Sarah de Forest
Chicago, Illinois, United States
The Operation, Christian Schad
He is a handsome man, no one can deny it, and he has a pleasant smile. In this terrible place, its inhabitants ravaged by hunger and disease, he always looks as though he just came from the barber, and his men know that slovenliness or disorder is the surest way to provoke him. “You cannot allow your environment to determine the kind of man you are,” he tells me. “At all times, we must remember that we are working to advance civilization and obey the rules of proper conduct, just as we would those of biological necessity.” He himself shows no signs of falling victim to decadence or melancholy—on the contrary, he is almost always cheerful and his energy seems boundless. He is there to greet every arrival and his enthusiasm for the work never seems to flag. Sometimes I can hear him humming to himself, usually Wagner or Strauss. I never used to listen to classical music before, but I have come to know the pieces he enjoys because he likes to play his phonograph while we are working in the operating theater.
It is difficult for me to keep up with him sometimes, and it is with great self-loathing that I admit the relentlessness of the pace has become inseparable in my mind from the horrors I see every waking hour. Perhaps this is simply a matter of volume. In one way it would be a relief to grow desensitized to these scenes, even though the better part of me furiously resists taking refuge in numbness. I have come to understand that all suffering is for nothing, but at least I can bear witness to the torment our patients endure.
With the children, he is never “doctor,” only “uncle.” I avoid going with him to the wards as often as possible, but I have often seen how affectionately he spoils them. He always carries sweets in his pockets, and he calls them each by name, no matter how many there are or how recently they have arrived. No detail of their care is too small for him to attend to—he questions the nurses about what they are eating, how they have slept, whether they seem happy or sad.
It is hard for me to comprehend how he can manage to be so lovingly invested in children he has seen suffer so greatly and whom he knows are mostly destined to die, sometimes with astonishing suddenness or cruelty. I myself can hardly bear to look at them. Of course, he is not troubled by feelings like mine, which he would doubtless consider cowardly. By his own admission, the work itself exalts him above all the misery it encompasses. “The practice of medicine is not a job, it is a vocation,” he tells me as we labor in the operating room. He has a tendency to become carried away by his own eloquence, even as his fingers meticulously execute the task at hand. “Its goal is no less than the salvation of humanity, and this salvation will only be achieved through knowledge. The things we learn now, today, will eradicate all suffering tomorrow.”
It is impossible for me to tell him that human advancement means nothing to me, that I am just trying to survive. It does not seem to occur to him that the landscape he views from the pinnacle of his ideals is to me a wretched cesspool I must wade through for the sake of a future that I will probably never see. On my darkest days, I wonder if the idea of survival is an illusion, the future poisoned beyond all redemption by the present.
One thing I am sure of, and that is that if I do survive working for Dr. Mengele, I will never lay my hand on a scalpel again.
SARAH DE FOREST was born in the US but grew up in Germany and Portugal. She has a Masters Degree in chemistry from University of California-Berkeley and was an organic and inorganic chemistry instructor before attending medical school. She is currently a fourth-year medical student pursuing a residency in psychiatry. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.