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Sara Shmalo 
Bronwen Blaney

Medical Experiments in Auschwitz 
 

In order to understand how brutal and realistic the medical experiments in Auschwitz were, a modern student, Stephen M. Scott, is quoted as defining a doctor and noting how such a modern-day definition of a doctor differs from that of the Nazi doctors in the mid-twentieth century.  "Think of your family doctor and try to associate as many words as you can to describe the nature of that individual.  Most people are able to come up with words like `compassionate', `professional' and `knowledgeable'.  We count on our doctors to care for our health and provide strategies toward maintaining that health.  Doctors are some of the most respected and intelligent individuals in our society.  So how is it that a doctor can compromise everything that he or she has learned in medical school in favor of political objectives and self-interested advancement?  How is it that a doctor can be transformed from a healer into a systematic killer?  One needs only to look into the recent past to see the horrific truth:  doctors were some of the most instrumental figures in the Holocaust and its atrocities.  It has been said that "The Nazi doctor was a physician turned inside out."  Inside the barbed-wire fences of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, unthinkable deeds were performed by individuals whom society puts the most trust in--doctors. 
      

"Not only were the experiments which the doctors conducted unethical by nature, but they added nothing of real significance to medical knowledge!  In order to insure that these events do not occur again, doctors must understand the pressures and mechanisms that were operating within the minds of the Nazi doctors.  Codes and declarations have since been issued to create a framework of consent and responsibility, and councils have been set up in order to assure that the events do not occur again.  We must all face up to the legacy left behind by the Holocaust and its practitioners.  Understanding the crimes that Nazi doctors willingly committed under the supervision of the state is crucial in insuring that this awful segment of history will never be repeated." 

 
 Relation of Medical Experiments to Nazi Ideology

In Mein Kampf, Hitler states that "anyone who wants to cure this era, which is inwardly sick and rotten, must first of all summon up the courage to make clear the causes of the disease," (Lifton 212).  As the cause of the disease, he was referring to Jews, gypsies and all those accused of racial contamination who were supposedly detrimental to the German race.  Thus the first stage of the medical experiments which led to the gas chambers at concentration camps, specifically the experiments concerning methods of "euthanasia" (the medicalized killing of those who were a "danger" to society), was directly related to and supposedly justified by Nazi ideology since it purged the German race of its unwanted elements. 
       
At places like Auschwitz the killing was regarded as a means of healing Germany and curing it of the racial disease, thus leading to what has been called the "healing-killing paradox" wherein SS doctors could get around issues of moral and ethical conscience concerning their medicalized killing and experimentation because they equated killing with healing.  Murder was to them a furthering of their commitment as doctors to the preservation and enhancement of life, as it was seen ideologically as purification (Lifton 224).  Therefore their sense of guilt was minimized and, with the support and endorsement of the National Socialist party, the doctors in question became capable of otherwise unimaginable atrocities, all because of the twisted way in which the Nazi ideology interpreted life and murder. 
      
Within the context of the struggle to form the perfect Aryan race, the Holocaust was seen by Nazis and many others as a necessary evil, as the victims had been reduced to a subhuman level and thus did not deserve to be treated ethically.  They supposedly did not even deserve to live unless to serve some purpose, such as medical experimentation or labor.  Thus the experiments which took place were justified as in the name of science, and science as defined by the Nazis at that time concerned any research that could be implemented to help Nazi troops or to further the purification of the German race.  As such, experiments either tested methods of sterilization or murder to purge the race of its "unclean elements", or they tested ways of actually genetically engineering humans to create the perfect blond-haired, blue-eyed race. 
      
Therefore, all the medical experiments that took place at Auschwitz and other such concentration camps were done to further the cause of the Aryan race on German soil.  The same cause was being fought abroad as Germany waged war and tried to dominate whole countries and cultures to accommodate Hitler's theory of Lebensraum, the living space necessary for the survival of his perfect race. 

