Medicine in the Third Reich

I read in the news earlier this month a piece about the U.S. government conducting secret medical experiments on mental patients and prisoners in the early 20th century. It made me think about the far more barbaric Nazi “medical” experimentation on prisoners and how cruelty to others has been allowed to masquerade as science throughout history.

The Claims Conference is funding two projects to educate the public and, specifically, medical students about Nazi medical experiments and the ethical responsibilities of doctors.

Dr. Sheldon Rubenfeld, the son of an Austrian Holocaust survivor, teaches “Killing: Medicine During the Third Reich” and “Jewish Medical Ethics” at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. He created a six-month program on medicine and the Holocaust at the Holocaust Museum Houston, including the exhibit “How Healing Becomes Killing: Eugenics, Euthanasia, Extermination.” As president of the Center for Medicine After the Holocaust, Dr. Rubenfeld last year created “The Champion Project,” a Claims Conference-funded program to take medical educators, called “champions,” on tours of Nazi killing sites to teach them about the role of medical professionals in the Holocaust.

In April, Dr. Rubenfeld will travel to Germany and Poland with two dozen champions and two Holocaust scholars for what he hopes will be a biennial trip to some of the first crematoria. “If they actually see the sites in Poland and Germany, they’re committed for life. You can’t see that stuff and forget it,” he said. Before German gas chambers became tools of genocide in concentration camps, they were used in hospitals to end lives considered not worth living, Dr. Rubenfeld told me.

The champions will then teach their medical students what they have learned. Dr. Rubenfeld is developing a web-based curriculum with 10 units geared toward different areas of medicine such as nursing and bioethics, which the champions will contribute to. He hopes to see courses taught at 30 medical schools within three years and eventually expand to every medical school in the country. He expects the site to go live in May.

“Eventually,” Dr. Rubenfeld said, “once we educate the champions it’ll become self-fulfilling and the champions will educate new champions at their own institutions.”

Paul Weindling, who researches and teaches the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University in England, will accompany the first trip. Professor Weindling is the lead researcher on a Claims Conference-funded project at Oxford Brookes to create a comprehensive database documenting Nazi medical experiments and their victims. Being mindful to maintain the privacy of survivors and victims, he has identified at least 25,000 victims of medical experiments in his three-year-old project to provide a more complete picture of the victims’ experiences and the issues survivors face.

“Until this project began, there was no reliable figure at all for the number of victims of Nazi human experiments,” he said. “Though there’s been compensation for the victims of human experiments, there’s never at all been a reliable figure for the overall numbers – who survived, numbers killed, nationalities, religion.”

Using German, Polish, Israeli, and other archives, Professor Weindling intends to put together a comprehensive database detailing the characteristics of these victims and survivors. Claims Conference funding will allow him to flesh out the details of these victim groups using the archives, which, he said, will aid survivors and researchers. Though this database will not be made available to the public, Professor Weindling intends to put his findings into a book. The privacy of the victims and survivors is, of course, of supreme importance to us.  Therefore, we have put in place guarantees to protect privacy.  He intends to print only the names of survivors who have already publicized their stories.

“Most of these documents have never been looked at by any historian,” he said. “A lot of the work today is on the perpetrators, which, of course, is important. We need to understand the mindset of the perpetrators, but we need to have the victims as well. It’s the victim in the end who’s more important.”

We applaud these scholars for shedding light on the horrors of Nazi medical experiments and educating the next generation of doctors about their ethical responsibilities.

One thought on “Medicine in the Third Reich

  1. My father, who was an american in the 82nd airborne, was involved in an attack on an SS headquarters. He was an inveterate photography and carried a camera with him during this mission. He has passed but left pictures, one of which is of nazi baby mill, with pictures of a conveyor line with babies on it.

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