Among the Jews who survived the Nazi horror of Auschwitz was Gisella Perl, a gynecologist born in Transylvania in 1905. In interviews and in an unsparing memoir, Perl described her efforts to care for her fellow inmates when pregnancy among Jews was punishable by death. The doctor knew that at the Third Reich’s largest and most notorious concentration camp, the systematic execution of pregnant women was often preceded by grisly torture. To save lives, Perl, who the Jerusalem Post dubbed “the Angel of Auschwitz,” made choices that haunted her until her death in 1988, at 83.
Perl’s is one of 40 first-person accounts written by Jewish medical workers in concentration camps and ghettos and collected so far in an anthology-in-progress by Michael Grodin, a School of Public Health professor of health law, bioethics, and human rights. Grodin, founder of BU’s Project on Medicine & the Holocaust and a School of Medicine professor of sociomedical sciences and psychiatry, has been helped by researchers Rachelle Rubin (CAS’12) and Evelyn Liberman (CAS’12, SPH’13). The stuff of darkest nightmares, the texts shed light on a compelling facet of Holocaust studies—the ethical dilemmas faced by Jewish healers who struggled to save their own lives as well as the lives of fellow Jews. The material is, in Grodin’s word, overwhelming. But to read it is to understand that “there’s always the ability to make choices,” says Liberman.
“I worked on rescuers of Jews, on the righteous Gentiles, and I did some work on the perpetrators, the Nazi doctors,” says Grodin, who has been studying medicine in the Holocaust for three decades and has written or cowritten five books, including The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation, with George Annas, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and chair of the SPH department of health law, bioethics, and human rights. “About seven years ago I said, ‘Where are the Jewish doctors?’”
With primary and secondary sources gathered from a wide range of testimonials as well as from archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, their story can now be told.
Grodin, a psychiatrist and a bioethicist, says the project goes beyond bearing witness, venturing deep into the moral belly of the beast, where self-preservation and altruism wrestle.
“It’s Sophie’s Choice, again and again,” Grodin says.
At Auschwitz, Perl refused to let the desperate nature of her surroundings defeat her. “It was up to me to save all the women at Camp C from this infernal fate,” she wrote, referring to a block that housed up to 30,000 women at a time. Perl taped up the expanding abdomens of some young women to hide their pregnancies and performed necessarily crude abortions on as many as 3,000, in the hope that the women’s survival would make possible the birth of more children.
She wrote of the arrival of Yolanda, a poor former patient who had once sought the doctor’s help to conceive. Now, here was Yolanda, transported from Hungary, her belly swollen nearly to term. Perl delivered the baby—a boy—in secret, on the foul floor of the camp toilet, with her bare hands and without a drop of water. Then she put Yolanda in the hospital with pneumonia, not one of the illnesses, like typhus, that was punishable by death under camp edict. At first she hid the baby, whose cries would have brought certain death for him and his mother and would have put an end to Perl’s clandestine efforts to save as many pregnant women as possible. “Then I could hide him no longer,” she wrote. “I took the warm little body in my hands, kissed the smooth face…then strangled him and buried his body under a mountain of corpses waiting to be cremated.”
Through all of this, Perl, who witnessed the infamous Josef Mengele shoving pregnant women into the Auschwitz crematoria, believed that she was doing what medicine was meant to do. She was offering comfort, and, she hoped, saving more lives than she was forced to sacrifice. Stripped of the tools of her trade, from surgical implements and medicine to soap and water, Perl cared for women who “did not know that they would have to pay with their lives, and the lives of their unborn children, for that last, tender night spent in the arms of their husbands.”
Grodin’s team has gathered other stories, from the unspeakably grim to some affording a rare morsel of consolation. In her search for firsthand accounts, Rubin scoured lists of victims and survivors, with thousands identified as doctors or dentists. It will never be known whether, or how, most of them practiced some form of their profession, but it is known how little they had to work with. In 1939 Poland, for example, the Nazis closed down Jewish-run pharmacies; in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews raised money so the Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish authorities, could buy the nine ghetto pharmacies run by Polish Gentiles. But supplies were increasingly meager, and the few hospitals permitted to function did so as bleak parodies of their former selves, without heat, electricity, surgical tools, anesthesia, or sterilization equipment.