The book I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz was written by Dr. Gisella Perl and published within three years of the end of World War II. The sources used for the book were personal recollections and memories from the life of Dr. Perl from 1940 – 1945. Her story is told in short chapters, like flashbacks in nature. Her purpose in writing this book were made clear in the book’s forward:
This book is a “monument commemorating Nazi bestiality, Nazi sadism, Nazi inhumanity and every individual story, every picture, every description is but a stone in that monument that will stand forever to remind the world of this shameful phase of history and to ask of it vigilance, lest the events of these years be repeated.”
The argument detailing the sadism, brutality and inhumanity of Nazi actions during the Holocaust is an easy one to make. The evidence not only of the author, but of many other survivors is damning. However, while reading her book, I became more fascinated by the ethical dilemmas presented to Dr. Perl and her justifications for her actions during this period of her life.
Dr. Perl describes the confusing collection of arbitrariness that surrounded life in Auschwitz. She puzzled at absurd contradictions like driving newly arrived prisoners selected for cremation to the crematorium in ambulances marked with a red cross. She noted with irony the difference between American beauty parlors and the “beauty parlors” at Auschwitz whose
purpose was the exact opposite that of an American beauty parlor; its purpose was to deprive its unwilling clients of even their last remnants of beauty, freshness, and human appearance. It was one of the typical Nazi Jokes, a creation of their devilish imagination, which served to humiliate their victims and make their short remaining life-span all the more horrible and distressing.[ii]
Not only were situations puzzling, so were the people. Dr. Josef Mengele performed surgery without using any anesthesia, and without intention of sparing the life of the patient, yet insisted on using sterile instruments. He seemed to many observers to derive a perverse pleasure from the selection process and the performance of vivisections on prisoners. A female SS guard named Irma Greze daily inflicted pain, torture and death on prisoners; yet when she demanded an abortion from Dr. Perl at gunpoint, she was terrified of the pain that might be involved in the procedure or recovery.
I found the doctor herself equally as puzzling. Here is one of very few female doctors of her generation who took an oath to do no harm performing over 3000 abortions[iii] without the use of instruments or anesthesia and justifying it with the idea that she was saving the life of the mother who, if she lived until liberation, might be able to have other children. She does not make clear if she discontinued the abortions when pregnancy no longer was punishable by gassing at Auschwitz in the late spring of 1944; two months after her deportation to the ghetto from her home in Sziget and roughly six months prior to her transfer to a prison in Hamburg. She also falsified blood samples of typhus patients to deceive Mengele and save the lives of the patient while continuing to spread the disease throughout the camp, endangering the lives and health of thousands.
I enjoyed reading about her life-renewing turning point at Auschwitz:
I sank down on my bunk, dazed with suffering and fear… but a moment later I was on my feet again. No! I would not let this happen to me! I would come out of the apathy which had enveloped me for the last two months and show the Nazis, show my fellow prisoners that we could keep our human dignity in the face of ever humiliation, every torture…Yes, I was going to remain a human being to the last minute of my life – whenever that would come.[iv]
However, my pride in her triumphant decision was tempered by her lack of defiance to Mengele in the performance of her duties. I was saddened by her denial of human dignity to those she robbed of the opportunity to live while justifying her actions as necessary in order for her to live.
The horrors she endured at Auschwitz seemed idyllic when compared with the conditions when she arrived at Bergen Belsen in 1945. Prisoners entered a smaller camp with no crematorium to burn the dead, so typhus infected dead and dying bodies were piled in heaps. They were left without food, water, and medicine in a lice and typhus infested environment to slowly die. Prisoners became desperate enough for food that they consumed the internal organs of the corpses. Dr. Perl and the prisoners at Bergen Belsen were liberated by the British April 15, 1945. While the soldiers went to work to bury the dead, Dr. Perl led a team of doctors in an attempt to bring as many prisoners back to health as possible. She was given the opportunity to immigrate to Palestine and attempted to locate her husband and son. When she learned that her husband was beaten to death a short time before the liberation and her son was cremated, she made her second attempt at suicide; her first was upon her arrival at Auschwitz almost three years earlier. She would have perished if not for the efforts of Abbé Brand, a French Priest.
The ethical dilemmas faced by the different individuals and groups we have studied this semester are difficult ones. I have been fascinated by the various justifications used for the inhumane and immoral actions during this period of history. I wonder if the justifications used are good enough to satisfy the consciences of those who give them once the danger of looming death has passed. I hope that it would be impossible for any participant in these acts of genocide to walk away from the ethical breeches of the period without any regrets.
I also find myself questioning the assertion that there were no other choices that could be made in these situations. Did Dr. Perl really have “no other choice”? I am sure that she was convinced that other options were not available. Yet, stories are beginning to emerge about those who did stand up to Nazi orders and were not killed for doing so. There was a midwife named Stanislawa Leczynska[v] who worked in three different blocks in Auschwitz. She delivered 3000 babies in 21 months. Although only 1% lived to be liberated, she retained her dignity, as did the mothers who cared for their weak children for the few short months they did live. They made these choices under the same possible conditions of death if their actions were discovered. Making correct moral choices is always an option, but not always the easiest choice to make.When I consider the story of Dr. Gisella Perl, I see instances of her being a victim of Nazi brutality, but I also see ways in which she was also a perpetrator of the deaths of more than 3000 Jews by her own hand. Not even Hitler himself can claim to have killed 3000 Jews with his bare hands. Justifications for their actions used by the perpetrators we have studied this semester are hollow and unsatisfying. For me, the justifications of Dr. Perl for her actions left me conflicted. I see within the doctor a perpetrator of death, a victim of Nazi brutality and a person who did all in her power to save the lives of Jewish women. Which one is it? Can it be all of them together? Was it possible for her to find peace before she died in 1988? Like Alma the Younger, Dr. Perl dedicated the remainder of her life to practicing her profession and helping thousands of women to usher in new life. She dedicated her services in women’s clinics in New York and Israel. Regret for her ethical breeches must have been like a shadow. Redemption is possible, but I doubt that she was able to purge the memories of her interment out of her mind.