Growing up in Israel, the third generation of Jews born since the Holocaust, we thought we knew about the Holocaust. However only recently as physicians have we learned about the extent of our profession’s crimes during the Holocaust. This awareness focuses our responsibility as the third generation to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and as physicians to fulfill the vow of "never again".
In the past, historians did not focus on the systemic role of physicians and medical teams in the "extermination industry" but rather focused on horrific isolated cases of "medical experiments" performed by individuals such as Dr. Mengele. Only in 2012 was the participation of the medical establishment, including research and teaching institutions, in the crimes of the Nazi regime formally recognized in Germany. The enthusiastic enlistment of most German doctors and the medical establishment to the deadly ideology of the Nazi regime constitutes a terrible betrayal of the fundamental principal of trust between doctors and patients. Even before the operation of gas chambers for the "Final Solution", the German medical establishment initiated the systematic murder of Germans with disabilities and mental illness using gas chambers installed in hospitals for the first time in human history. Underlying the professional distortion of Nazi medicine was a worldview that devalued the sanctity of life and weighted the utilitarian value of a patient’s life. "Societal health" was privileged over the needs of the individual. Thus, German physicians could ignore their duty to heal, murder their patients in gas chambers, perform sadistic experiments, and develop methods to expand and increase the rate of mass extermination that occurred in the Shoah. Recognizing the depravity and betrayal of those who were considered at the time the best doctors in the world causes sickening shock.
When the idea of "LeMa'anam" (for their sake) first came out on social media, calling on physicians to volunteer to care for Holocaust survivors in Israel during the first COVID lock down, the response was overwhelming. Everything about it was surprising. The sheer number of volunteers. Their seniority. Their ethnic and racial diversity, and most notably the passion with which the physicians wanted to seize the opportunity to care for the survivors. Besides the sense of urgency to help this most vulnerable population, we found that some survivors carry residual distrust of doctors and apprehension of hospitals, which further exacerbates their medical neglect. During all of the past year's chaos of the pandemic, political uncertainty and divisiveness, the LeMa'anam volunteers’ spirt of altruism and public service provided a bright beacon of hope. We also recognize that LeMa'anam can serve as a symbolic closure and reparation for the tainted legacy of our profession.
Modern medicine has empowered us to prolong and enhance the quality of our patients’ lives, but this can come at a professional cost. Many physicians today are beset by professional burnout, diminished empathy and often a sense of alienation. The dehumanization in the hospital setting often reduces the identity of the vibrant and heroic survivors to just their current disease state. We believe that learning about the role of physicians in the Holocaust can summon us all to further compassion, empathy and dedication to our patients, as well as to ourselves to provide resiliency.
Jewish sages taught that "One who saves one soul is as if one saved an entire world". The survivors triumphed over the murderous intent of the Nazi regime, and the physician volunteers caring for them today perpetuate that triumph. By volunteering with LeMa'anam we feel that we are committed not only to the welfare of the remaining Holocaust survivors in our midst, but also to the future and welfare our medical profession and the society we live in. Volunteering with LeMa'anam allows us as physicians to reaffirm our commitment to the well-being and health of each and every one of our patients, as well as providing professional-medical credence towards our third generation vow of "never again!"
Dr. Fox is a LeMa'anam volunteer, Academic Director of "Witness in White" seminars at the Israel Medical Association and Program Director of Medicine and the Holocaust at Ben Gurion University.
Dr. Kolitz, is the founder and Director of LeMa'anam