The Value of Life and Moral Courage : How Jewish Prisoner Physicians Practiced Medicine Behind Barbed Wire




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In the Weimar Republic, physicians joined the Nazi Party; in fact, nearly half of all German physicians joined, making physicians the largest group of professionals to become members. The German Medical Society became instrumental in the state medical program after 1933, commencing with the marginalization of Jewish doctors and culminating with the mass murder of over six million Jews in Europe. Since their Hippocratic Oath demanded, “primum, non nocere”, one might wonder why so many doctors abandoned their principles. Not all doctors in Europe abandoned their ethical codes and training. Jewish physicians held to sacred oaths and religious training with moral courage under the most challenging circumstances. Practicing medicine behind barbed wire, confronting catastrophic diseases and starvation, and offering some humanity where there was none, were everyday activities for Jewish physicians. Though the physicians suffered right along with their patients, these men and women summoned their value for life as well as their moral courage to preserve life whenever possible, and to accompany their dying patients to the “river.” The Nazi physicians stand as a prime example of the loss of ethical behavior and the extreme malpractice of medicine, but we can learn from the Jewish physicians about moral courage in preventing such abuse from occurring again and in confronting all of the technologies that challenge us in future science.



Auschwitz (Concentration camp), Jewish physicians, Nazi concentration camps, Jewish ghettos, Litzmannstadt-Getto (Łódź, Poland), Getto warszawskie (Warsaw, Poland)