Editor’s note: The content below might be graphic and disturbing.
From a young age, Gisella Perl lived on a different path. Born in Sighet, Hungary, Perl was the only woman and Jew graduate of her secondary school class before later traveling to Berlin to study medicine, where Jewish medical practice thrived before World War II. Returning to Hungary, she became a doctor alongside her husband, Ephraim Krauss. Together, they had a son and daughter, Gabriella, who would be torn from her in 1944 when the family was sent to the Siget Ghetto. Later, Perl was stuffed into a windowless cattle train bound to Auschwitz.
In Auschwitz, she was one of several doctors under the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, a Nazi physician and captain who was known in the camp as the “Angel of Death”. If a prisoner was sent to Mengele because they were sick, weak, or for any other reason, they never came back. Mengele was known for gruesome human experimentation. At first, Perl had the standard duties of bandaging wounds and treating broken ribs. Over time, her work became harrowing, both physically and mentally.
Dr. Mengele had ordered Dr. Perl to inform him of any pregnant women in the camp so that they would be sent to another camp for “better nutrition”. However, Dr. Perl quickly realized that there was no separate camp for pregnant women and that they were being used as research subjects. Eventually, these pregnant women would be thrown into the crematorium, sometimes alive. After that, Dr. Perl decided to ensure that no women would become pregnant ever again in Auschwitz. In a 1982 interview with The New York Times, Perl said “The greatest crime in Auschwitz was to be pregnant.”
Rape and violence ran rampant in Auschwitz, despite Nazi taboos surrounding sex with Jewish women. Sex was often used as a commodity by women to trade for essential goods within the camp. Dr. Perl recalled being raped by a male prisoner in exchange for shoelaces, which she needed to walk to the hospital every day. This is how most women found themselves pregnant in Auschwitz, which was a death sentence.
After learning of a pregnant prisoner, Dr. Perl would explain the consequences of pregnancy to the expectant mother. If the mother consented, Dr. Perl would quietly perform an abortion to terminate the pregnancy in the middle of the night in the barracks. These abortions were performed without medical tools, anesthesia, antibiotics, or bandages. In the rare cases that a woman gave birth, Dr. Perl would silently take the newborn’s breath away to save the mother’s life. Aside from her surgeries on pregnant women, she would also treat women’s laceration wounds from S.S. whips, rashes, and sexual infections.
Eventually, Dr.Perl was moved to a different concentration camp, which was later liberated by the British. For another month, she remained behind at the camp to treat the sick and dying. After that, for 19 days she walked on foot across Germany in search of her family. Her husband and son died soon after they were taken to the concentration camp in 1944, but her daughter, Gabriella, had survived the war while being hidden by a Protestant family. It wasn’t until 1978 that Perl would reunite with her daughter and move to Herzliya, Israel to live with her. But before that, at the recommendation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr.Perl specialized in infertility at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan after meeting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and eventually being granted special U.S. citizenship by President Harry Truman.
Perl never forgot the horrific experience of having to kill babies in Auschwitz in order to save the mothers. Every time she walked into a delivery room, she would say the same prayer: “God, you owe me a life, a living baby.” God answered her prayers, and she delivered over 3,000 healthy babies.
In 1948, her memoir I Was A Doctor in Auschwitz was one of the first books to detail sexual violence in concentration camps. Throughout her career, she also co-authored nine academic papers on women’s and children’s health.
As an aspiring gynecologist, I aim to walk in the footsteps of Dr. Perl, a woman who continuously risked her life to save others. Each time she held a newborn in her arms, memories of Auschwitz probably haunted her…and gave her the resilience to continue to deliver babies. Today, healthcare workers on the frontlines remain society’s greatest heroes, and it was people like Dr. Gisella Perl who paved the way for good in a world of hopelessness that we have to thank.
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