The Death Doctors

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

by Robert Jay Lifton
Basic Books, 561 pp., $19.95

Mengele: The Complete Story

by Gerald L. Posner and John Ware
McGraw-Hill, 364 pp., $18.95

Auschwitz: An Eyewitness Account of Mengele's Infamous Death Camp

by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, translated by Tibère Kremer and Richard Seaver, with a foreword by Bruno Bettelheim
Seaver Books, 160 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Letters from Westerbork

by Etty Hillesum, introduction and notes by Jan G. Gaarlandt, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans
Pantheon, 156 pp., $14.95

On a winter morning in Frankfurt, when it was still dark, the journalists were taken into a small, well-guarded room to show them the defendants at the forthcoming Auschwitz trial. That was in 1963. I remember staring at those faces, as the photographers scrambled among them, as if physiognomy would begin to unlock the mystery of how human beings—what sort of human beings?—had done those things.

Here and there were the faces of wild beasts, grinning uncomprehendingly: terrible Boger with his yellow eyes, the great skull of Kaduk. There was no mystery about them. When Etty Hillesum saw faces like those as the trains drew into the camp at Westerbork to begin the deportations to Auschwitz, she thought of the line in Scripture which says that God made man in His own image and, for the first and last time, her religious faith was shaken to its roots. But then there were the others. Mulka, the camp adjutant, looking like a bad-tempered old shopkeeper, or Perry Broad, who had been one of the youngest SS guards, still a sleek and youthful man in an immaculate three-piece suit with the expression of somebody accused of parking his Jaguar in a pedestrian zone. Their appearance told me nothing.

And there were the doctors. These men, trained in famous academies and some with high research qualifications, bound by the Hippocratic oath, had carried out selections on the ramp—dividing the incoming torrent from the trains into those who were sent straight to the gas chambers and those who were to be worked to death. Some had killed thousands by injections, or carried out experiments on helpless men, women, and children. Most had taken part in internal selections within the medical blocks, consigning to death those with infectious diseases, those too weak to be worth keeping, and those whose bodies had fulfilled their purposes in research.

If the sight of the doctors answered no fundamental questions, neither did the evidence as the long trial got into its stride. It became clear that the doctors above all had subscribed to an “Auschwitz code of values” which could not be reconciled in their own minds with the charge that they had betrayed all medical or human standards. It was not even as simple as “evil, be thou my good.” Early in the trial, one witness described how a group of Polish children had been brought to Auschwitz after being caught stealing coal. Since there was at the time no separate block for children, they were distributed among different huts. However, a medical decision was taken that “it was morally dangerous for children to sleep among adult men.” So the children were taken to the medical block and given lethal injections. “In this way,” said the witness quietly, “the morals of the camp were preserved.”

More than twenty years have passed since that trial, and it is only now, after reading Professor Lifton’s book, that I have begun to understand the fundamental question, How could they?—the subjective…

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