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Everyday Life: Roles, Motives, and Choices During the Holocaust

Medical Care, Nazism, and the Holocaust

This collection explores the challenges faced by medical providers with the rise of the Nazi regime and the onset of the Holocaust. Oral histories, photographs, diaries, and other primary sources illustrate how healthcare professionals throughout Europe responded amid violence and upheaval. These materials address the experiences of doctors, nurses, and others providing medical care in a variety of contexts from 1933 to 1945.

While their ability to treat those in need was often severely limited, medical providers' choices and actions had an enormous impact on millions of lives during World War II and the Holocaust. The German medical profession influenced the development of Nazi racial policies, and many doctors and nurses became complicit in Nazi medical experiments or the regime’s so-called "euthanasia" program. During the years of Nazi rule, medical care could become a form of opportunism, a means for survival, or a method of resistance. This collection explores how doctors, nurses, and others devoted to healing encountered profound moral and ethical dilemmas as a direct result of Nazi policies. 

For those providing and seeking medical care, the priorities and possibilities changed drastically in Nazi Germany and territories under its control. Shortly after rising to power in 1933, the Nazi regime began reorganizing Germany's cultural, social, and professional organizations to redefine who belonged to German society and who was marginalized and excluded. The Nazis swiftly reformed professional medical associations, and membership became limited to non-Jewish Germans whom the regime determined held pro-Nazi political views.1 This photograph of a German Red Cross ceremony reveals how the regime politicized and militarized such organizations while using them to spread Nazi propaganda. Medical associations often began valuing political conformity more than medical knowledge.2 In this climate, ideologically acceptable "Aryan" medical providers like nurse Anna Hölzer were promoted past the limits of their abilities until their poor medical skills became impossible to ignore.

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The so-called "Aryanization" of the German medical profession created many opportunities for pro-Nazi, non-Jewish physicians when the regime began forcing Jewish doctors from their jobs.3 For example, authorities gave Dr. Erwin Schattner two weeks' notice to vacate his practice in Vienna so a non-Jewish physician could take his place. The diary of Dr. Aron Pik illustrates how Jewish doctors in German-occupied Eastern Europe were often removed from their jobs and subjected to public humiliation and violence. 

Doctors imprisoned within the Nazi camp system or confined to Jewish ghettos faced a range of dire health problems resulting from Nazi policies.  Malnutrition, overcrowding, and unhygienic conditions helped contagions spread easily. Epidemics of diseases like typhus became commonplace, and the indifference and hostility of Nazi authorities undermined efforts to properly treat them. An oral history with Avraham Tory reveals how German authorities' murderous fear of epidemics forced Dr. Moses Brauns to begin treating contagious diseases in the Kovno ghetto in total secrecy. 

Insufficient resources were another constant concern within camps and ghettos. Food, medicine, and medical equipment were always in short supply. The diary of Dr. Janusz Korczak illustrates how a lack of medicine and food contributed to a severe decline in the health of the children under his care in the Warsaw ghetto. Prisoner doctors within the Nazi camp system were frequently forced to treat their patients and perform surgeries without anasthesia or basic hygienic supplies.

Working in camp hospitals offered certain advantages nevertheless, and practicing medicine could itself become a means of survival for the persecuted. In a panel discussion on medicine within the Nazi camp system, Dr. Leo Eitinger describes how his training as a physician gave him a sense of purpose, a firm moral code, and an inner strength that sustained him. An oral history with Marie Ondrášová reveals how the young Czech Romani woman's work in the camp hospital spared her from the most brutal experiences of camp life. Ondrášová was even able to protect her family by bringing them into the camp dispensary during deportations

Others used their medical skills to survive while living underground. Photographs of Lala Grunfeld show the young Polish Jewish woman working in the Warsaw offices of a German dentist and SS officer. Living under a false identity, Grunfeld applied the skills she learned there when she began serving as an underground medic for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The combination of medical skills and false documents helped other Jewish medical providers to survive underground life during the years of the Nazi regime, as well. The false identity documents of Dr. Mordechai Tenenbaum still identify him as a surgeon. His family used his status as a doctor to reunite after he was arrested, and he continued to practice medicine illegally in exchange for food for his family. 