Background on Mengele 

Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz "Angel of Death" was for many years one of the most wanted Nazi war criminals, due to his medical experiments.  This geneticist disregarded the Hippocratic Oath and sent thousands to their death in the name of science (Gutman 317). 
 Mengele's career and his involvement in criminal medical practices began with his interest in genetics, which overlapped with Nazi ideology.  The scientific basis for the theory of superiority of the Germanic race came in the form of eugenics, a term conceived in the mid-19th century by Sir Francis Galton, an English professor (Gutman 317).  Galton believed that the inherited traits of an individual  would benefit society and humankind by identifying them and improving positive ones while eliminating negative ones (Gutman 317). 
      
Eugenics did not become popular until after Hitler's rise to power, when it changed toward racial genetics.  Eugenics provided the Nazis with a scientific foundation for removing and killing persons suffering from mental illness, incurable disease, and the sterilization of those suspected of carrying hereditary deformation. 
     
In 1937, Mengele, a young promising scientist, joined the Institute of Heredity and Racial Hygiene at the Frankfurt University, headed by Professor Otmar Freihörer von Verschauer, the academic center of racial genetics.  Interested in Mengele's work in racial genetics, Professor von Verschauer hired the young researcher as his assistant (Gutman 318). 
      
Mengele's interest in twins dates from his early collaboration with von Verschauer, who pursued research on twins as "the most efficient method to ascertain inherited human traits, particularly diseases (Gutman 318)."  Here Mengele acts but does not think.  Verschauer has a large impact on his ideas and experiments at Auschwitz.  All experiments Mengele embarks upon can be traced back to Verschauer.  This shows that what Verschuer was not willing to complete Mengele would automatically do, hence arose the in depth "research" on twins.  Mengele was molded by Verschauer and followed his lead in the search for an Aryan race. 

Experimentation on Twins 

Mengele's "scientific" work at Auschwitz mostly consisted of identical twins.  His study of twins was motivated by a desire to learn how to induce multiple births, in order to repopulate the world with Germans (Lifton 218).  It is seen he clearly lost sight of the role of a scientist when he used humans as guinea pigs and specimen samples.  When Mengele was not experimenting with the twins he was quite gentle with the children under his care, made sure they received enough food, and even gave them toys and sweets.  Children repaid him with trust and called him "good uncle" (Gutman 320). 
     
Beginning in the middle of may 1944, experimental subjects were picked during selections on the unloading ramp from among Jewish transports headed toward the gas chambers (Gutman 321).  Knowing Mengele wanted twins, mothers gave up their children hoping they would receive special treatment.             Mengele was involved in four types of experimentation:  anthropometric, morphological, x-ray, and psychiatric evaluation (Gutman 323). 
 

Anthropological Exam 

In the anthropological exam, each body part was precisely measured; twins were measured together and results compared.  Documentation includes descriptions of such details as shape of the mouth, nose, and the auricle, color of the eyes, and coloring of the skin in various parts of the body.  Mengele conducted the measurements personally, using the latest Swiss precision measuring instruments, assisted by Martyna Puzyna, a Polish prisoner and a doctor of anthropology.  During measurements, which often lasted several hours, the twins stood naked in an unheated room, which was particularly exhausting for small children.  Mengele often personally photographed the objects of his interest or entrusted this task to the photographic workshop (Erkennungsdienst) in the main camp (Gutman 323). 
 -- Morphological, X-ray, Surgical examinations, and Sight, Hearing, and Dental checks 
     
In the course of dental examinations, plaster casts of the jaws of twins were made.  During ophthamological examinations, drops of a liquid unknown to the prisoners were put into their eyes, which resulted in suppuration; in extreme cases, children suffered partial loss of sight (Gutman 323-24).  In an excerpt from Children of the Flames Hedvah and Leah Stern give a description of their experience with the eye testing.  It appears that these experiments were related to attempts to change eye color by injecting unknown chemical substances into children's eyes (Gutman 326). 

Hedvah and Leah Stern

      "Mengele was trying to change the color of our eyes.  One day, we were given eye-drops.  Afterwards, we could no see for several days.  We thought the Nazis had made us blind. 
      "We were very frightened of the experiments.  They took a lot of blood from us.  We fainted several times, and the SS guards were very amused. 
      "We were not very developed.  The Nazis made us remove our clothes, and then they took photographs of us. 
       "The SS guards would point to us and laugh.  We stood naked in front of these Nazi thugs, shaking from cold and fear, and they laughed (Lagnado 66)." 


