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The story of Auschwitz is summed up by the lives, actions and experiences of two physicians who worked there, Dr. Josef Mengele and Dr. Ernst B.
Born 1911, he was the eldest of 3 sons of Karl Mengele, manufacturer. Refined, intelligent, and popular in his town, Josef studied philosophy at Munich and medicine at Frankfurt am Main. In 1931, he joined a paramilitary group; in 1935, his dissertation dealt with racial differences in the structure of the lower jaw. In 1937, he joined the Nazi party; in 1938, the SS. In 1942, he was wounded at the Russian front and pronounced unfit for service. The following year, he volunteered for assignment to the concentration camps and was sent to Auschwitz.
Mengele began his research on twins, and haunted every arriving convoy in search of these subjects. Twins had a special destiny in Auschwitz: they escaped the gas but became the subjects of horrendous experiments which many did not survive. Mengele had many of his subjects killed for dissection, or disposed of them when they weakened or he no longer needed them. Mengele was obsessed with the nurture v. nature controversy: he wished to demonstrate that heredity counted for everything, environment nothing. Among his interests were eye color, blood type, and noma, the disease that left gaping holes in the cheeks of Gypsy children inmates.
In September 1943, I arrived at the Birkenau Gypsy camp. There I saw a wooden table with eyeballs laying on it. All of them were tagged with numbers and little notes. They were pale yellow, pale blue, green and violet.
Anatomy, p. 326.
Anatomy, p. 324.
Lifton, p. 343
More overtly, there are many stories of his striking people with his long riding crop, in one case running it over tattoos on the bosoms of Russian women, as a Polish woman survivor described, "then striking them there", while "not at all excited but...casual,...just playing around a little as though it were a little funny."
Lifton, p. 344.
Lifton, p. 345.
Lifton, p. 346.
Lifton, p. 347.
Lifton, p. 355.
Anatomy, pp. 329-331.
This anonymous doctor, interviewed extensively by Lifton, refused to participate in selections, performed no harmful experiments, and saved the lives of many patients and inmates. After the war, he was acquitted of war crimes and staunchly defended by ex-inmates, some of whom even refused to identify him for the authorities.
He was a young general practitioner in 1939, when the war began. He joined the SS and was eventually sent to Auschwitz in mid-1943. Knowing little about the camps, he brought his wife. When he expressed horror at the sight of emaciated prisoners, a good friend, Dr. Bruno Weber, told him to send his wife home, but that if he stayed, he could function independently of the SS hierarchy in the camp.
Lifton, p. 305.
A former prisoner physician, Michael Z., told me how taken aback he was when Ernst B. burst into the laboratory "look[ing] for a Jewish friend. He asked me, speaking quite loud...:'Do you know Cohen?' I told him, '[Please] be quiet, you do not have the right to speak like that.'" Dr. Z. explained why he felt it necessary to protect Dr. B. by quieting him down and, by implication, to protect himself as well....But at the same time Z. was deeply moved by [the] SS doctor's quest: "I understood that he was indeed a man who had a different kind of mind....that he was capable of human feelings...Yes, it did impress me...because it was unheard of to see an SS pronounce the name of a Jewish friend."
Lifton, p. 306.
But B., when repeatedly approached by Wirths, gave a series of reasons for refusing: that he had too much work, found it incompatible with his assignment, and simply could not--was psychologically unable to--do it.
Lifton, p. 308.
Once over his selections crisis, Dr. B. had no major difficulties in Auschwitz. He consolidated a remarkable set of relationships with prisoner doctors...When they were sick he made provisions for their medications and general care and visited them himself. He helped them send messages to, and arrange visits with, wives and friends in other parts of the camp. He contributed to their survival by keeping them closely informed about various Auschwitz currents and plans. And he directly saved lives in additional ways: by protecting prisoner doctors from selections, by finding them and rescuing them from the gas chamber when they had been selected, and by the benign experiments...
Lifton, p. 315.
Dr. B. remembered Mengele as "helpful," "a really fine comrade"... and admirable in his open expression of "outspoken antipathies and sympathies..."
When I brought up the question of Mengele's human experiments, B. sprang to the defense of his friend: human experiments were "a relatively minor matter" in Auschwitz; children (who made up most of the twins Mengele studied) had little chance to survive in Auschwitz, but Mengele made certain they were well fed and taken care of... And when I asked B. whether he would change his views if I presented him with extensive evidence of Mengele's practice of occasionally sending one or both twins to the gas chamber, B. answered unhesitatingly in the negative "because under the conditions of Auschwitz one must always say that Mengele's experiments were not forms of cruelty."
Lifton, p. 321.
With Allied armies approaching, he discussed with prisoner doctors possible arrangements for their escape from Nazi control, including the idea of providing them with SS uniforms. He then shook hands with them and "said goodbye in a very friendly way", and as a last act took a pistol out of his drawer and gave it to one of them for their protection.
At the end of the interview, when comparing Nazi times with the present, he said that, despite the "full liberalization" today, there is an absence of "ideals for youth", a "lack of commitment", which leads to "chaotic conditions" and the absence of "a coherent community". The Nazis "overdid it" in the opposite direction, he acknowledged, but in Hitler's admittedly "primitive methods" there was "something right", something that "was good with the Nazis."
Lifton, p. 330.
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