Primum non nocere (“First, to do no harm”) is the Latin translation for the original Greek and a part of the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors must make. But sometimes, doing harm to one, saves the life of another. This ethical dilemma was faced many times by Jewish physicians during the Holocaust who knew that pregnant Jewish women would be sent to the gas chamber, no questions asked.
Two Jewish physicians whose courageous deeds during the Nazi era, at risk to their own lives, have been spotlighted in the latest issue of the Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal (https://www.rmmj.org.il) issued to mark the 80th anniversary of Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, the largest hospital in the north of Israel.
The article, by Dr. George M. Weisz of the University of New England in New South Wales and Prof. Dr. Konrad Kwiet of Sydney University in Australia on “Managing Pregnancy in Nazi Concentration Camps,” is a moving document.
The two Nazi-era physicians – Dr. Gisella Perl and Dr. Erno Vadasz – whose lives are recalled in the article “were not the only Jewish physicians or gynecologists forced to work within the concentration camps. However, most of the others were murdered with their patients, and their stories will never be known. Hence, remembering Vadasz and Perl honors them as well,” the authors wrote.
“Despite daunting circumstances, history is full of stories of men and women incarcerated by the Nazis, who risked their lives to save others. In some cases, the moral dilemma faced by these people presented an unquestionable challenge – particularly for those in the medical profession who had taken an oath to save life.”
Unprecedented horrific crimes against humanity were committed during World War II. The “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” embarked upon by the Nazis led to the slaughter of six million Jewish men, women and children.
An estimated 1.5 million Jewish children were among those murdered by the Nazis, who thought this “justifiable” to prevent “the revengers, in the form of children, to grow up and face our sons and grandsons,” according to Nazi dogma. Even if able to work, pregnant women went to the gas chambers upon arrival. If they managed to hide their pregnancies, their newborn babies were killed either by lethal injection or by drowning.
The only way the mother could escape the death sentence was by undergoing a secret abortion or by suffocating the newborn to prevent detection of the birth as anything other than a stillbirth and the need to protect all involved in saving the mother’s life, the journal authors wrote.
Only at the end of the war, when hundreds of non-Jewish women with babies were released, was the extent of this slaughter understood. In comparison, only a few dozen Jewish mothers were released alive with their newborn children.
Dr. Gisella Perl, born in 1907 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Sighet, Transylvania (Romania) (birthplace of now deceased Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel), was a precocious child who became the first Jewish girl in town to graduate from high school. She was also the first Jewish woman admitted to University Medical School in Kolosvar. After graduating with merit, Perl married and had a son and a daughter. She became a successful and well-known gynecologist in Sighet, conducting a busy medical practice until 1944.
Following the Nazi invasion of northern Romania in 1944, Perl was deported with her family to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Her daughter remained behind with a “Righteous Gentile” family that hid her. The family arrived at the camp after a four-day train ride and were subsequently separated from each other; she never saw them again.
At first, she was ordered to encouraging blood “donations” from the Jewish inmates. But when Dr. Josef Mengele – the notorious Nazi physician who performed deadly human experiments on prisoners and was a member of the team of doctors who selected victims to be killed in the gas chambers – found out Perl was a gynecologist, he told her to work on Jewish women prisoners.
Even though Perl had no beds, instruments or medication, she recalled treating patients “with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again.”
Mengele ordered her to report to him every pregnant woman so they could be exterminated. Perl decided that she had to abort all the pregnancies to keep the women alive, as if not, both the mothers and their children would have faced certain death
In spite of her professional and religious beliefs as a doctor and an observant Jew, Perl performed abortions in Auschwitz on dirty floors with her bare, unwashed hands, without any medical instruments or anesthesia. Perl ended the lives of countless fetuses in the hope that the mothers would survive and later, perhaps, be able to bear children. When the pregnancy was too advanced for an abortion, the Jewish gynecologist pierced the amniotic sac and manually dilated the mother’s cervix to induce labor, causing the fetuses to die almost instantly.With the threat of a discovered pregnancy removed, the women were able to continue to work, gaining a temporary reprieve from their death sentences.