Up to 20 cubic centimeters of blood was collected from each pair of twins.  Blood, urine, stool, and saliva samples were sent for analysis to the lab of the Hygiene Institute.  Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum contain numerous requests for analysis bearing Mengele's signature (Gutman 324).  As part of morphological research, Mengele performed Blood transfusion between twins, observing their reactions.  Since these experiments were not preceded by blood cross-matching, they often led to serious complications.  There is also evidence that Mengele performed ghastly experiments on children for no medical purpose (Gutman 324).  Vera Alexander, a Jewish prisoner posted to the barracks for twins in the Gypsy camp, testified: 

      
"One day Mengele brought chocolate and special clothes.  The next day an SS man, on Mengele's instructions, took away two children, who happened to be my favorites: Guido and Nino, aged about four.  Two, perhaps three days later the SS man brought them back in a frightening condition.  They had been sewn together like Siamese twins.  The hunchbacked child was tied to the second one on the back and wrists.  Mengele had sewn their veins together.  The wounds were filthy and they festered.  There was a powerful stench of gangrene.  The children screamed all night long.  Somehow their mother managed to get hold of morphine and put an end to their suffering. (Gutman 324)" 


The documentation of Mengele's research, including photographs, drawings, accounts, and analyses, was preserved in special files, one for each person subjected to experiments.  The twins were constantly being tested and compared to one another even after death.  After weeks of tortuous medical examinations they were taken to the dissection laboratory.  Using two doctors, each twin was simultaneously given an injection in the heart, taking their lives.  They were dissected and their organs were sent to the Institute of Biological Racial and Evolutionary Research in Berlin (Medical Experiments 4). 
 
Other Medical Experiments 
      
Though the general attitude in the early forties concerning concentration camps and extermination of Jews was that the whole process should be dealt with as quickly as possible for reasons of pragmatism, many Nazis felt that they should at the same time exploit the labor potential of their prisoners.  However since the whole point of the Holocaust was to purge the German race of any "inferior humans" in order to create the perfect Aryan race, if any Jewish workers were to be kept alive they needed to be sterilized to prevent further racial contamination (I). 
 
Thus began experiments into mass sterilization testing operative castration, castration by means of X-rays or injection, preferably administered through a method that left the person unaware of the sterilization.  This was all justified by the Nazis as in the interest of obtaining labor material, and ethics had no place in the decision or experimentation process as the subjects were condemned to death anyway (I).  "With no ethical considerations at issue, a more opportunistic surgical laboratory than Auschwitz could hardly be imagined (Gutman 304)." 
      
Almost all medical experimentation received official encouragement as they were viewed as a direct expression of racial theory and policy, such as that which Hitler clarified when he maintained the necessity of not just sterilizing but eliminating "life unworthy of life".  The sterilization and castration experiments conducted at Auschwitz by doctors Carl Clauberg and Horst Schumann (Gutman 302-303) were supported by SS official Himmler as he provided the adequate research materials to the concentration camp (I). 
      
Clauberg was the main doctor involved with mass sterilization at Auschwitz, as the concentration camp was placed at his disposal for his experiments on human beings and animals (I).  He worked out of "Block 10", also known as "Clauberg's block", which was also the site of Schumann's castration and X-ray experiments on males, trying to develop a method of cheap and effective mass sterilization of females that could be implemented immediately.  Clauberg developed such a method by 1943 involving a single injection of a caustic substance through the cervix that would obstruct the fallopian tubes (II) and was made during the course of a customary gynecological exam, leaving the patient unawares and achieving sterilization without operation.  He estimated that one physician properly equipped could sterilize 1,000 women per day (I). 
     
Medical experiments that involved exposing prisoners to freezing temperatures or high altitudes to determine the affects of hypothermia or low pressure on humans were typically carried out in concentration camps other than Auschwitz, such as Dachau.  However, they were of the same nature as the Auschwitz medical experiments, justified by the Nazis as scientific research that would benefit their troops.  The subjects would be taken up to high altitudes, or would be placed in snow or cold water in different manners to determine the various human reactions to such environments (I). 
      
