New Book Details Scope of Jewish Medical Resistance During the Holocaust

Posted on: September 30, 2014 Topics: ethics & human rights, health law, holocaust

In defiance of Nazi barbarism, and despite being stripped of their rights to practice medicine during the Holocaust, many Jewish doctors mounted a quiet rebellion of healing against overwhelming odds and ethical challenges.

Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust, a new book edited by Dr. Michael Grodin, chronicles the mostly unknown moral and physical struggles faced by physicians trying to provide care and comfort amid the depredation of war. Grodin, a professor of health law, bioethics and human rights at the BU School of Public Health, led a team of researchers that sifted through thousands of archived records, many of them harrowing first-hand accounts of life during wartime.

Professor Michael Grodin reviews background material in his office. (Photo: Mike Saunders)

Professor Michael Grodin reviews background material in his office. (Photo: Mike Saunders)

Grodin’s research found that many of the medical professionals shared an ability to survive under circumstances where, all too often, people had only a moment to live or die. “This is about the ability to resist by retaining one’s Jewish tradition and the connection to the tradition. It’s a form of spiritual resistance and a vital aspect of their survival,” Grodin says.

Grodin, a psychiatrist and medical ethicist at Boston Medical Center, has researched the subject of medicine and the Holocaust for nearly 40 years, and has edited or co-edited seven books.  For Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust, published by Berghahn Books, Grodin assembled primary and secondary source materials from two dozen noted Holocaust scholars and Jewish physicians to provide a comprehensive overview of this vastly underreported aspect of the war.

With the Nazi war machine advancing through Europe, and the planned eradication of the continent’s Jewish population well underway, Jewish physicians fought to promote public health in ghettos and concentration camps as a way of slowing the march toward extermination. By forcing most of Eastern Europe’s Jewish population into overcrowded ghettos, the Nazis tried to eliminate Jews with a lethal combination of starvation, poor sanitary conditions, and disease.

“In response, in all of the major ghettos, a concerted effort was made to maintain public health,” Grodin writes. “The sentiment was that if public health could be maintained in spite of the Nazis, the people in the ghettos could perhaps survive the war.”

Doctors and nurses established campaigns to prevent epidemics and set up systems of hygiene monitoring. They spread medical knowledge and sanitation protocols through lectures and informal meetings. They tried earnestly, despite the horrors surrounding them, to maintain a high level of professional and compassionate caregiving that often put their own lives at risk.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, doctors conducted research on the diseases caused by famine, even as they, along with their patients, starved to death.

As Rabbi Joseph Polak, a child survivor of the Holocaust and emeritus director of the BU’s Hillel House, writes: “On a planet where hunger, filth, and cruelty reigned, kindness was the highest form of resistance, and this is what so many physicians, themselves victims of the Holocaust, reliably practiced, even when their own futures hung from a thread.”

Grodin’s research team collected first-hand accounts from medical professionals active during the war, many of whom survived the camps or escaped the ghetto and worked with resistance fighters. Their stories emerged from years of archival research at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the world’s major centers for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust.

In some cases, doctors were compelled to decide – often in seconds — whether their patients would be better served by a gentle death from euthanasia instead of the horrific fate that awaited them at the camps. This was especially true for the elderly, the infirm, and children too young to work.

A heart-rending account by Adina Blady Szwajger, a Jewish pediatrician in the Warsaw Ghetto who died in 1993, describes the frantic ministrations in the ghetto’s hospital as German soldiers rounded up patients for the death camps:

“We went to the first floor where the families of staff were. And so that grey-haired lady smiled at me and stretched out her arm. The sister put on the clamp. And I injected the morphine into her vein. And then I saw a few more people who didn’t have the strength to move.

“I asked Mira what we should do and she said: “Help them, surely.” So we helped them, too.

“When I left the room, I held out my hand and got two large containers of morphine. I took the morphine upstairs…we took a spoon and went to the infants’ room. And just as, during those two years of real work in the hospital, I had bent over the little beds, so now I poured this last medicine in those tiny mouths. Only Dr. Margolis was with me. And downstairs there was screaming because…the Germans were already there, taking the sick from the wards to the cattle trucks.”

While researching “Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust,” Grodin began to identify a related project that highlighted these individual moral and ethical dilemmas. Doctors in ghettos and camps often sought the guidance of rabbis, who engaged in their own form of Jewish spiritual resistance during the Holocaust. Rabbinic deliberation and consultation helped doctors decide medical questions of sterilization, contraception, abortion, suicide, and other critical issues.

“We know the end of the story, but they – the doctors, nurses and rabbis – had no way to know. They thought that would be able to survive the ghetto, and some had premonitions of what was happening, but who could have thought the Nazis would take six million Jews and try to murder an entire race of people,” Grodin says. “At what point do you resist, and how do you resist? These were ‘choiceless choices.’ They tried to do the best they could in an impossible situation.”

This ongoing project, “Rabbinic Medical Responsa During the Holocaust,” involves translating, categorizing, and analyzing the legal opinions the rabbis developed in the face of torture and genocide. Grodin, director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust, a joint project of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at BU and the Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights at SPH, will be lecturing on the topics at a series of talks throughout October, including a meeting of the BU religious studies faculty on Oct. 8, and at Harvard Medical School on Oct. 14.

Contributed by Mike Saunders
Video by Devin Hahn, Bostonia

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