“The Holocaust is more than a Jewish tragedy. It is the human disaster of unprecedented proportion in the modern world” according to historian Rita Steinhardt Botwinick. This human disaster that no one could have imagined ever happening resulted in the death of over six million Jews and other people. Although the Nazis tried to eliminate entire groups of people, many were able to survive through sheer will and determination. Numerous historians in the historiography of the Holocaust have discussed these stories of survival against all odds. One such group of survivors was the inmate doctors in the camps. This group of people had to not only survive themselves, but to help other survive the rampant abuse and disease that swept through the death camps and ghettoes.
These doctors “did everything in their power to help their fellow-prisoners and save them from death.” However, little of the historiography has focused on the prisoner physicians that survived the extermination camps. It is important to examine these accounts in order to explain how inmate doctors tried to the save the lives of their fellow inmates and also tried to alleviate the suffering of those who were sent to sent off to cruel and inhumane deaths by the SS. Despite the horrible conditions in which the doctors lived, the three doctors, who will be examined, were able to save the lives of some of their patients through means of deception and mutual assistance. “Historians have begun to express interest in the phenomenon of social interaction and group cohesion during the Holocaust, posing questions whose answers provide us with a key to the missing dimension” according to historian Judith Taylor Baumel in her work entitled, Double Jepoardy: Gender and the Holocaust. She argued that:
As historical research regarding these phenomena progressed, social
interaction began to be viewed as a source of strength, which permitted
adaptation and individual survival. In this context, historians categorized
socialization as an additional expression of the daily struggle to maintain
human dignity within a system based upon dehumanization of the
These women doctors formed pacts of mutual assistance in order to survive and the majority of members of the social group usually had the following in common: “similar schooling, family ties, and common general geographical origin.” They worked in conjunction with their staff to not only save their own lives, but that of others as well, no matter what means they employed in order to carry this out. Robert Jay Lifton explains it best as to what physician inmates had to contend with:
For prisoner doctors to remain healers was profoundly heroic and equally
paradoxical: heroic in their combating the overwhelming Auschwitz
current of murder; paradoxical in having to depend upon those who had
abandoned healing for killing-the Nazi doctors. And before prisoner
doctors could be healers in Auschwitz, they had to succeed in the very
difficult task of surviving, mentally as well as physically.
Before we delve into the survivor accounts it is necessary to provide some background information of who these women were.
The three Jewish physicians examined are: Adina Blady Szwajgier, Lucie Adelsberger and Gisella Perl. Adina Blady Szwajgier was born in 1917 and began working on her medical degree at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Warsaw in 1933. She married her husband Stefan shortly before the German invasion of Poland so that she would have Polish citizenship in order to get her medical license since her father was in Palestine. Szwajgier’s classes were terminated at the university as credited in September 1939. After the invasion of Warsaw, she moved to Lvov in the Soviet zone of occupation to live with her husband and to enroll at Jan Kazimierz University in hopes of finishing her course work. She learned she was to be deported to a Soviet gulag by a neighbor so she returned to Warsaw in late December 1939 where she was immediately sent to the ghetto in Warsaw. Upon her arrival, Szwajgier applied and was accepted for a position at Warsaw Children’s Hospital branch within the Warsaw ghetto as a junior physician in the internal diseases ward. Once the ghetto was to be liquidated in January 1943, Szwajgier was sent to live on the Aryan side to act as a courier for the ZOB for the remainder of the war.
Lucie Adelsberger was born in 1895 and worked for twenty years as a doctor in Berlin with a specialty in immunology and allergies. She was deported from Berlin to Auschwitz-Birkenau on May 17, 1943. Adelsberger was first assigned to the sick ward of the Gypsy camp until July 1944 and later assigned to the children housed in the women’s camp at Birkeneau where one of her many duties was to care for Dr. Joseph Mengele’s twins. She was sent to Ravensbruck in January 1945 and was liberated from the camp by the Allies on May 2, 1945.
Gisella Perl was a gynecologist from Maramaros Sziget, Hungary and arrived at Auschwitz-Birkeneau during the middle of 1944 after the Nazis had succeeded in taking over Hungary. She was separated from her husband and son at Auschwitz-Birkeneau and she never saw them again. In January of 1945 she was sent to a labor camp near Hamburg and then to Bergen-Belsen. The British liberated her on April 15, 1945. The first accounts of Adelsberger and Perl are similar because they were both camp doctors at Auschwitz-Birkeneau while Szwajgier’s experience was different due to the fact that she was in the ghetto and was able to escape.
