Medical Caregivers in the Holocaust Yom Hashoah 2020
by Danny Ehrlich
This week, we mark Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.
At this time of year, I am usually in Poland, Germany, Austria, Czechia or Hungary, leading Keshet Jewish Heritage Tours in Europe exploring with our groups the story of European Jewry past and present, remembering and learning as we strive to better understand the complex nature of our own contemporary Jewish identity, belief and practice.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, our spring tours to Europe have been postponed. But as we mark Yom Hashoah, our thoughts turn to the Jewish experience in Europe over the centuries and, of course, during the Shoah.
Today, people worldwide are expressing their appreciation to the amazing health care professionals, aids, and volunteers who are giving their all to try to save lives.
Yom HaShoah is thus an appropriate time to remember and express our appreciation to the medical heroes of the Shoah, who did whatever they could to keep people alive in the Ghettos and camps. There were thousands of such heroes. Here, I would like to introduce two heroic doctors who were active in the Warsaw Ghetto.
What did the Medical Professionals in the Ghetto do?
- Kept the hospitals functioning against all odds
- Put themselves at risk by treating the contagious sick in the hospitals and at home despite knowing that they themselves would likely fall ill with no medical remedies available. Many doctors and nurses gave their lives as they attempted to treat the sick in this manner.
- Smuggled medications and medical equipment into the ghetto and often improvised medical care with homemade remedies and equipment.
- Conducted public education activities to promote hygiene to minimize the spread of disease and the outbreak of epidemics. They were especially active in a losing struggle against disease-spreading lice.
- Suppressed and hid information about outbreaks of epidemics from the German authorities (especially regarding Typhus, Typhoid Fever, and Tuberculosis) to avoid German massacres of those infected, which they heard had happened in other ghettos.
- Ongoing education and training of Jewish nurses and doctors
- “Hunger Disease” Medical professionals conducted research to document and analyze the impact of starvation in the Ghetto conditions.
- Used their status to save people whenever possible.
- Became “angels of death”, helping patients die peacefully rather be shot, beaten, or gassed to death by the Germans.
Two of the Remarkable Medical Heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto:
Dr. Adina Blady Szwajger (1918 – 1975) was a pediatrician at Bauman-Berson Children’s Hospital and remained there until the last days of the ghetto when she escaped to the Aryan side and became a courier for the Resistance. She was 22 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.
In her book, I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance she tells about the starving children whom the staff at the hospital could not feed and about the wards on which every patient died. One death hit Dr. Szwajger especially hard: a 13-year-old named Ariel. On this day, my 24th birthday, I received an unusual (in the ghetto) gift: three fresh daffodils. Ariel lay in the hospital morgue. I went to him I put those three flowers next to him. I had nothing more to give. My hands were empty and I couldn’t find words of farewell to the kid who should have lived…On the next day, we discussed Ariel’s death at the briefing. But we didn’t have to explain it anymore. Everybody realized that we are less capable of saving lives and are becoming providers of silent death.
Every day she went looking for stray children, using vodka to befriend a Ukrainian guard. Once he was talking to me when a little girl appeared at a window. He raised his gun, shot her, and carried on talking to me. I picked up a different child, said goodbye to him, and walked away — only I didn’t know how to hold the child so that it wouldn’t be hit if the Ukrainian shot at me.
Many desperate decisions needed to be made on a daily basis, some of which resulted in giving patients lethal doses of morphine to avoid painful deaths and tortures by Germans and Lithuanians, such as being shot in hospital beds or beaten and shot in the streets.
At the hospital, toward the end, “corpses and living all lay together” as soldiers killed some patients and ordered others to the trains. A nurse pleaded with Dr. Szwajger to inject the nurse’s bedridden mother with a lethal dose of morphine. She agreed. She also decided – and this secret she kept for 45 years – to carry out euthanasia on some of the children. In the infants’ ward, she spoon-fed each of them a fatal dose of morphine. Just as, during those two years of real work in the hospital, I had bent down over the little beds, she wrote, so now I poured this last medicine into those tiny mouths. And downstairs there was screaming because the Germans were already there, taking the sick from the wards to the cattle trucks. She told the older children to get into bed, and “this medicine was going to make their pain disappear.”
Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Ghetto Resistance wrote about her: As a doctor and a human being she lived through the annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto, she lived through the annihilation of its children. She led common life with her little patients and witnessed their death. Unlike many others, she was there by every single dying child and she was dying with them time after time.
Dr. Josef Stein (1904 – 1943) became the Director of Czyste Hospital in the Ghetto. Though born Jewish, he converted to Catholicism. He considered himself Polish – not Jewish. At the start of the war, he was an Associate in the Department of Pathology at Holy Ghost Hospital and a cancer researcher. In late 1940 or early 1941, Czyste Hospital was forced to leave their buildings outside the ghetto and move to new quarters in the Ghetto. They had to leave all equipment, supplies, beds, and medications behind. Dr. Stein managed to raise funds, procure equipment and supplies, and renovate the derelict buildings that they were assigned to keep treating patients. He wrote: The hospital has ceased to be a hospital; it is not even a poorhouse. All the patients find there is medical assistance which…operates with very inadequate means. The food supply…is strictly fiction. The patient who has no means of providing his own food becomes swollen with hunger and soon dies – unusual progress in the history of medical treatment.
Dr. Stein was described as a “quiet and very gentle man”. He refused offers to be smuggled out of the ghetto saying that as the director of the only functioning hospital for adults, his duty was to his patients. He did not survive.
Dr. Myron Winick, in his book Final Stamp: The Jewish Doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto writes: Josef Stein and his dedicated medical staff, working amidst the most adverse conditions imaginable, healed the sick and comforted the dying. For this alone they should be revered in the annals of medicine.
May the memory of their dedication and sacrifice be a blessing and an inspiration to us all.
Danny Ehrlich is a Vice President at Keshet and the Educational Director