Among the approximately 20,000 books burned at Berlin’s Opernplatz (Opera Square) in 1933, were works by the 19th century German poet, Heinrich Heine, who wrote, “Christianity – and that is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated that brutal Germanic love of war, but could not destroy it.”
So begins Gisele Perl’s memoir, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz. A Jewish gynecologist, Dr. Perl struggled to comprehend the depravity she witnessed in the Nazi concentration camp. She concurred with Heine’s assessment, as well as his prophesy of the recrudescence of “the spirit of destruction, inherent in the German soul.” Almost 100 years before the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, Heine had presciently written the words that are memorialized at Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish Holocaust victims, Yad Vashem: “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
In her extraordinary account, Dr. Perl relates her daily experience in Auschwitz, where bodies of the dead were burned, an estimated 1.3 million dead, 90% of them Jewish. As one of the fortunate few, Dr. Perl survived the concentration camps to return to her chosen profession and bring new life into the world. Her memoir and life provide fitting insights during this month’s national observance of Jewish American Heritage, and last month’s Holocaust Remembrance Week, April 7-14.
From Hungary to Auschwitz
Dr. Perl begins her account with Nazis overrunning Hungary in March, 1944. The Nazis first identified and restricted Jewish mobility then looted Jewish homes and businesses, and finally drove them into ghettos for transport to Auschwitz. Following an eight-day journey sealed in a cattle car without food or water, Dr. Perl and her fellow travelers arrived at the camp to see billowing black clouds of smoke, smell the stench of human flesh and meet the notorious, whistling Dr. Josef Mengele who capriciously determined the fate of prisoners by merely pointing his index finger.
Out of an estimated trainload of 10,000-12,000 new arrivals at Auschwitz, Dr. Perl estimated that 3,000 were selected as camp inmates. The others were transported in Red Cross trucks, given a piece of soap and a towel, and told to take the infamous shower that would painfully terminate their existence in gas chambers. Dr. Perl watched as children of all ages were callously tossed into graves and burned alive. The surreal horror of the screams and the gurgling and choking sounds remained seared in her memory until her death.
One of the lucky ones to escape immediate death, Dr. Perl was herded with other frightened women into the “beauty parlor,” an experience forever etched in her consciousness that would resurface each time she passed a hair salon years after her liberation. The women were driven en masse into large, open rooms where they were forced to undress before leering Waffen-SS men. After their clothing was removed in massive piles to be sorted for others, the women were shorn of their hair, covered with a strong burning liquid, forced into cold showers, and given filthy, lice-infested prison rags to cover their cold, wet bodies. Purposely mismatched shoes added to the misery: a tennis shoe paired with a pump or men’s shoes that were several sizes too large. With their gruesome makeover almost complete, a number tattooed on their forearms was the final step to extinguish their identity and relegate them to sub-human status. The indignity and discomfort suffered by Auschwitz arrivals stood in direct contrast to the well-fed, well-dressed, clean, and perfumed SS who surrounded them and who now held the power of life and death over them.
Auschwitz Living Quarters and Daily Routine
Following the “beautification” process, prisoners were directed to their living quarters which Dr. Perl describes as sparse, unheated rooms with a series of wooden shelves housing dozens of inmates who slept crowded together without blankets. A precious few washrooms dotted the camp, each with a single anemic faucet available at specified hours. A latrine, which accommodated 30,000 women, consisted of ditches covered with wooden planks. Inmates, suffering from dysentery and covered in lice, stood knee deep in excrement as they waited in line to use the facilities, soiled rags covering their bodies. There was no water, soap or toilet paper and the latrine served as the center of camp commerce where food, shoes, a piece of cloth could be exchanged for sexual favors in full view between dirty, diseased bodies on feces-covered planks. A week of prostitution could buy a life-saving pair of shoes that could save a woman from a final trip to the crematorium.
Dr. Perl recounts a daily routine beginning at 4 a.m. in which prisoners were required to stand in formation for hours at a time in all kinds of weather, sometimes kneeling in the snow, subject to constant torture and the impetuous threat of death by the watchful SS guards. In the afternoon, roll call was repeated and the only meal, consisting of a ration of bread and watery soup, the most anticipated moment of every day, was served by prisoners.
Theft and Survival
In her memoir, Perl refers to Auschwitz as a “playground of perverts” and a “treasure-trove that supplied German civilians with everything their hearts desired:” foodstuffs, luxury goods, medication, medical instruments, household goods, cosmetics, clothing, and other items all stolen from the new arrivals. Prior to the transport, Dr. Perl was informed that she could practice medicine at the camp. She brought along her best instruments and medications for this express purpose. Of course, these items were taken from her as soon as she entered Auschwitz.
