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"God, you owe me a life - a living baby."
November 28, 2012 2:33 AM   Subscribe

Dr. Gisella Perl was a gynecologist living in what is now Sighet, Rumania, when in 1944 she and her family were transported by the Nazis to the death camp at Auschwitz. There, she was forced to work under Joseph Mengele in the camp hospital. After seeing the horrors and abuse leading up to the murder of pregant women, she "decided that never again would there be a pregnant woman in Auschwitz." Gisella Perl: Angel and Abortionist in the Auschwitz Death Camp

Dr. Perl was later moved to Bergen-Belsen, and survived the war - her family, except for a sister, did not. Dr. Perl emigrated to the United States and lived there for several years, before finally moving to Israel. Her memoir I Was A Doctor In Auschwitz was later turned into the made-for-tv-movie Out Of The Ashes(IMDB), starring Christine Lahti. It is available on youtube.
posted by the man of twists and turns (40 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
'While Jews and Protestants often have fairly flexible views on abortions (particularly given Dr. Perl's circumstances), Roman Catholics maintain that no matter the circumstances, abortion is always a moral sin. Even fellow physicians, such as David Deutschman (New York) claim, "there is no rational or moral justification for . . . wholesale slaughter of infants . . . whether it was done by the brutal Nazis, or by a sentimental and well-meaning female medical personality."'

Wow, to dismiss her as a "sentimental and well-meaning female medical personality" just drips of sexism.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:04 AM on November 28, 2012 [50 favorites]


Sentimental? I'd imagine she was pretty fucking far from sentimental, Dr Deutschman.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:08 AM on November 28, 2012 [19 favorites]


abortion is always a moral sin.

And what was Mengele doing? Even Jesus allowed that some sins were greater than others.
posted by DigDoug at 3:38 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nobody, and I mean nobody--scholar, reader, historian, priest, revisionist, apologist etc--should be judging or evaluating the behavior/life of those imprisoned in Nazi (or any) concentration camps. Indescribable horror/suffering/inhumanity is not a context to justify, criticize or even reasonably explain the lives lived and not lived.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:14 AM on November 28, 2012 [35 favorites]


Dr Deutschman does not realize that different operating environments give rise to different interpretations of the value system. Often there's a chasm between the values. It requires empathy to cross that chasm, not moral absolutes from on high.
posted by infini at 4:42 AM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Deutschman? Seriously?
posted by sfts2 at 4:51 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Kind of a bit of a derail, this Deutschman thing. I think this is a great post. However, I don't think there is anything to be gained by arguing about this or that when talking about the Holocaust. We can only bear witness and remember, and this post, as it stands, is good for doing just that.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:54 AM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


We can only bear witness and remember

Remembering and baring witness are not value-free acts. Some people will always try to frame the past in idiosyncratic ways, as Deutschman did. You can either let them do that, and then their framing becomes history ("Perl the abortionist was no better than the Nazis!") or you discuss the problems inherent in their framing.

You can't change a conversation you aren't a part of.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:26 AM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sometimes arguing unnecessarily validates an argument. What difference does it make if Deutschman, whom I've never heard of, says that "abortion is bad under any circumstance"? His words are insignificant compared to what Perl witnessed and endured, and lived to talk about.

And when we get angry with Deutschman, are we really honoring the millions who died? Or are we using their deaths for our own purposes, as sort of a base for our self-righteous indignation.

Perl's story is far more important to reflect on than that of a peripheral figure (at best) like Deutschman.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:35 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The story is incredible, thank you for posting.
posted by corb at 5:39 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Joseph Menegle is sufficiently infamous that the background link is sort of superfluous.

Even Jesus allowed that some sins were greater than others. But that all sins can be forgiven. Imagine that.

I don't agree with Catholics on the life begins at conception thing, but I get that if you really believe this and have any scrap of compassion in your soul for what may be another human being you're against abortion with very few exceptions - of which being spared becoming the subject of a madman's medical experiment should be on that short list. C'mon already. Catholics have no problem with their concept of just war: "The Old Testament acknowledges frankly that there is "a time to kill" (Eccles. 3:3)." There is really no moral dilemma here. Even if Gisela Perl was killing the mothers for the same reason, I would pause before comparing such action to those of the Nazis.

It is my (perhaps incorrect) understanding that Jews don't believe life begins at conception so abortion as killing isn't an issue one way or the other?
posted by three blind mice at 5:43 AM on November 28, 2012 [6 favorites]



To condemn anyone on the inside of the barbed wire at Auschwitz of anything really has the furthest thing from a clue about what kind of a hell it was. Save the reproach for the guys on the outside of the barbed wire, who either participated in or did nothing to stop the horror...