Adelsberger and Perl arrived at Auschwitz-Birkeneau via cattle cars on the train. Adelsberger was placed on a medical wagon among the cattle cars where she was confined for thirty-six hours of the trip. The conditions on the medical wagon were intolerable for everyone on the trains. According to Adelsberger:
The air in the tightly sealed boxcar, which hadn’t been opened since the
departure, is suffocating and pestilential, the ventilation through the
meager air holes so inadequate as to be unnoticeable. The pails of
excrement are filled to overflowing and down their sides and with every
jolt of the train they spill over and splash on the people nearby who can’t
get out of the way because of the crush. The perimeter of the car is a
barricade of baby carriages for we have many infants in our group. They
scream in their dirty diapers and refuse to be comforted because there’s
nothing to clean them with and nothing to drink. The milk their parents
brought along has soured in the bottle and our small supply of water gave
out a long time ago. Even the sick plead in vain for a drop to quench
Once the inmates had arrived at the camp, selections were made as to who would live or die. Those who were over the age of sixteen and in good health were sent right: which meant they might have a chance to survive the death camps. Those who were sent left tended to be the old, children, the sick, and young mothers. Upon Gisella Perl’s arrival, Dr. Mengele ordered all “Jewish physicians [to] step out of the lines” in order to establish a hospital. After the final selections were made, the women were moved to the “disinfection” area but chaos broke out because they thought that they were going to be killed. Screaming ensued and an SS man asked for a doctor, so Perl stepped forward, and he stood her up on a table, ordering her to “Tell these animals to keep quiet or I’ll have them all shot!” Perl told the group:
Listen to me…Do not be afraid! This is only a disinfection center, nothing
will happen to you here. Afterwards we’ll be put to work, we’ll all remain
together, friends, sisters in our common fate. I am your doctor…I’ll stay
with you, always, to take care of you, to protect you…Please, calm down…
Perl’s words calmed the crowd and the disinfection was carried out.
Those who were selected for life were then sent to the “disinfection” area. Disinfection was where the inmates were stripped of their clothing, heads shaved, and disinfected with so-called delousing agent. Adelsberger stated that this experience felt like “our past was cut off, erased, only our name reminded us of it, but that, too, was to disappear along with everything else connected with it” when their identities as a person were destroyed and became an inmate of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Following the disinfection process, three of the women physicians, including Adelsberger were selected to provide medical care to the Gypsy camps at Birkenau. They were given cleaner uniforms and learned from the women helpers in the infirmary “about conditions in the camp…about our duties as physicians, about the food, [and] about the camp doctor.” The camp doctor arrived and advised them “about the diseases rampant in the Gypsy camp, outlined our daily duties, and generously promised us the necessary instruments and pertinent technical literature.” However, the promised necessary medical instruments and literature never appeared.
A typical inmate doctor’s duty in the so-called infirmary began at four in the morning the next day. The hospital barracks was just like all of the other barracks in the camp, meaning that “it was nothing more than an unconverted former horse stable [with] no windows and …scant light” according to Adelsberger. The barracks was extremely cold in the winter with just a stove to heat the entire building. The beds consisted of “three-tiered wooden bunks with boards that didn’t fit and constantly shifted around in every direction.” The focal point of every activity was the stove:
people climbed over it with their dirty belongings whenever they wanted
to get from one side of the block to the other. Injections were given and
abcesses lanced; in unguarded moments the Gypsy aides practiced the
foxtrot or belly dance there, accompanied by the newest hit. We ate there,
“cooked” there, washed there with the little water we had-contaminated,
filthy brown water that stained everything yellow because of its iron
In addition to the horrible conditions in which the hospital barracks were in, “there was little treatment, often none at all, and here the diseases of the camp were assembled without precaution” argued historian Terrence Des Pres.
The doctors at Auschwitz-Birkeneau began and ended each day with roll call, which could take several hours, regardless of the weather. An accurate count of those under their care had to be constantly kept, because if there were ever a discrepancy in the count, the doctors were beaten as punishment. Due to this, the doctors had very little time left for treating their patients. “Medications were scarce-two camphor ampoules and one bottle of [heart stimulant] were to last approximately one week [along with] bolus” which was a white powder that was given to inmates for diarrhea and “sprinkled over inflammations of the skin.” The busiest time for camp physicians was after dinner according to Perl.
There were bleeding heads to bandage, broken ribs to be taped, scratches
to be cleaned, burn wounds to be soothed. I worked and worked, knowing
only too well that it was hopeless, because tomorrow everything would begin
again, even the patients would probably be the same.
