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Medical Care as a Matter of Life and Faith

During the Holocaust, Jewish physicians were faced with mounting challenges to providing care, but, amazingly, were still able to maintain many of the conventional standards of medical care. Written based on accounts of these physicians and, in some cases, their children, Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust tells the stories of these doctors and their incredible work in a “dark hour of recent history.” Following, editor Michael A. Grodin explains how he happened on the fascinating subject that became the heart of this soon-to-be-released volume.





What drew you to the study of medical practices during the Holocaust?


I began the project on medicine and the Holocaust over 25 years ago. As a psychiatrist, I specialized in the care of Holocaust survivors and their families and worked with several twin survivors researched on by Dr. Joseph Mengele.


This experience led me to an in-depth study of the Nazi Doctors, Eugenics and Racial Hygiene. In 1992 I published a book entitled “The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code.” I continued my research on the psychological formation of the physician perpetrator and wrote a seminal paper “Mad, Bad, or Evil: How Healers Turn to Killers.” After years of studying Nazi Medicine, I decided to research a very understudied topic, the role of Jewish physicians in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust. I discovered several firsthand accounts of Jewish physicians as well as unpublished primary documents. This led to the present publication “Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust.”


History does an excellent job with the questions of who, what, where, and how, but my interest has been on the “why.” My research has focused on what we know about the formation of the rescuer, the bystander, and the perpetrator. The study of medicine and the Holocaust provides the opportunity to explore the use and abuse of power, dangers of indifference, and the roles and responsibilities of individual choices. Nothing was or is inevitable.



Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?


I became increasingly aware of the strength and courage of the Jewish doctors. Faced with “choiceless” choices, these physicians risked their lives to provide care and comfort as best they were able. Rescue took many forms, but survival itself was a powerful act of resistance.



What aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?


Many of the Jewish Physicians memoirs I discovered had been written 15-20 years previously when most of the physicians were 80-90 years old. Some accounts were written by their descendants, even. I was able to track down and interview these physicians before they died. These encounters brought vibrancy and the emotional content necessary to tell this remarkable story.



Who are the iconic figures featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?


The physicians of the Warsaw Ghetto set up an underground medical school. In the face of massive starvation, a group of physicians collected data and conducted research documenting starvation disease. They maintained their role as physicians and healers despite the overcrowding, poor housing, lack of hygiene facilities, absence of medicine and supplies, brutal work schedule, insufficient food supplies, and lack of clean water. These conditions promoted endemics of typhus and tuberculosis. In spite of these unimaginable circumstances, however, the Jewish physicians never stopped serving their community.



What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


My present project extends from my study of Jewish Medical Resistance to Jewish Spiritual Resistance. Before the Holocaust, an estimated 50 percent of Eastern European Jewry strictly observed Halacha (Jewish law). Halacha covers all aspects of Jewish life from conception until death as well as civil, criminal, and ritual matters. During the Holocaust, Jews strived to maintain their religious observance during periods of torture and genocide.


Historically, rabbis have been asked sheilot (Jewish law questions) in the form of responsum (legal opinions) about any challenges faced by Jewish individuals, and the Jewish community. To compose teshuvot (answers), rabbis consult Jewish legal sources (Torah, Talmud, Codes) and other colleagues in making decisions.


During the Holocaust, rabbis were faced with sheilot regarding the unimaginable circumstances Jews faced. In most cases, there were neither Jewish legal sources available nor colleagues to consult when making legal decisions. In this project, my research team and I are translating, categorizing, and analyzing the medically related responsum asked of the rabbis during the Holocaust. Some of these diverse questions include sterilization, contraception, abortion, smothering a crying baby while in hiding, ransom, death, burial, suicide, and postmortem cesarean section. Rabbis had to consider more than solely Jewish law. They had to predict the severity of the situation and the psychological impact that each decision would have. This chapter of Holocaust history represents spiritual resistance from Nazi persecution that has received inadequate documentation and exploration in Holocaust literature.





Michael A. Grodin, M.D. is Professor of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights at the Boston University School of Public Health, where he is also Director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust, and Senior Faculty at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies and the Division of Religious and Theological Studies. As a practicing physician, Dr. Grodin has been named one of America’s Top Physicians and has received a national Humanism in Medicine Award for “compassion and empathy in the delivery of care to patients and their families.” An internationally recognized scholar on the Holocaust, Dr. Grodin has received a special citation from the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum for “profound contributions- through original and creative research – to the cause of Holocaust education and remembrance.”