Q&A with Holocaust Studies prof.: Jewish medical resistance to Nazis was prominent

Israeli historian tells "Post" that establishment of professional medical systems in ghettos is prime example against Nazi occupation.

Dr. Miriam Offer, historian and professor of the Holocaust Studies Division at Western Galilee College. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Miriam Offer, historian and professor of the Holocaust Studies Division at Western Galilee College.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The recently published book Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust by Michael A. Grodin contains a collection of articles on this broad topic. The Jerusalem Post Premium Zone spoke with Dr. Miriam Offer, who is an expert in Israel and abroad on the subject. Dr. Offer teaches in the Western Galilee Academic College, and is expected to have her book White Coats Inside the Ghetto: Jewish Medicine in Poland during the Holocaust, published by Yad Vashem in the coming months.
Can you explain what Jewish medical resistance in the Holocaust was?
“Jewish medical resistance during the Holocaust” describes the activities of doctors, nurses, and other medical staff in the ghettos, camps and other areas where Jews were forced to live under Nazi occupation. Academic discussion of this concept has still not been developed in-depth in the context of physicians and Jewish medical services during the Holocaust.
The establishment of professional medical systems, relative to the conditions, is a prominent example of the struggle against Nazi oppression. Clinics and hospitals were set up in the ghettos, as well as pharmacies and laboratories, preventive medicine, information about how to deal with the poor sanitation conditions, advancement of medical research and in-service training, and an infrastructure for ongoing studies in medicine and nursing.
How long have you researched this topic?
I’ve been dealing with the subject on different levels for the last 20 years. My parents-in-law are survivors of the Shavli Ghetto in Lithuania, and it was through them that I found the diary of the Jewish physician Dr. Aharon Pik, which had lain untouched for 50 years. In 1994, I wrote my MA thesis on physicians and medicine in the Shavli Ghetto, where I was exposed to weighty ethical issues facing the Jewish physicians and the Jewish community as a whole. After that, I decided to conduct a comparative research on medical activity in the ghettos, but the archival material that I found on the Warsaw Ghetto alone was so vast that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the medical services in the Warsaw Ghetto.
What have you discovered through your research regarding medical resistance in the Warsaw ghetto or other ghettos?
My research has brought to light important insights that have implications for different knowledge fields: the history of medicine, genocide research, medical ethics in extreme conditions, the research of the Jews of Poland and the Holocaust, and more. The historical picture that has formed is that the Jews, as persecuted victims, succeeded in independently establishing professional medical systems based on modern public health conceptions. This phenomenon is unique and unprecedented. In other cases of genocide, all the systems collapsed. It would appear that the development of the Jewish society between the two world wars, which adopted modernization, on the one hand, while suffering from anti-Semitism, on the other, forced the Jews to establish an independent Jewish medical system that served all the 3.5 million Jews throughout Poland. This was in addition to the Jewish medical tradition over hundreds of years, which had placed Jews at the forefront of medical knowledge. This experience and the supreme value of saving lives enabled the Jewish victims to provide an unprecedented response in the form of medical systems during the Holocaust.
Can you give a couple of examples of the types of resistance evidenced at the time?
As the largest of the ghettos, the Warsaw Ghetto provides highly prominent examples of this medical struggle. Alongside the hospital services, which were scattered through various buildings in the ghetto, a clandestine faculty of medicine was set up, where a high standard of preclinical and clinical medicine was taught in secret to about 500 students. This was in addition to the study of Hunger Disease, from which all the ghetto inmates suffered. Approximately 30 physicians and scientists produced an outstanding research of the effects of hunger on all parts of the body, among children and adults. The material was smuggled out of the ghetto to the Polish side, and is still highly valued in medical circles today. There are many other fascinating examples. Each ghetto has its own medical history.
Why are Holocaust studies important today?
Anyone who is searching for meaning in life and who wishes to study the enigma of human beings as individuals and as a society cannot disregard the Holocaust. It was an unprecedented event, which, alongside its atrocities, has left us with a human laboratory for the research of people and society. Only by learning and researching the topic will it be possible to influence a serious and open public discourse, in the attempt to learn something about ourselves and about our world, in the hope of preventing such incidents from occurring in the future.
What is the name of your upcoming book and when do you expect it to be released?
My book is due to be published by Yad Vashem within the next couple of months, first in Hebrew and then in English translation. Its title is: White Coats Inside the Ghetto: Jewish Medicine in Poland during the Holocaust. Its 500 pages include new archival material and historical insights regarding this unique phenomenon.