At the end of 1944, murdering Jews in the gas chambers ceased. The crematoria were demolished, and the prisoners were taken on a forced death march. Perl, however, was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp that she called “the supreme fulfillment of German sadism and bestiality. The article’s authors wrote that on the very day that she was liberated by the British Army, Perl delivered a Jewish prisoner’s baby into the free world. She wandered in Germany for months after the liberation, looking for her family. In 1947, after learning that all except her daughter had died, Perl tried to end her life, but fortunately, she survived and eventually moved to New York.
“Once in the U.S., Perl was initially suspected of war crimes — however, her testimony became critical in the conviction of at least one doctor in the Auschwitz trials and was markedly similar to the testimonies of other Auschwitz survivors. Perl began to speak about her experiences. It was after one such meeting that she met Eleanor Roosevelt, who prompted her to continue her life and medical service.”
With her help, Perl became a U.S. citizen and opened a private obstetric practice in Manhattan, where most of her patients were Holocaust survivors. She eventually became an infertility specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital where she delivered more than 3,000 babies. At the end of her life, she joined her surviving daughter in Herzliya, Israel, where she lived until the age of 81.
In early 1945, when the tide of war was clearly turning against the Third Reich, several pregnant Jewish women managed to survive in the concentration camps, together with their infants.
Malnourished, exhausted and low in weight, seven pregnant women in the Dachau concentration camp had not hid their secret and, surprisingly, they were not murdered. Instead, they were housed in a barrack and fed by a Jewish kapo (a prisoner who was assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks) in charge of the kitchen. The kapo recruited a Jewish obstetrician – Dr. Erno (Weisz) Vadasz – to deliver the babies.
The son of the local butcher, he completed high school in 1908 and changed his name to Vadasz, in an attempt to avoid exclusion from his studies due to the numerus clausus code restricting Jewish students. He excelled in his studies and continued his education in the Medical Faculty of the University of Budapest, graduating five years later.
By 1930, he was well established as an obstetrician/gynecologist and raised two children with his strictly Orthodox wife. In 1944, the family was deported to Auschwitz.
Vadasz was subsequently then moved to a sub-camp of Dachau where he became so weak and hungry that he needed a prop to stand up. He asked for soap, knife, hot water and towels, as for any delivery. The mothers had been well fed before the deliveries, and within a few weeks Vadasz had successfully brought all seven babies into the world even though two of the births were complicated.
Following the deliveries, one of the mothers developed pneumonia. Vadasz sat next to her as she lay, semi-conscious for two weeks, and cared for both mother and child, sharing his own food until she recovered. He also managed to save a young girl from the crematorium, whom he recognized from his own town. The last baby he delivered was born one day after demolition of the crematorium, on April 29, 1945.
Following the camp’s liberation, the doctor learned that his entire family had been murdered. He himself was never rewarded or recognized for the lives of the babies he delivered. He returned to his hometown and restarted his practice he loved, marrying a nurse from Dachau – but he refused to have children for fear of what might happen to them, the authors wrote. He died in 1957 from prostate cancer.
“Both Perl and Vadasz must be viewed as heroes in light of the risks they faced. Although some sought to accuse Perl of collaboration, she vehemently rejected such accusations and gave convincing testimony of what she saw and experienced in the camps,” the authors wrote.
The two Jewish physicians recognized the ultimate value of life; and both paid a price for their decisions. Perl risked her life in many ways; if caught she would have been sent to the gas chambers; yet she took lives to save lives. Vadasz, on the other hand, risked his own life with his poor health to help mothers give birth. Both physicians remained human within an inhuman world, and their commitment to save lives remained despite the loss of their own families.
Both of these heroes should be remembered along with many unsung Jewish heroes like them.