There were ways of getting the needed medicines and supplies for the camp hospitals. One way to get needed medicines into the camp hospital was to smuggle it in from Canada. Canada as the prisoners called it was where all the possessions of people coming in on the trains were stored prior to being shipped to the Reich. Prisoners who worked in Canada and the factories “performed daily acts of sabotage and theft” in order to get the needed medicines in order to save as many lives as possible. Drugs and medical supplies were also smuggled into the camps through contact with the resistance movement in Poland.
Another factor that prisoner doctors had to contend with was abuse by the SS towards the prisoners. This abuse often led to serious injury and infection, especially if their whips tore bare skin, which was prone to infection. These injuries and infections had to be operated on by the doctors with little, if any medical equipment. Surgeries “were initially carried out …using a modest set of downright primitive instruments: a few surreptitiously acquired scalpels, pincers and clamps. Perl describes how she performed surgery on “a young woman’s breast, cut open by whipping and subsequently infected. I had no instruments whatsoever, except a knife which I had to sharpen on a stone” and there was no anesthetic to be found.
One infection which happened to nearly every inmate were skin infections. Perl came up with an interesting approach to treating the skin infections due to the lack of “drugs, medicines, salves, bandages and medical instruments.” Her idea was “that margarine was the best medicine against all kinds of skin diseases.” Some of the inmates believed her, while others were skeptical. However, “by some miracle, psychological rather than physiological, the sores healed, no new eruptions occurred and the value of margarine soared to an unbelievable light” on the black market.
Doctors also resorted to deception in trying to save people from being sent to their deaths in the crematories. Lifton argues that “prisoner doctors used their connections with SS doctors to attempt every possible ploy to save people from selections.”Conditions were misdiagnosed in order to save people. Examples of diseases were “sore throats, flu, and even pneumonia were permissible diseases which did not condemn the victim to immediate execution.” Diseases such as malaria, skin diseases, and typhoid were all reasons for people to be sent to their deaths. “Another tactic was called submerging: the prisoners singled out for extermination would be hidden, sometimes for months, in the tuberculosis and typhus wards, which were places of relative safety” due to the fact that the SS were afraid to come into contact with them. Irena Strzelecka argues that:
The staff did all that they could to shelter seriously ill and exhausted
prisoners from the selections in the hospital-for instance, they placed
them in the top tier of bunks so that they would be less visible to SS
physicians. Some of the worst cases were temporarily discharged from the
hospitals when a selection was anticipated.
Besides the few medications, the only thing the doctors had “…was to comfort and encourage” their patients. However, this “didn’t make them any better: they still died like flies” according to Adelsberger. Food was the second aspect that often consumed the lives of every inmate. An inmate’s daily rations consisted of the following: “…one pint of camp soup and half of a pound of bread with less than an ounce of margarine or sausage; at other times the daily regimen consisted of a quarter loaf of white bread and a pint of watery porridge.”
In order to “forget the hunger and the horror of the inferno for a few hours,” the doctors discussed “various medical topics, about the body’s ability to ward off infections and the digestive processes during starvation.” The doctors talked about the lives they had before the Nazis existed and what they would do if they survived the death camps. An example of this was when Perl talked her work, family “the things we used to do, the books we used to read, the music we listened to…” Those conversations:
acted like a stimulant. They reminded us that although the odds were
all against us, it was still our duty to fight. We had no longer homes
to defend. All we had was our dignity, which was our home, our
pride, our only possession-and the moral strength to defend it with.
The women doctors formed tight emotional bonds with their fellow doctors and inmates. These “family” groups “formed a small oasis in the swamp of misery and crime which was Auschwitz.” These family groups “were the result of cooperative efforts that originated in the barracks” according to Nechama Tec’s Resilience and Courage Women, Men, and the Holocaust.
The Nazis decreed “in some camps, women who were pregnant when they entered or who were accompanied by young children faced an automatic death sentence” according to Ringelheim in her article “The Split Between Gender and the Holocaust.” Ringelheim continues: “For this reason, many secret abortions were performed by inmates themselves (or by Jewish doctors in the camps) in order to give female inmates an increased chance of survival.” In regards to pregnant women in the camp, Adelsberger argued, “Medical ethics prescribe that if, during labor, the mother and child are in danger, priority must be given to saving the life of the mother…The child had to die so that life of the mother might be saved.” Perl performed the abortions during the “dark nights, when everyone else was sleeping.” She began with the:
Nine-month pregnancies, I accelerated the birth by rupture of membranes,
and usually within one or two days spontaneous birth took place without
further intervention. Or I produced dilatation with my fingers, inverted the
embryo and thus brought it to life. In the dark, always hurried, in the midst
of filth and dirt. After the child has been delivered, I quickly bandaged the
mother’s abdomen and sent her back to work.
