Physicians heal anyone they can, no questions asked
My father was the personal physician of the German Nazi commander of the largest Dutch transit concentration camp, Westerbork, via which 105,000 Jews traveled on to their murders “in the East,” among them Anne Frank.
My father was an exception in many ways. He grew up dirt-poor. He and his brother were able to study at the university through a grant for gifted children from the Dutch government. They both chose Medicine.
My father, Nico (natan) van Zuiden, just got his medical diploma (bul) on the day Germany invaded the Netherlands, May 10, 1940. As customary, at MD graduation, he vowed to work as prescribed in the Hippocratic Oath.
He grew up in a tiny apartment in the now gentrified Folkingestraat at the heart of the City of Groningen, which then held the second-largest Jewish community in the Netherlands after Amsterdam. Then, the street wasn’t paved with asphalt, bricks, or cobblestones, but bare sand. Summer and winter that meant: mud. The boys wore wooden shoes. They were cheap, sturdy, warm, and waterproof. Yet, to save them humiliation in the halls of academia, their holy parents worked like crazy to get them leather shoes.
The province of Groningen was possibly the most hostile to Jews of all of them. Its homonymous capital wasn’t any better. So, the Groningen Jews were the easiest Dutch target for the Nazis, without friends or money.
So, my father, his family, and all his neighbors were among the first to land in Westerbork, with the assistance of the Dutch police and train personnel.
Het Apeldoornsche Bosch
My mother (the two didn’t know each other yet) was at the hideous emptying of the Jewish psychiatric hospital where she worked as a nurse, not an unusual profession for Jewish girls before and until they married.
My mother, Betty (baty-a) Nieweg, was to be on leave on January 21, 1943, the planned day of the raid on Het Apeldoornsche Bosch, a most modern mental clinic at the time. The ambush was supposed to be a secret operation, but, through sloppiness, it leaked the day before. Many nurses (and fake nurses hiding from deportation), ran. But, with her big heart, my mother rushed to the hospital to get the confused and scared patients ‘ready,’ made sandwiches (that were not taken, in the end), and dressed them. The commander of Westerbork had come over too to enjoy ‘the wonderful sight’ (my mother’s words). The Nazis were kind of scared that mental illness would be contagious, so instead of pushing the confused patients into the open trucks, they hit them with sticks into the vehicles.
The Nazi police asked for 50 nurses who would want to accompany the deportees. My mother wanted to volunteer, but a friend, a Jewish physician who worked there too, who was a bit less naïve, pulled her out of sight behind a door and whispered in her ear: one peep and I kill you.
It turned out that the nurses were directed to the gas chambers upon arrival in Auschwitz, and the patients were gassed still in the trains.
Chosen by Nazis
My mother reencountered the Westerbork commander when she was deported with her parents. She would work in the camp as a head nurse.
At a certain moment, the camp commander ordered three nurses and two physicians to show up at his office, my future father and mother among them. He told them: You take care of me and my soldiers, and we will not transport you. My mother told me they didn’t believe him. Every Tuesday of the roll call for deportation ‘to the East,’ my parents showed up, their backpacks packed, ready to be ordered into the train. They were right. Their names did appear on the last transport list out of the camp. That train never left because the Allies had already liberated the East.
The Nazis were steeped in evil but not stupid. Without saying anything bad about the wonderful people whom they didn’t select into this group of five, in these two they were not mistaken. My father would rather die than be deceitful. He was incorruptible. People say: “Everyone has their price.” They didn’t know my dad. My mom could not hurt a fly with her big heart.
My father was less naïve than most intellectual Jews, possibly because he grew up poor. Before the war, a Jewish physician, Eli Cohen, had shared at a medical congress in the Netherlands that the Nazis were building extermination camps. No one believed him but my father.
As a personal physician of the camp commander and other Nazis, he had all kinds of ‘privileges.’ They were awarded in the most humiliating way. For limited time, signed by the commander. He was allowed out after the 8 PM curfew, to use a bike (the camp was large), and even leave the camp! He sometimes took a patient to a hospital for deeper tests, sometimes he went to a medical library, etc. He always came back. He was told: You don’t return, for you, we’ll send several to the East. He asked me: Was my blood redder than theirs? (A principle from the Talmud that he somehow received by osmosis because he had had no official Jewish training at all.)
After the war, when I was a teenager, I asked my father, who never talked about the war: Was it not hard to take good medical care of the one who was orchestrating the murder of tens of thousands of Jews?
He answered me: I had sworn an oath to heal people. The rest is politics, and I can’t work with that. Note: The last verb was in the present tense!
Politicians now suggesting that medical personnel could refuse state-of-the-art medical treatment ‘because of their own religious conviction,’ don’t know what goes on in healthcare. A life-long smoker gets the same lung cancer or heart infarct treatment as someone we deem innocently ill. A terrorist who killed and maimed but survives gets the best treatment available, no questions asked. If, in Israel, you don’t want to room with Muslim/Jewish/neither patients or be treated by Muslim/Jewish/neither medical staff, you have a problem because, no matter what wars rage outside and what rage is in-vogue, inside Israeli healthcare reigns peace.
Now, this idea that, as a physician, you heal anyone you can, no questions asked, is a long-standing, established practice around the world.
Surely, medical science was compromised before WW II. Scores of ‘respectable’ physicians and other academics were measuring skulls, artificially dividing humanity into ‘biological races,’ and publishing their ‘state-of-the-art’ nonsense in reputable medical journals, including the Dutch high-standard Neederlansch Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde.
That did not mean that someone would not get optimal medical advice and treatment because of ‘race.’ Medical Nazis, assistants to torture, and Soviet ‘psychiatric treatment’ of dissidents were always exceptions.
Surely, a Muslim physician in an Israeli hospital may have to prove herself more than an equally qualified Jewish MD. This is not different from a woman surgeon needing to be better than a male colleague. It’s human nature or general oppression, whatever you call it. And the cleaners in Israeli hospitals are all Muslim. That’s capitalism. But there is no chance that Israeli healthcare suddenly starts treating or not treating patients following workers’ feelings and convictions. No way.
I knew a Jew who really hated Muslims. There are people like that. He learned to be an ambulance driver. He told me, most of those I transport are Muslims. Don’t you hate that? No, I just act with them as I should. But I’m doing this job to save Jews. Even racists can only serve democratically.
That’s not a Jewish principle. That is general medical ethics around the world. Even in the US, where stone-hard fundamentalists are ready to defile weddings and funerals, no one ever suggested closing healthcare for certain groups, or offering them ‘similar’ care by someone else—I hope.
I’m working on a booklet on my dear departed parents’ War stories.