Dr. Perl paints a picture of life at Auschwitz as a subhuman existence of filth, disease, pain and crime in which time held no meaning and sanity was preserved by indulging memories of the past. Human indignity was endured for an extra bread ration, a pat of margarine, or a piece of string to hold life sustaining shoes in place. Decent, respectable human beings were transformed into thieves, liars, prostitutes and even killers as their lives were reduced to the pursuit of survival against all odds.
Upon her arrival at the Auschwitz death camp, Dr. Perl was forced to serve as a camp doctor with a handful of other physicians and nurses who faced typhoid, malaria, scarlet fever, pneumonia, dysentery, trench-mouth, and other diseases in a filthy environment in which blanket-less, feverish patients slept on wood planks. The medical staff practiced their trade in an unsterile environment without benefit of medical instruments, medication, and proper bandages. To treat infected skin eruptions of all kinds, Dr. Perl improvised with margarine rations as skin salve and went to all possible lengths, including lying about the true condition of patients and hiding them to keep prisoners from suffering the horrible fate of the crematorium. Operations were performed under the worst possible conditions, minus anesthesia, using rusty scissors, a dull knife, and rolls of paper for bandages.
During many of these procedures, Dr. Mengele would arrive unannounced, taking obvious pleasure at the suffering around him. He frequently beat the medical staff in front of their deathly ill patients. With her fingers as her only tool, Dr. Perl, after years of medical practice in which she cherished the miracle of birth, interrupted pregnancies into the ninth month in order to save mothers from the gas chambers where they were routinely sent if their pregnancies were discovered.
Abuse of Prisoners
In I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz, Dr. Perl recounted atrocities and cruel tricks that SS officers played on inmates. When the German army direly needed blood for its soldiers, the youngest and healthiest prisoners were herded into a block while SS men went from one to the other sticking needles in their arms to rob them of their “inferior Jewish blood.” When pregnant women arrived at Auschwitz, they were encouraged to step forward with promises of extra food and special care only to be bludgeoned to death, ravaged by dogs and thrown into the crematorium alive. Later, when an order came down from Dr. Mengele that pregnant Jewish mothers could give birth to their babies, food was cruelly withheld from the newborns as helpless mothers watched them slowly starve to death. One female guard was sent into paroxysms of orgiastic delight while viewing tortuously painful breast repair surgeries undertaken by Dr. Perl sans anesthesia to treat wounds from vicious whippings the guard herself inflicted to satisfy her perverse sexual pleasure.
Dr. Perl recounted a young woman who stayed alive for the sole purpose of finding her son. After successfully jumping off selection trucks to safety six times, she was beaten to death by Mengele and tossed into the crematorium. Perl watched a newly arrived Dutch Jew from a later transport exchange a bag of diamonds for three uncooked potatoes. She witnessed Polish and Hungarian midgets serving as objects of amusement and experimentation for the Nazis, and witnessed the relentless study and laboratory testing performed by Dr. Mengele on twins.
Bergen- Belsen Concentration Camp
Toward the end of the war, Dr. Perl was moved to Bergen- Belsen, a hell hole with the near dead lying in their own filth, with no food, water or medicine, and amongst piles of rat-infested rotting corpses, while smiling, well-groomed, well-fed SS men paraded around the compound. Much to the horror of the British liberators of the camp a month after Dr. Perl’s arrival, vast warehouses were discovered on the premises with enough food, medicine, and bandages to save the lives of the entire camp.
New York City
Dr. Perl’s odyssey from the horrors of Nazi enslavement and torture ended when she arrived in New York City in 1947. After surviving the ordeal of the death camps she had one more hurdle to endure before she was granted U.S. citizenship. Initially suspicious American officials subjected her to aggressive interrogations about her activities at Auschwitz. Eventually, Dr. Perl was cleared of any charges of willingly assisting Nazi doctors.
Following the armistice, Dr. Perl delivered over 3,000 babies at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and became an infertility expert. She discovered that her husband and son had been exterminated but was later reunited with her daughter. Together, mother and daughter moved to Israel where Dr. Perl died in 1988.
Grateful for her life and freedom after her torturous death camp survival, Dr. Perl wrote an epilogue to her memoir: “You, who have spent your lives under the protection of the Statue of Liberty, stop before this monument and read its inscriptions. Read them, engrave them in your souls and carry them with you as a memento! The dead are speaking to you here. The dead, who do not ask you to avenge them but only to remember them and be watchful that no more victims of (German) inhumanity ever swell their ranks.”
Part of that remembering and watchfulness would be to read Dr. Perl’s memoir today. We would do well to honor and keep alive her memory and the memory of all those who needlessly suffered and perished. We would do well to keep the eternal vigilance demanded by the true spirit of “Never Again.”
I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz
By Dr. Gisella Perl
International Universities Press, Inc., 1948
189 pp., Out of Print
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