Thursday, 31 January 2013

''The greatest crime in Auschwitz was to be pregnant''


This week, I learned about Gisela Pearl. She was a Jewish-Hungarian doctor who worked in Aushwitz and performed secret abortions to protect women from Nazi "experimentation" and death.

The policy on pregnant women in Auchwitz was simple to start with - they were gassed as soon as the pregnancy was discovered. But the Nazi Dr Mengele started to devise alternative plans for these women and asked Perl for all pregnant women to be sent to him personally for separate treatment. He said this would involve milk and extra food. As soon as Perl discovered that these women were in fact being used for horrific experiments, she stopped sending the women and tried, instead, to end the pregnancies herself.
In all, she performed approximately 3000 abortions in the hope that the women would survive and later be able to bear children, if they chose, in freedom

Perl also risked her life giving medical assistance to men and women who had been deliberately poisoned, or otherwise experimented on by Mengele. She did this during the night, hoping she wouldn’t be caught.  She had no medical equipment and very few drugs but she did what she could...
"'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.''

Perl survived but many of her family did not. Years later she said in an interview with the New York Times, ''It is worthwhile to live.” (Quotes from taken from New York Times interview, 1982:

Perl’s place in the Nazi machine was deeply complex, given her position as a woman, a Jew and a physician working for the Third Reich, and her actions have been deemed controversial by some. She was operating within a system where sterilization and the termination of Jewish mothers, babies and foetuses was actively encouraged as part of the Nazi policy to eradicate all traces of Jewishness and ‘impurity’. Perl’s actions did not, and could not possibly, subvert this project. She was aborting the same ‘bad’ foetuses, and in some cases killing those same ‘impure’ babies that Hitler wanted dead. But within the death machine that was Auschwitz, the children of women inmates could not possibly survive. Babies, too, were experimented on and killed. Mengele devised ways of observing babies starve to death – he taped one woman’s breasts to watch her baby try to suckle day after day until it died.

It goes without saying that the Nazi’s forced abortions had nothing to do with women’s choice. Both ‘Aryan’ and non-Aryan women didn’t really have one.  In 1933, the director of the women’s clinic of Berlin’s Charite Hospital claimed “the nation’s stock of the ovaries a national resource and property of the German state” ( Bavaria’s official medical journal declared abortion a type of treason when carried out on ‘pure’ women (quoted in the above article). Sexism was an innate part of Nazism, and just as racially ‘pure’ women were ordered to produce as many children as possible, ‘impure’ women were forbidden to reproduce, or to have children who would live.  All women were the forced-curators of a cultural heritage decided by others – by Nazi men. Agency was forbidden. Therefore women prisoners who tried to end their own pregnancies, or to help other women to do the same, were punished by a trip to the gas chambers. By eking any power at all for themselves – including power over their own bodies - they were not behaving as absolute subjugates, and this threat had to be destroyed.  (Hedgepeth & Saidel (2010) Sexual Violence against Jewish Women in the Holocaust). [2]

In the context of Auschwitz, Perl’s actions were about as subversive as they could be. She informed women of their fate if they continued with the pregnancy and worked to save the mothers’ lives. Unlike the more controversial figure of Lucie Adelsberger, an inmate physician who performed abortions to save women but often without - and sometimes against- their consent,  Perl has been so far been spoken of positively by survivors. The issues of consent and coercion are not clear, however. Some survivors never forgave the abortionists who claimed to have acted in their interests. And very little must have felt clear to the inmate physician, whose job had been to nurture and care for human life, when operating in the context of what was ultimately a death camp. It doesn’t bear thinking about and it is hard to judge these things. Rightly or wrongly, physicians even today would see it as their job to work in the interests of the patient when the patient isn’t deemed well enough or ‘sane’ enough to make their own decisions. The women in the camp would have been starved, ill, and deeply disturbed. The issue is one of women’s rights but also, more broadly, the rights of the patient in a medical environment.

At something of a loss myself after writing about these events, the only way I feel I can finish is with this poem by Avrom Sutzkever. The third stanza is a painful reminder of the women and children who couldn’t be saved. 

Let us never forget.

 Frozen Jews
By Avrom Sutzkever
July 10, 1944

Have you seen, in fields of snow, frozen
Jews, row on row? Blue marble forms
lying, not breathing, not dying.

Somewhere a flicker of a frozen soul -
glint of fish in an icy swell. All brood.
Speech and silence are one.
Night snow encases the sun.

A smile glows immobile from a rose lip's
chill. Baby and mother, side by side. Odd
that her nipple's dried.

Fist, fixed in ice, of a naked old man: the
power's undone in his hand. I've sampled
death in all guises. Nothing surprises.

Yet a frost in July in this heat - a crazy
assault in the street. I and blue carrion,
face to face. Frozen Jews in a snowy

Marble shrouds my skin. Words ebb. Light
grows thin. I'm frozen, I'm rooted in
place like the naked old man enfeebled
by ice.

[1.]  Gilsela Perl, NYT interview.

[2.] It is possibly pertinent to point out here that while the fascist British National Party here in the UK claims it is in opposition to Muslims because Islam is unfair to women, it is also constitutionally against women of all colour having reproductive rights. This is essentially the same old belief in ‘bad heritage’ needing to be wheedled out to purify the nation, while women of ‘good heritage’ are expected to reproduce whether they want to or not.

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