When the subject died, as they typically did, they would be dissected with special attention being paid to the large amounts of either free air or free blood typically found in the cranial cavity.  Such were the experiments performed in the name of science.  Though Auschwitz did not focus on such things because it was more a concentration camp known more so for medicalized killing, it still played its part by providing subjects for other camps' experiments.  Auschwitz not only supplied such things as skeletons of prisoners for anthropological research (I), but it also exported prisoners, as the supply therein was so plentiful.  For example, it sent children away to be used in tuberculosis experiments and shipped prepared specimens to Dr. August's anatomical "museum" (Gutman 304). 
     
Many other experiments were conducted at Auschwitz on a smaller scale, such as Dr. Eduard Wirth's studies of precancerous growths of the cervix of women, which involved the surgical removal of most or all of the cervix and often ended in complications or deaths.  Wirth also tested typhus vaccines by intentionally infecting prisoners with the disease, as German military and civilian personnel were particularly susceptible to the illness (Lifton 218).  One of the more brutal experiments associated with Auschwitz was that conducted by Dr. Herta Oberheuser, wherein she would "kill prisoners with oil and evipan injections, remove their limbs and vital organs, and rub crushed glass and sawdust into the wounds of the deceased (II)." 

Historical Implications of the Experiments 
     
Besides resulting in the deaths of countless prisoners, the ruthless medical experiments conducted as Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the Holocaust resulted in the Nuremburg and Helsinki Codes.  After the war was over and the camps were liberated, 24 German physicians were brought to trial at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, which began in October of 1946 and lasted until August of 1947.  Eight of the defendants were acquitted and fifteen were found guilty, of which seven were given the death penalty and eight were imprisoned.  Dr. Herta Oberheuser received twenty years in prison and served only ten, and Dr. Mengele was not even among the 24 accused (II). 
      
From this trial the Nuremberg Codes were developed, "a 10-point code of human experimentation ethics which sets the general agenda for all future ethical and legal questions pertaining to the conduct of human experimentation."  These codes were developed to ensure that history would not repeat itself, but they in time became insufficient as in 1947 when they were developed, most human experimentation was of a non-therapeutic design and was more directed to exploring basic processes.  Thus, in 1964 the World Medical Association issued the Helsinki Declaration which differentiated between therapeutic and non-therapeutic clinical research (II). 
      
The Declaration did not have an absolute requirement of informed consent concerning therapeutic research as it introduced the concept of guardianship as sufficient means of obtaining consent.  Such a condition seemed to undermine the Nuremberg Codes in that it potentially allowed for the doctor to take advantage of the patient in acting as his caretaker, just as the Nazi doctors had in "taking care" of their imprisoned patients (II).  Nonetheless, between the two declarations much has been done to define the area of medical experimentation to avoid any repeat of the Holocaust atrocities, and modern-day doctors remain well aware of the issues at stake and the necessity for the preservation of human rights and ethics in every situation. 
 
Works Cited 

Gutman, Yisrael and Michael Berenbaum.  Anatomy of the 
Auschwitz Death Camp
.  Indiana University Press: Indianapolis, 1994.

Lagnado, Lucete Matalon and Sheila Cohn Dekel.  Children of the Flames:  Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz.  William Morrow and Company:  New York, 1991.

 
Lifton, Robert Jay.  The Nazi Concentration Camps:  Medicalized Killing in Auschwitz.  Yad Vashem:  Israel, 1984. p. 207-55. 


 I.   http://www.vwc.edu/wwwpages/dgraf/nazidocs.txt 
 II. http://www2.kenyon.edu/people/scotts/projects/nazi.htm 
 
   

 Works Consulted 
 III.  http://www.remember.org/educate/medexp.html 
 IV.  http://shamash.org/holocaust/images/Krema3.jpg 
 V.   http://modb.oce.ulg.ac.be/schmitz/Holocaust/medexp01.html 
 VI.  http://shamash.org/holocaust/images/MedExp04.jpg 

 

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