She then delivered women in their fifth through eighth month of pregnancy. Once the infants were born, the doctors would save up “all the poison we could find in the camp” and at times the infants “simply slept off otherwise lethal doses of poison, sometimes without any apparent damage.” When the poison failed to work, the doctors would have to strangle the child and bury the “body under a mountain of corpses waiting to be cremated” as Perl had to do with an infant boy.
Szwajgier’s experiences as a doctor in the Warsaw ghetto were slightly different than that of Adelsberger and Perl at Auschwitz-Birkeneau. However, the lack of supplies and deceiving the Nazis are clearly evident in her experiences in the ghetto. Szwajgier states that at the beginning of her experience at the Warsaw Children’s Hospital that:
There was happiness. But later, I delved into it all much deeper
and happiness was replaced by helplessness and only this thought
remained to the end: that we had our duty as human beings and that
we were there to help. That is why this medicine was “superhuman”
and why, although it is all like one great wound, it is the most beautiful
thing of all.
Once the closing of the ghetto was near, the hospital had “…more and more flea-ridden, lice-infested, fungus-diseased children. More children emaciated from hunger with the eyes of adults; more and more tuberculosis.” However, the first massive round of death didn’t occur until a few weeks later when the infants from the Foundlings Hospital were brought in.
The babies, emaciated with hunger, died of a “glutenal infection” which struck
them down one by one. No treatment or medication helped; nor did any special
nourishment or dressings of the trophic skin changes. They all died quickly,
practically without crying.”
Soon afterwards, medical supplies and even food became scarce. This is clearly evident when Szwajgier discussed the death of Ariel, a young boy who died of TB: “But this time we no longer had to account for it. We already knew that there less and less we could do to save lives; that instead we were becoming, more and more, bestowers of quiet death.”
A typical day at the hospital began with rounds of the various rooms, “rooms which were still white but of a whiteness which had become the pallor of death.” As she entered each room, Adina observed:
…the distended, deformed bodies, at the expressionless faces, and with the
same horror, we read the ages of those ageless creatures: four, five, six, some-
times ten or tweleve. Cavernous eyes stared back at us, eyes so terribly serious
and so sad that they seemed to be expressing all the sorrows of two thousand
years of Diaspora. Hands lay montionless on the coverlets, children’s tiny
hands with bitten fingernails, tanned or pale, those same hands which only
a few months back a mother had lovingly kissed and caressed. Children’s
hands, always lively and joyful, now powerless and subdued.
After rounds, Adina and her colleagues would decide which of the typhus patients would be “discharged or transferred from ‘suspected’ to ‘certain’ and the records of the typhoid ward were, after all, under German supervision.” They sent the children home “so that they could die of hunger at home or come back, swollen, for the mercy of a quiet death” as there was never enough beds for all of the sick children. Each working day became longer and more difficult. Shortages of food were rampant and the older children in the hospital “threw themselves at the soup pot, overturned it as they pushed the nurse away, then lapped up the spilt soup from the floor, tearing bitts of rotten swede away from each other.”
Within in a few months, the hospital was relocated to an old school within the ghetto. “So there, in those enormous wards, on wooden bunks, on paper mattresses with no sheets, lay children covered with the same paper mattresses” according to Adina. Buckets were used “…because there weren’t any bedpans or chamber pots and those children were suffering from the bloody diarrhoea of starvation” which “were overflowing and slopping all over the floor-and there was a terrible stench of blood, pus, and feces.” Despite the desperate conditions in which the hospital was in, the staff “tried to save them with those scraps of food, medicines and injections and some of them got better” according to Adina.
When the SS began clearing out the ghetto, some of the hospital staff decided to administer lethal doses of morphine to the patients so that they would not suffer from a horrible death at the hand of the Nazis. Adina along with her colleague, Dr. Margolis took a spoon and two large containers of morphine to the infants ward. Adina said:
And just as, during these two years of real work in the hospital, I had bent
down over the little beds, so now I poured this last medicine into those
tiny mouths. Only Dr. Margolis was with me. And downstairs, there was
screaming because the Szaulis and the Germans were already there, taking
the sick from the wards to the cattle trucks. After that we went in to the
older children and told them that this medicine was going to make their
pain disappear. They believed us and drank the required amount from the
glass. And then I told them to undress, get into bed and sleep. So they
lay down and after a few minutes-I don’t know how many-but the next
time I went into that room, they were asleep. And then I don’t know what
happened after that.
