Dr. Viktor Frankl
The most famous physician survivor of the Holocaust was Dr. Viktor Frankl, who was revered as a healer and protector in Terezin and Auschwitz. (Photo: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, via Wikipedia)

The health care heroes from the past cannot only place the work of our current health care workforce in its proper cultural and historical place but can also give us hope for our future.

Even before the coronavirus spread disruption, fear and death, there was a noticeable shortage of hope and purpose among many Americans. Declining life expectancy among several groups was attributable to high rates of suicide and drug overdose. Physicians, nurses and public health advocates were already on the frontlines of these battles, well before the COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright light on just how essential health care workers are, not just for our health, but for our sense of hope.

Rabbi Herbert Yoksowitz (left) and Dr. Jason Wasserman (right)
Rabbi Herbert Yoksowitz (left) and Dr. Jason Wasserman (right)

During this difficult period of history, one “feel good” moment we experienced was the applause given to health care workers as they left the hospital when they completed their shifts. They not only used their expertise to care for the afflicted, they also demonstrated to the rest of us virtues of selflessness, generosity and courage in the face of risk.

Further, they remained committed to the virtues of their professions even when we failed them, when we failed to follow through on our applause with proper protection equipment, appropriate compensation, or job security.

In their commitment to the health of their patients, and indeed to all the health of society at large, these health care workers participated in a tradition too rarely recounted, a tradition of moral courage and virtuous resistance. The health care heroes from the past cannot only place the work of our current health care workforce in its proper cultural and historical place but can also give us hope for our future.

Heroes of the Past

On this 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and as we eagerly await a coronavirus vaccine, we can look to the example of Dr. Rudolph Weigl, who, during the period of the Holocaust, discovered at an institute in Lvov the first vaccine against typhus. This non-Jewish zoologist saved many lives at great risk to his own when he smuggled this vaccine to Jewish physicians in the Lvov ghetto and in Auschwitz.

Other stories of physicians caring for patients in the ghettoes and camps help us figure out not only how to move away from evil, but also what it means to turn toward the good.

“Autumn 1943,” a work by Karel Fleischmann of Dr. Erich Munk, who was head of the health department in Theresienstadt Ghetto
“Autumn 1943,” a work by Karel Fleischmann of Dr. Erich Munk, who was head of the health department in Theresienstadt Ghetto. Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem

Mark Dworzecki recognized and documented the historical moment he was in, not only preserving what might otherwise have been lost, but also encouraging others to capture their own stories.

Karel Fleischmann documented the horrors of the camps in paintings that were smuggled out of Germany at great personal risk. Leading up to his murder at Auschwitz, his paintings and writings turned toward an apparent hopelessness. But his continued acts of artistic creation betray the resilience of hope and the humanity of struggle.

Gisella Perl spent her years in Auschwitz scheming against Mengele to save the lives of countless women. Her memoir brings into sharp relief how her commitment to humanism drove her to such bold acts of defiance.

The most famous physician survivor of the Holocaust was Dr. Viktor Frankl, who was revered as a healer and protector in Terezin and Auschwitz, and whose life’s work centered on the hope and meaning he wrenched from the struggle and the tragedy.

Frankl tried to give hope to his fellow prisoners by encouraging them to act with decency to each other, caring for each other and showing compassion even when the world of the camps showed little decency to them and might have fostered little for which to hope. So much of what he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning applies to the current day.

For example, Frankl describes an address to camp prisoners who were being punished with starvation: “[I told them] they must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours — a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God — and he would not expect us to disappoint him” (1946, p. 104).

As health care workers faced the difficult hours of this pandemic, and as they face future challenges that may engender burnout or even despair, it is our duty to offer them whatever support we can. The healthcare system cannot function without their hope.

Holocaust memoirs written by physicians abound, and without exception, the authors recount how deeply they remained connected to the spirit of doctoring even under the most horrid of conditions. In this way, even when deprived of their clinical spaces and the tools of their trades, they were able to give hope to people in the ghettos and in the concentration camps. Even amidst the often-insurmountable encroachment of evil and death, they fulfilled their purpose to bring healing to their patients. Elie Wiesel wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “When I think about the Nazi doctors, the medical executioners, I lose hope. To find it again, I think about the authors, the victim-doctors” (2005, 352, p.15).

We should not undervalue the health care heroes of today and their commitment to our health. They have remained true to their professional oaths in spite of everything. Our hero doctors have proven they will be there for us regardless of the obstacles they face. They deserve not only to be remembered, but also to be honored with more than slogan-support for what they have done and what they continue to do.

They are exhibiting the highest standards of the teaching, “Who is honored, one who honors his fellows” (Pirke Avot, 4:1). Let us work to salute, in real and tangible ways, our health care heroes whose actions merit honor.

Herbert A. Yoskowitz D. Div (hon.) is rabbi emeritus at Adat Shalom Synagogue and lecturer at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. Jason Adam Wasserman, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. They are the co-authors of “Resistance, Medicine and Moral Courage: Lessons on Bioethics from Jewish Physicians During the Holocaust.” Conatus: Journal of Philosophy, Volume 4(2); 2019: 359-378.

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