This week, as we mark Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day, people worldwide are expressing their appreciation to the amazing health care workers and volunteers who are giving their all to try to save lives. Yom HaShoah is thus an appropriate time to remember the medical heroes of the Shoah, who did whatever they could to keep people alive in the Ghettos and camps. There were thousands of such heroes. Here, I would like to introduce four heroic medical professionals who were active in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Germans allowed only 2 hospitals to function in the Warsaw Ghetto: Czyste Hospital and the Bauman-Berson Children’s Hospital. The Germans stole most of the medicines, instruments and equipment from the 2 hospitals (they even stole most of the beds!)
What did the Medical Professionals in the Ghetto Do?
- Kept the hospitals functioning against all odds. 2. Put themselves at risk by treating the contagious sick in the hospitals and at home despite knowing that they themselves would likely fall ill with no medical remedies available. Many doctors and nurses gave their lives in the line of duty in this manner. 3. Smuggled medications and medical equipment into the ghetto and often improvised to provide medical care with homemade remedies and equipment. 4. Conducted public education and exercises to promote cleanliness to prevent the spread of disease and epidemics – they were especially active in a losing struggle against Typhus spreading lice. 5. Suppressed and hid information about outbreaks of epidemics from the German authorities (especially regarding Typhus and Tuberculosis) to avoid German massacres of those infected, which they heard had happened in other ghettos. 6. Ongoing training of Jewish nurses and doctors 7. “Hunger Disease” – Medical research efforts to document and analyze the impact of starvation in the Ghetto conditions. 8. Used their status to save people when possible. 9. Became “angels of death”, helping patients to die peacefully rather to be shot, beaten or gassed to death by the Germans.
Dr. Adina Blady Szwajger (1918 – 1975) was a pediatrician at Bauman-Berson Children’s Hospital and remained there until the last days of the ghetto when she escaped to the Aryan side and became a courier for the Resistance. She was 22 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.
In her book I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance she tells about the starving children whom the staff at the hospital could not feed and about the wards on which every patient died. One death hit Dr. Szwajger especially hard: a 13-year-old named Ariel. On this day, my 24th birthday, I received an unusual (in the ghetto) gift: three fresh daffodils. Ariel lay in the hospital morgue. I went to him I put those three flowers next to him. I had nothing more to give. My hands were empty and I couldn’t find words of farewell to the kid who should have lived…On the next day, we discussed Ariel’s death at the briefing. But we didn’t have to explain it anymore. Everybody realized that we are less capable of saving lives and are becoming providers of silent death.
Every day she went looking for stray children, using vodka to befriend a Ukrainian guard. Once he was talking to me when a little girl appeared at a window. He raised his gun, shot her and carried on talking to me. I picked up a different child, said goodbye to him and walked away — only I didn’t know how to hold the child so that it wouldn’t be hit if the Ukrainian shot at me.
Many desperate decisions needed to be made on a daily basis, some of which resulted in giving patients lethal doses of morphine to avoid painful deaths and tortures by Germans and Lithuanians, such as being shot in hospital beds or beaten and shot in the streets. At the hospital, toward the end, “corpses and living all lay together” as soldiers killed some patients and ordered others to the trains. A nurse pleaded with Dr. Szwajger to inject the nurse’s bedridden mother with a lethal dose of morphine. She agreed. She also decided – and this secret she kept for 45 years – to carry out euthanasia on some of children. In the infants’ ward, she spoon-fed each of them a fatal dose of morphine. Just as, during those two years of real work in the hospital, I had bent down over the little beds, she wrote, so now I poured this last medicine into those tiny mouths. And downstairs there was screaming because the Germans were already there, taking the sick from the wards to the cattle trucks. She told the older children to get into bed, and “this medicine was going to make their pain disappear.”
Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Ghetto Resistance wrote about her: As a doctor and a human being she lived through the annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto, she lived through the annihilation of its children. She led common life with her little patients and witnessed their death. Unlike many others she was there by every single dying child and she was dying with them time after time.
Dr. Izrael Milejkowski (1887 – 1943) was the Warsaw Judenrat Director of Public Health. He kept the system going against all odds and spearheaded research for posterity. He was an active leader in the Zionist movement and was especially active in negotiations with the Nazis for medicines and medical equipment. He led efforts of disease control and of hiding real numbers of Jews infected with typhus.
Dr. Milejkowski (a dermatologist) initiated and headed up the Hunger Disease medical research project on the impact of starvation. He wanted to leave a scientific record of the extent of starvation in the ghetto and a record of the extraordinary dedication of the Jewish physicians working in the ghetto. (There were 28 doctors involved in the study – very few survived) Dr. Milezkowski wrote: A last few words to honor you, the Jewish doctors. What can I tell you, my beloved colleagues and companions in misery. You are a part of all of us. Slavery, hunger, deportation, those death figures in our ghetto were also your Legacy. And you by your work could give the henchmen the answer, non omnis moriar. I shall not wholly die. He was sent to Treblinka in January 1943.
Luba Bielicka Blum (1906 – 1973) was Director of the Nursing School in the Warsaw Ghetto. She attended the Czyste Hospital Nursing School in Warsaw and was active in the Bund. She kept training nurses and treating the sick against all odds until the mass deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942. While many leaders of the Bund fled to Russia, Luba decided to remain in Warsaw, continuing to oversee the functioning of the school. During the mass deportations of the summer of 1942, due to her connections with Polish nurses and members of the Communist Party, she was able to smuggle her children along with other children out of the ghetto. Luba and the children survived in hiding with false papers. They were liberated by the Russians in 1944. Her husband Abrasza remained as one of the Bundist leaders of the Ghetto Uprising. He was caught and murdered. In 1949, Luba reestablished the nursing school in Warsaw . She received many awards for her dedicated work as a nurse and school administrator, including the prestigious Florence Nightingale Medal for her activities during the war under the Nazi oppression. She passed away in Warsaw in 1973.
Dr. Josef Stein (1904 – 1943) became the Director of Czyste Hospital in the Ghetto. Though born Jewish, he converted to Catholicism. He considered himself Polish – not Jewish. At the start of the war, he was an Associate in the Department of Pathology at Holy Ghost Hospital and a cancer researcher. In late 1940, Czyste Hospital was forced to leave their buildings outside the ghetto and move to new quarters in the Ghetto. They had to leave all equipment, supplies, beds and medications behind. Dr. Stein managed to raise funds, procure equipment and supplies and renovate the derelict buildings that they were assigned to keep treating patients. He wrote: “The hospital has ceased to be a hospital; it is not even a poorhouse. All the patients find there is medical assistance which…operates with very inadequate means. The food supply…is strictly a fiction. The patient who has no means of providing his own food becomes swollen with hunger and soon dies” Dr. Stein was known as a “quiet and very gentle man”. He refused offers to be smuggled out of the ghetto saying that as the director of the only functioning hospital for adults, his duty was to his patients. He did not survive.
Dr. Myron Winick, in his book Final Stamp: The Jewish Doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto writes: Josef Stein and his dedicated medical staff, working amidst the most adverse conditions imaginable, healed the sick and comforted the dying. For this alone they should be revered in the annals of medicine.
May the memory of their dedication and sacrifice be a blessing and an inspiration to us all.