Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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Prisoner Doctors: Struggles to Heal 
doctors were more likely to be saved by one another. Dr. Erich G. told of a colleague, now a lecturer in biology in Eastern Europe, who, when in Auschwitz, lost his motivation to live and would certainly have died except for two interventions on the part of prisoner colleagues. On one occasion, G. himself grabbed his friend after spotting him walking toward the electric fence; and on another, a third colleague took him from a group of people selected for the gas chamber (the depressed man had sought the selection), “gave him a slap in the face, . . . hauled [him] away, and he survived.” That mutual expectation of support could carry over from Auschwitz to postwar life, as in the case of another colleague G. helped save after the latter’s health had deteriorated so far he was almost a Muselmann. Years later, this man, then ill and working in the same medical department as G., came to him and said, “Please save my life the way you did in Auschwitz.”

Another aspect of Auschwitz healing. was the necessity for prisoner doctors to falsify diagnoses in order to prevent patients from being selected for death. Dr. Michael Z., for instance, told how, when working in the bacteriological laboratory of the Hygienic Institute, “I often gave false results because when there were cases of Koch bacilli, ... tuberculosis, ... [or] malaria, [if I did not report] negative results, ... it was automatically the gas chamber ... .[So] I took it upon myself, when I knew it was an inmate, to give a result that would not harm him.” Again, Z. and other prisoner doctors took advantage of the SS doctors’ ignorance and distaste for sick inmates. For example, prisoner doctors (when working on the hospital block) would diagnose actual typhus cases as flu, knowing that these patients were “dirty and full of wounds, sores,” and that the SS doctors would not come near them: “Then it was easy to tell them [the SS doctors] stories.”

But at other times, saving lives depended upon struggling to establish the true diagnosis — as when SS doctors wrongly diagnosed typhus in people whose fever was actually due to pneumonia. Dr. Rudolf Vitec testified about one such situation, when he was unable to prevent these misdiagnosed patients from being sent to the gas chamber, and was himself transferred to a corpse-carrying detachment for remonstrating with SS doctors.³

Also necessary was for prisoner doctors to learn to refuse certain requests, as well as the proper way to refuse. Dr. Z. resisted the ultimate threat to his healing identity — the strong suggestion on the part of a prisoner functionary that he give lethal phenol injections. Dr. Z. insisted, “I do not know how ... and what I do not know how to do I cannot do.” He had apparently sensed (correctly) that inability rather than opposition was the attitude that enabled one to resist without dire consequences.

In order to remain healers, prisoner doctors had to exploit SS doctors’ antagonisms and rivalries. Dr. Wanda J. believed that she was able to put together good hospital facilities on notorious Block 10 (the experimental  
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

Robert J. Lifton
ISBN 0-465-09094
© 1986
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