...that includes God.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:01 AM on November 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


His words are insignificant compared to what Perl witnessed and endured, and lived to talk about.

They're also insignificant compared to the compassion Dr Pearl showed to pregnant women and to their unborn children.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:06 AM on November 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


I read the bit about the baby in the abuses link, and now I don't even know what to write. I imagine her holding it and oh my fucking christ.
posted by marienbad at 6:07 AM on November 28, 2012


Admitting just scanning the article, I can't imagine being a doctor nor "patient" in Auschwitz. I cringed thinking about it and the choices the doctor and her subjects had to make.
posted by stormpooper at 6:08 AM on November 28, 2012


Nobody, and I mean nobody--scholar, reader, historian, priest, revisionist, apologist etc--should be judging or evaluating the behavior/life of those imprisoned in Nazi (or any) concentration camps. Indescribable horror/suffering/inhumanity is not a context to justify, criticize or even reasonably explain the lives lived and not lived.
But explaining the actions of the people inside the concentration camps is the whole point of this research. People can act morally even within indescribably horrible circumstances. Our responsibility to care for one another can endure even when the social contract is so completely broken. Making us critically aware of those moral choices is, I think, the aim of this research.
posted by deathpanels at 6:13 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


If you read the first link, she carried out an infanticide as well as abortions. She sounds like someone who had an incredible degree of moral courage
posted by crayz at 6:25 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Thank you for posting. I can't even fathom the amount of inner strength she must have had to take such action, bear such atrocious memories, and continue to live (and practice!).
posted by murfed13 at 6:31 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


These goddamned moral absolutists. Yes - murder is wrong. (Assuming you really believe abortion is murder). These people would end up dead anyways (oh, I get it maybe Jesus would ride in on his big white horse and save them and then you killed them unnecessarily). But overall. Dead. Dead already. The question then becomes. What is more harm. Dead instantly or dead and horrific tortures performed upon you while you suffer and squirm. Well, those of us with a sense of compassion and love in our heart know the answer. Those of us who see man as a "sinful race" who deserve the shit they get because some woman ate some fruit and thus all injustices are to be endured, well... I guess we know what sick side of the fence they are on. (And I guess that's a metaphor that I wasn't intending, but now that I think about it...)
posted by symbioid at 6:39 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


These people would end up dead anyways

Angela Polgar didn't end up dead.
posted by Jahaza at 6:44 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, to dismiss her as a "sentimental and well-meaning female medical personality" just drips of sexism.

Keep in mind this was 1948. In some ways it's a remarkably healthy debate for the era. It was also "too soon", no doubt, for many to face potential moral failings on the victims' side.

There was a scene in a long-ago TV movie about the Polish resistance, possibly The Wall (1982), that had a scene of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto attempting escape through the city sewers. One of them has a newborn who begins to cry, and the entire group becomes terrified of discovery as the wailing echoes through the tunnels. A male leader takes the child, walks a short distance away, and appears to calm him; then returning, hands the infant's body to his mother, who quickly realizes he has been suffocated. Although she is devastated, everyone seems to recognize the necessity for the survival of the group.

Apparently, similar suffocations were a common occurrence among the pockets of Jews hiding or escaping Nazi round-ups. Other babies would simply be refused breastfeeding and allowed to die. Other times, drugs would be administered to keep them quiet or hasten death.[e.g.]
posted by dhartung at 6:48 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I treated patients with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again. I didn't know when it was Rosh ha-Shanah, but I had a sense of it when the weather turned cool. So I made a party with the bread, margarine and dirty pieces of sausage we received for meals. I said tonight will be the New Year, tomorrow a better year will come.

beautiful.
posted by anya32 at 6:53 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, if we look at the story of Angela Polgar's mother, Vera Bein, she was offered the abortion, decided not to have one, and the camp doctor then didn't force the abortion on her. (Unlike the people performing experiments on her.)

The fact that some women decided not to have abortions and that, of all the infants born in camps, two survived doesn't make it somehow terrible that Dr. Perl offered women abortions.
posted by jeather at 6:56 AM on November 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


The fact that some women decided not to have abortions and that, of all the infants born in camps, two survived doesn't make it somehow terrible that Dr. Perl offered women abortions.

Well no. Those facts alone don't make it wrong, but they do show that it is not the case that the babies who were aborted would have neccesarily died anyways.
posted by Jahaza at 7:05 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where's the part in the Bible that talks about abortion again?
posted by thelonius at 7:16 AM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thank you for posting this. I wasn't really hoping to be crying at my desk this morning, but I'm glad I read it.
posted by sonmi at 7:36 AM on November 28, 2012


My take-away from this is that there are circumstances on this earth that are beyond comprehension of horror or evil. Under these circumstances, normal values cannot apply--only survival has real meaning.