The Nazis' persecution of Jews created unique problems for non-Jewish medical providers. The diary of Dr. Maria Madi reveals how some non-Jewish doctors struggled to decide whether or not to fill the vacant positions created by the persecution of their Jewish colleagues. Other non-Jewish physicians, however, displayed far less sympathy for the plight of Jews during the Holocaust. In an oral history with Dr. Maurice Rossel, the Swiss physician uses antisemitic stereotypes to dismiss his role in the Nazis' coverup of their crimes at the Theresienstadt camp.4 Other medical providers found themselves overwhelmed by the consequences of Nazi anti-Jewish policies. An oral history with Marcelle Duval reveals how the French nurse and her overworked colleagues struggled to provide medical care to the thousands of Jews imprisoned during the Vélodrome d'Hiver (Vél d'Hiv) roundup in Paris. Neither German nor French authorities had made arrangements for food or sanitary facilities for so many people during the mass arrests and deportations, and Duval determined that she and her fellow nurses could provide only limited aid.

The Nazi regime's policies also challenged the established roles of medical providers and made it impossible to maintain traditional practices. For example, an oral history with Ruth Elias reveals how an anonymous female physician working in the prisoner hospital at Auschwitz provided Elias with the means to euthanize her suffering newborn. Although her medical oath prevented her from doing it herself, the doctor urged Elias to administer a lethal injection to her child. Physicians' commitment to healing could be difficult to maintain, as demonstrated by the manuscript of Dr. Douglas M. Kelley. An American psychiatrist assigned to determine if high-ranking Nazis were fit to stand trial after the collapse of Nazi Germany, Kelley befriended his subjects, betrayed their trust, and publicized sensationalistic accounts of his psychological profiles of the leading Nazis imprisoned at Nuremberg.5

The Nazi regime and the Holocaust confronted medical providers with countless ethical dilemmas and posed extreme challenges to their ability to treat patients. Within the constraints of the Nazi system, the possibilities of providing proper medical care to those in need were severely limited. The primary sources in this collection demonstrate how a diverse array of medical providers responded when encounters with the Nazi regime disrupted their lives and upended their established roles.6

Many German medical professionals joined the Nazi Party or its affiliated professional organizations in the years of the Nazi regime, and German doctors were especially overrepresented. Nearly half of all German physicians joined the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1945. For more on this disproportionately high percentage, see Michael H. Kater, "Criminal Physicians in the Third Reich: Toward a Group Portrait," in Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi Germany: Origins, Practices, Legacies, edited by Francis R. Nicosia and Jonathan Huener (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002): 77–92.

The relationship between the Nazi regime and medical science was extremely complex. Many German doctors became complicit in Nazi crimes, such as human experimentation, forcible sterilizations, or the murders of individuals with disabilities. At the same time, however, Nazi leadership also promoted public health initiatives and launched campaigns against cancer and quack medicine. For more on the complicated relationship between Nazism and medical science, see Robert N. Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999). 

For more on the so-called "Aryanization" of the German medical profession, see Michael H. Kater, "The Persecution of Jewish Physicians," Doctors under Hitler (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989): 177–221. 

Rossel was a representative of the International Red Cross responsible for investigating conditions within the ghetto, but he failed to realize that the Nazis had heavily stage-managed his inspection tour.

The subsequent "Doctor’s Trial" at Nuremberg (1946-1947) not only established the guilt of several individual German doctors, but it also resulted in the creation of international medical ethics standards known as the "Nuremberg Code."

For further resources on the topic of medical science and the Nazi regime, see this online Bibliography on Nazi Racial Science.

All 18 Items in the Medical Care, Nazism, and the Holocaust Collection

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