from beneath the rubble.

By the early 1960s, Frankl and his family had escaped Hungary for London. He established a successful practice on Harley Street, published more than 83 scientific papers and one book, helped found the European Association for Maxillo-Facial Surgery and lectured around the world.

Visiting friends in the Bay Area with his son, Andrew, last week, Frankl spoke of his remarkable life. An engaging man smartly dressed in a suit and tie, Frankl can't seem to express his devotion for medicine in strong enough terms. "I was always in love with my profession," he said. "It was in my blood. It meant everything."

As a prisoner in the camps, Frankl found his profession provided sanity. While other inmates had little to occupy their time, Frankl practiced his craft, both oral surgery and general medicine, from morning till dark.

"It delighted me to be able to work," he writes in his book," to be active in this dreadful environment where the others sat or lay around looking grey and black, crowded on top of one another, waiting lethargically for a portion of coffee, soup or bread."

Frankl, too, was often weak, as his portions were equally as meager as those of his fellow prisoners. At one point, the doctor developed an abscess on his foot on which a colleague had to operate. The colleague didn't think Frankl would survive, but he did, and was soon back to work, leaning on a cane he had fashioned from a piece of wood.

Nothing in fact, could stop Frankl from practicing medicine during the war. Whether in the concentration camps or on forced marches from camp to camp, he made it his mission to help as many people as he could, even when that help could have meant punishment — or death. "I saved a lot of people," he said, "but many of them died. There was no food, no antibiotics, no vitamins."

What's more, except for those medical instruments that Frankl and his colleagues had packed with them when deported, they had few work tools. So they became resourceful.

Frankl, for example, relied heavily on a whetstone he had brought with him when he left home. Every morning at 5:30, he used it to hone his surgical scalpels, which had to be extra sharp since the doctors had to operate without anesthesia. The most common injuries Frankl saw were blistered heels, infected wounds and carbuncles.

But there were times when Frankl cared for patients whose conditions far exceeded those common injuries.

In repairing a fellow prisoner's mandible, which had been shattered when a Nazi shot him in the face, Frankl relied on the electrical wire he had found, as well as a thick piece of aluminum wire the patient's wife had dug from the ground.

He washed the wires, forceps and pliers in alcohol, then burned them. A syringe and needle were sterilized in boiling water. Then, as he had been trained, Frankl attached a splint to the arc of the mandible and held it in place with metal wires placed between the teeth and around the metal splint.

Following liberation a few weeks later, Frankl's patient visited a German oral surgery department, where he was told: "Das hat doch ein Facharzt gemacht!" (This was indeed done by a specialist!)

But for Frankl, being a doctor in the camps meant much more than just tending to patients' physical needs. He also tended to their spirits. "I felt it was my duty to make rounds in the tents, where my mates were lying in feces, urine, stale air," he said. "I went in and told them `don't give up.'"

Frankl kept his own optimism alive by thinking of his wife, Anuci, and young son, Andrew, who were passing the war hidden in a Budapest hospital with families of other Jewish doctors. "Work kept me alive," Frankl said, "and [so did] the will that I will go home."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.