(Vienna 1909 – Vienna 2002): One of the few “Righteous Among the Nations” from Austria.
Taken away to a concentration camp for helping others
The Israeli Shoah memorial Yad Vashem honours people who tried to save the lives of imperilled Jews during the Nazi era, selflessly, without taking money or valuables. Ella Lingens is one of the 112 people from Austria to have received this accolade from Israel so far. The historian Erika Weinzierl spoke not without reason of “too few righteous ones”, for there were just a few isolated cases where individuals mustered the courage to oppose the murderous plans of the Nazis.
Ella Lingens and her husband Kurt were in contact with Karl Motesiczky – they all studied medicine – and took care of Jews who were under threat as early as 1938 by hiding them in their apartment, accommodating them elsewhere or helping them to escape. In October 1942 they were betrayed. Kurt Lingens was transferred to a penal battalion. Like Karl Motesicky – who perished at Auschwitz in June 1943 – Ella Lingens was deported to Auschwitz in February 1943 after spending several months in prison.
At Auschwitz, she was put to work as an inmate doctor at the women’s camp in Birkenau – without any experience of medical practice. She witnessed how SS doctors like Josef Mengele exploited the situation to carry out their ruthless experiments on prisoners in order to raise their profiles as doctors. A compelling passage in the autobiography describes her transfer to the Polish block as a punishment, where as a “German” she was initially met with mistrust. However, her self-confidence, and probably also the fact that she learned Polish, enabled her to gain her fellow inmates’ trust. In December 1944, she was transferred to Dachau, where she was liberated. Her son, born in 1939, had survived in Carinthia. He did not recognise his mother when she returned in 1945; her hair had turned completely white.
Her memoirs, published in English in 1948, are among the most important early autobiographical texts by an Auschwitz survivor. According to her son, the journalist Peter Michael Lingens, the book was initially unsuccessful, partly because she was against a lack of nuance from the outset; she showed that the SS guard force did not consist only of monsters and that victims were by no means all heroes and heroines. She did not pull any punches and, in an effort to be objective, also described aspects that were at odds with the simplistic narrative tropes that were starting to become ingrained.
The SS guards at the concentration camp repeatedly asked her why she, as an “Aryan German”, had made herself culpable of the offence of “favouring Jews”, including the head guard Maria Mandl: Whether she would try to get Jews out of the country again if she could? At one point in the memoirs Lingens calls Mandl a “monster” and describes how she struggled to find an answer to that question. To explode with rage or consternation in her presence would have been futile. “To maintain integrity before such people was to cast pearls before swine. ‘There are no Jews left in Vienna,’ I said, evading the question.”
Ella Lingens remained active in the field of remembrance throughout her life, testifying for example at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial and the Austrian Auschwitz trial. During a school visit, a pupil asked her if she would have done the same if she had known the consequences: “I was speechless for a moment. And then I said, ‘I don't know’”.
Ella Lingens, Gefangene der Angst. Ein Leben im Zeichen des Widerstandes, Vienna-Frankfurt am Main 2003.
Ilse Korotin (ed.), „Die Zivilisation ist nur eine ganz dünne Decke …“. Ella Lingens (1908–2002). Ärztin – Widerstandskämpferin – Zeugin der Anklage, Vienna 2010.