Claude Lanzmann's 1985 documentary film, Shoah, was groundbreaking for its use of survivor testimony and contemporary footage from sites of mass murder.1 Unlike other filmmakers before him, Lanzmann refused to feature footage taken by perpetrators. Although Lanzmann focused on recording survivors' perspectives, there is a noticeable lack of women's voices in the final cut of the film.2 The outtakes of the film, however, contain many oral histories that reveal how women experienced persecution, suffering, and violence during the Holocaust.3
The featured excerpt from Ruth Elias' extended interview describes how an unidentified woman working in the camp hospital responded to Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele's experimentation on pregnant women. A native of Ostrava in the Moravia region of what is now the Czech Republic, Elias was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942. Just days after doctors in Theresienstadt had been ordered to stop all abortions, Elias discovered that she was pregnant. In December of 1943, she was transported to the so-called "Family Camp" at Birkenau.4 After several brief work details, Elias was transported back to Auschwitz, where Mengele made her and her baby girl the subject of an experiment: how long would it take an infant to starve to death?
In response to Elias' desperate cries one night, “a woman doctor” secretly brought her a syringe filled with morphine. She told Elias, "I've made an oath of Hippocrates, and I must save lives...Your child can't live...but you're young and I must save you, and you will give this to your child because I can't." Ruth describes how the woman calmly made the case for ending the dying child’s pain: "I didn't want to, but she started to talk to me – into me. And the more she talked, the less I had any...resistance." The child died within an hour or two of the injection. No longer of interest to Mengele, Elias was transported to a subcamp of Buchenwald the next day. In April 1945, she was liberated by American soldiers after hiding in the woods to keep from being evacuated on a death march.5
Elias' oral history demonstrates some of the specifically female experiences of Nazi brutality as well as the "choiceless choices" faced by prisoners and medical practitioners in the Nazi camp system.6 The unidentified doctor who intervened was bound by the terrible circumstances of the camp and by her medical oath: she could neither keep Elias' baby alive nor could she end the child's life herself. Unable to save her baby or ease her suffering, Elias made the unimaginably difficult choice to end her child's life.
In the end, Lanzmann did not include this excerpt in the final cut of the film. Instead, he uses a three minute clip of Elias describing her arrival at the Family Camp in Birkenau, followed by the narratives of Rudolf Vrba, author of the famous Auschwitz Report that attempted to publicize Nazi crimes to the outside world in 1944. Elias' story raises questions about the gendered nature of some forms of Nazi brutality—and the implications of excluding such narratives from the body of Holocaust history.