After the children had been removed from the ghetto, Adina turned her attention to working in the adult hospital during the time of the uprising in the ghetto. She cut dead tissue away “with ordinary scissors and no anaesthetic” and amputations were done “on the bed without a table, even without gloves-we’d simply wash our hands.” Once January of 1943 arrived, Adina was sent to live on the Aryan side to act as a courier for the ZOB for the remainder of the war.
Living conditions in the camps and the ghettoes “produced sickness and epidemics including dysentery, typhus, and skin diseases of all kinds.” Adelsberger, Perl and Szwajgier had to contend with the illnesses and epidemics in not only in caring for fellow inmates, but themselves as well. “Prisoner doctors had to [constantly contend] with… the Auschwitz medical reversal of healing and killing” according to Lifton. These women were able to survive in part because of their profession, but also to save the lives of others by working together with their fellow colleagues and deceiving the SS. There are still many prisoner doctor survival accounts that are waiting to be unearthed. Further research is needed on this topic in order to have a better understanding of what doctors in the camps and ghettoes had to face. It is the hope that future historians will delve into this topic of which the surface of has barely been scratched.
Lucie Adelsberger, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story (Boston: Northeastern University Press., 1995).
Gisella Perl, I was a doctor in Auschwitz, (New York: International Universities Press, 1948).
Adina Blady Szwajgier, I remember nothing more: the Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance translated from the Polish by Tasja Darowska and Danusia Stok (New York: Pantheon Books., 1988).
Elizabeth R. Baer & Myrna Goldberg, Ed., Experience and Expression Women, The Nazis and the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press., 2003).
Yehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust (New York: Franklin Watts, 1982).
Judith Taylor Baumel, Double Jepoardy Gender and the Holocaust (London: Valentine Mitchell., 1998).
Rita Steinhardt Botwinick, A History of the Holocaust From Ideology to Annihilation Third Edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004).
Lucy S. Dawidovicz, The War against the Jews 1933-1945 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1975).
Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997).
Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust A History of Jews of Europe during the Second World War (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston., 1985.
Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews third edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986).
Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
Michael Nevins, The Jewish Doctor A Narrative History (London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1984).
Irene Strzelecka, et al, Auschwitz 1940-1945 Central Issues in the History of the Camp Volume II (Auschwitz-Birkeneau State Museum, 2000).
Nechama Tec, Resilience and Courage Women, Men and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
 Rita Steinhardt Botwinick, A History of the Holocaust From Ideology to Annihilation Third Edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004), xx.
 Irena Strzelecka, et al, Auschwitz 1940-1945 Central Issues in the History of the Camp Volume II (Auschwitz-Birkeneau State Museum, 2000), 296.
 Judith Taylor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1998), 67-68.
 Ibid., 73.
 Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986), 214.
 Adina Blady Szwajgier, I remember nothing more: the Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance translated from the Polish by Tasja Darowska and Danusia Stok (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), ix.
 Szwajgier, xi, 14, 19-20.
 Ibid., 73.
 Lucie Adelsberger, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995), xiv.
 Ibid., xvii.
 Ibid., 129.
 Gisella Perl, I was a doctor in Auschwitz, (New York: International Universities Press, 1948),13 & 129.
 Adelsberger., 22.
 Perl., 16.
 Perl, 29.
 Perl, 29.
 Adelsberger., 30.
 Adelsberger., 31-32.
 Adelsberger, 32.
 Adelsberger., 35-36.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 36-37.
 Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 93-94.
 Adelsberger., 39.
 Adelsberger., 39-40.
 Perl., 41.
 Des Pres., 107.
 Strzelecka., 298.
 Ibid., 319.
 Perl, 62.
 Perl, 69-70.
 Ibid., 69-70.
 Ibid., 70.
 Lifton., 222.
 Perl., 72.
 Ibid., 72.
 Des Pres, 120.
 Strzelecka, 321.
 Adelsberger., 40.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 67.
 Perl 59
 Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 91.
 Nechama Tec, Resilience and Courage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 175.
 Elizabeth R. Baer & Myrna Goldenberg, Ed., Experience and Expression Women, The Nazis and the Holocaust, “The Split Between Gender and the Holocaust” by Ringleheim, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003), 48.
 Adelsberger, 101.
 Perl, 81.
 Ibid., 81-82.
 Adelsberger., 101.
 Perl 83-84.
 Szwajgier., 22.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 31
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 34
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 42
 Ibid., 42
 Ibid., 56-57.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 73. After the war she worked as a pediatrician at the Warsaw Children’s Hospital.
 Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews Third Edition (New haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 976.
 Lifton, 216.