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PROSCRIPTION OR PRESCRIPTION:
CHOICES IN MEDICINE AND THE WARSAW GHETTO

Mark Weitzman


The outbreak of a typhus epidemic provided the pretext for isolating the Jews in Warsaw, October 1939.
Source: SWC Archives #91-149
 

The collaboration of medicine with mass murder has recently become clear. Most of this interest has been in the scientific work done in the concentration camps. Yet, as with the process of genocide itself, the camps could not have functioned without the ghettos, which served as the vital concentration, breakdown and transit points for millions of Jewish victims. Of all the ghettos, Warsaw was the largest and most prominent. In the Ghetto both Jewish and Nazi medical practitioners made extreme, albeit quite different, choices. For the Nazis, the choice was to apply their professional training and vocabulary to facilitate murder. For Jews in the same professions, the chosen option was to apply principles that would prolong and encourage Jewish life and self-determination.

For the Nazis, Warsaw's Ghetto was one that was founded, at least in part, upon public health concerns. The Nazis' image of the Jew, as projected by Hitler and his propaganda, revived the medieval antisemitic caricature of the Jew as a plague carrier and updated it to the 20th century. (1) The Jews were viewed as carriers of infectious diseases, such as spotted fever; these diseases could, if spread among the German population, create a major epidemic. As one Nazi doctor, Jost Walbaum, said: "The Jews are overwhelmingly the carriers and disseminators of the infection," while another Nazi doctor, Erich Waizenegger, wrote "It is obvious that the door is wide open for the spread of the fever." (2) Having defined the issue as one of public health, the Nazi medical officials were ready with their prescription. If the "door" mentioned earlier was "open," in other words, if there was contact between Jews, Poles and Germans, health concerns could force that door to be slammed shut, and Jews would then be sealed away from the rest of the world. On September 4, 1940, Nazi officials wrote that "the question of building ghettos for Jews in the district is particularly urgent . . . especially for health reasons." (3) Two days later another claim was made that it was of "the greatest importance" that all Jews be sealed into Warsaw as quickly as possible. (4) In two months, on November 16, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed, along with the fate of millions of Jews. As Jügen Stroop, the SS General who presided over the destruction of the Ghetto in 1943, wrote in his famous report: "In the summer 1940 ... the Department of Health strongly urged the establishment of a Jewish quarter in order to preserve the health of the German troops as well as that of the civilian population". (5) This attitude grew to include the statements made in 1941 by Dr. Jost Walbaum, that "There are only two ways. We sentence the Jews in the Ghetto to death by hunger or we shoot them ... We have only one responsibility, that the German people are not infected and endangered by these parasites. For that, any means must be right." (6) in this, as in so many other ways, Warsaw led directly to Auschwitz.


First page of original six-page document entitled: The Jewish Quarter in Warsaw: Statistics and Facts.
Source: SWC Archives #91-075
 

For Jews themselves the problem was how to live up to their ideals in a period of helplessness, when disease and death were rampant around them. Their response, however, was not one of despair; despite the starvation, the epidemics, shootings and lack of supplies, they resolved, as one Jewish doctor, Adina Blady Szwajger, said, to be "superhuman" because "we had our duty as human beings ... and we were there to help." (7)

This help took many forms. Dr. Szwajger worked in a children's hospital, where, despite all conditions, heroic efforts were made to heal the littlest victims. She later wrote, "those hos- pital wards which we entered that October day in 1941 will remain in my memory forever, because neither before nor since have I seen anything like them, even though I've experi- enced the Warsaw Uprising and seen photographs of (concentration) camp sickrooms," (8) Her effort was based on the ideal "that we weren't there to look at the horror, only to treat the sick or help ,ith a quiet death. But, above all, to save lives, because, even though times were bad, as bad as could be, we still wouldn't accept that it was of no use and thought that if we pulled through, we'd save those children and they would survive to the end. So we tried to save them with those scraps of food, medicines and injections, and some of them got better. And when they began to get better, when, from those terrible, swollen lumps, skele- tons began to emerge, we'd sometimes get something resembling a smile. Except that this was the kind of smile that made your hair stand on end and your flesh crawl." (9)

In the midst of this horror some Ghetto doctors even looked to the future, to the betterment of humanity. As mass starvation increased, a group of doctors began a study of its effects. The researchers hoped that such a study would be beneficial after the war. By 1942 the fol- lowing were the official weekly food rations for Poles and Jews:

POLES JEWS
BREAD 49oz. 15.7oz.
MEAT 8oz. none
SUGAR 9oz. loz.
FAT 2-4oz. none (10)

One of the chief researchers in the study estimated that the daily caloric intake was, for Jewish officials, 1500 calories, for workers and professionals, less than 1000 calories and for all others less than 300 calories. (11) Both the living and dead were studied. Smuggled out and pub- lished after the war, this report was described as of "unusual value" by American scientists. (12)

While the Nazis made conditions inhuman, Jews throughout the Ghetto struggled to restore humanity. The diary of Adam Czerniakow (Chairman of the Judenrat) contains numerous entries demonstrating his concern about sanitation problems, typhus epidemics, and other public health issues. Although there were instances of corruption, (13) one observer was able to sum up the overall attitude in these words: "The concept that all Jews are responsible for one another has stopped being merely a slogan or a metaphor. It is realized in us." (14)

Marek Edelman, the surviving commander of the Ghetto revolt who later became a renowned cardi- ologist, described it by saying "My assignment (as a doctor) was to save as many as possible - and I realized ... that actually it was the same assignment as I'd had there, at the Umschlagplatz." (15)

The differences between the Nazi and Jewish approaches, as reflected in the Ghetto, stand in stark relief. Literally and figuratively, they embodied the difference between worshiping death and choosing life.

NOTES

  1. Christopher Browning. "Genocide and Public Health." Holocaust and Genocide Studies 3, no. 1 (1988): 23.
  2. Ibid. pp. 22-23 (quoting Doctors Jost Walbaum and Erich Waizenegger - 1941).
  3. Ibid. p. 24.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sybil Milton and Andrzej Worth, eds. The Stroop Report: The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More (New York: Pantheon, 1979), 2.
  6. Browning, p. 27.
  7. Adina Blady Szwajger, I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children's Hospital and the Jewish Resistance (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 22.
  8. Ibid. p. 41.
  9. Ibid. p. 43.
  10. Leonard Tushnet, The Uses of Adversity: Studies of Starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto (New York: Yoseloff, 1966), 23.
  11. Ibid
  12. Professor Ancel Keys, University of Minnesota. 1950, cited in Tushnet, p. 91.
  13. See, for example, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum.
  14. Chaim A. Kaplan, The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan (New York: Collier, 1973).
  15. Hanna Krall, Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (New York: Holt, 1986), 85.

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