Thanks for posting this. Reminders are a good thing.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:53 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


"God, you owe me a life - a living baby."38

And this is when I teared up. If only life worked this way. But I admire the woman for trying.
posted by thelastcamel at 9:02 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well no. Those facts alone don't make it wrong, but they do show that it is not the case that the babies who were aborted would have neccesarily died anyways.

There were only two surviving babies, one born a couple of weeks before liberation, one born after liberation (and nursed by the mother of the other surviving child). All of the other babies were killed and often their mothers with them.

We talk about abortions to save a mother's life - that was why Perl performed abortions and infanticide. She knew that the mothers would be killed along with their children - she had a choice of one death or two.

I cannot fault her on any choice she made.
posted by jb at 9:56 AM on November 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


I also doubt she forced these on any of the woman. I suspect she asked them (or tried to persuade them at most). It's not like she had other woman holding the pregnant woman down against their will. It sounds like these abortions were consented to, as much in that they were choosing to live.
posted by zizzle at 10:24 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


There were only two surviving babies, one born a couple of weeks before liberation, one born after liberation (and nursed by the mother of the other surviving child). All of the other babies were killed and often their mothers with them.

But part of the reason there were no surviving babies is that Perl killed three thousand of them. And it wasn't certain that the mothers would be killed if they had a baby.

Someone offered an abortion Polgar's mother too... so the practice was still going on at that late date. Might other babies aborted at that time have survived? They did in a satelite camp of Dachau where a Hungarian doctor delivered seven babies... and they survived.
posted by Jahaza at 10:34 AM on November 28, 2012


Jahaza, in a humanless, godless place where there is no hope and no way to know if any type of salvation in this current, physical life of yours will come to free you, your decisions cannot be judged by the accepted standards of a humanized world.

Might more babies have survived?

Maybe.

But the more probable result? Many more woman would have died. Along with those babies.

These women were living another version of Sophie's choice.

I cannot and do not judge them, and I respect that many, if not all, of them have had many dark nights asking themselves these same questions of their own decisions. Why do we need to ask these questions of their decisions as well?
posted by zizzle at 10:52 AM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


But part of the reason there were no surviving babies is that Perl killed three thousand of them.

And who said Christians don't know what chutzpah is?
posted by benito.strauss at 10:52 AM on November 28, 2012 [16 favorites]


But part of the reason there were no surviving babies is that Perl killed three thousand of them. And it wasn't certain that the mothers would be killed if they had a baby.

Did we read different articles? I thought it was made pretty clear that the overwhelming majority of pregnant women discovered in the camps were tortured to death, and the survival rate of actual infants was non-existent. You realize Mengele was lying when he said he was sending pregnant women to camps with better nutrition and care, right?

What research have you done on the Holocaust and the death clamps that led you to the conclusion a pregnant woman could reasonably expect to bear a child to term and have it survive? Do tell.
posted by schroedinger at 11:07 AM on November 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


Might other babies aborted at that time have survived? They did in a satelite camp of Dachau where a Hungarian doctor delivered seven babies... and they survived.

I don't think it's fair to compare Auschwitz and other camps in this context. It's wonderful that those other babies were born and survived. However, that has no bearing on what was happening at Auschwitz under Mengele.
posted by coupdefoudre at 11:20 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I humbly suggests that the argument about whether abortion is murder in a death camp is so ridiculous that one half of the debate refutes itself. Do not be derailed by the bridge dwellers.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:20 AM on November 28, 2012 [19 favorites]


I cannot and do not judge them, and I respect that many, if not all, of them have had many dark nights asking themselves these same questions of their own decisions. Why do we need to ask these questions of their decisions as well?

I don't judge (i.e. condemn) her, clearly this was a situation of tremendous duress.

But that doesn't mean what she did was neccesarily right, that she should be "hailed on behalf of 'simple humanity'" or called the "angel of Auschwitz." Maybe we should just actually not pass judgment on her responsibility.
posted by Jahaza at 12:17 PM on November 28, 2012


Reading Dr. Perl's accounts of the horrors in the Auschwitz "hospital" galvanizes the very recent, entirely-too-late surplus of quiet awe that I'm discovering I owe my grandfather: it seems it was thanks to his initiative - the very first filing of criminal charges against then-unknown Mengele in 1958, after collecting witness reports during research for his Anne Frank book - that these unspeakable crimes first came into the public eye.
posted by progosk at 12:55 PM on November 28, 2012 [13 favorites]


There was a story about her called "The Other Doctor of Auschwitz" in the book Small Miracles of the Holocaust.

Great post.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:43 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


And the fucking thing is that all of those sumbitches were catholics!!
posted by CRESTA at 6:13 PM on November 29, 2012


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