Risking it all to save strangers—remembering Gisella Perl

Jacquline Musgrave
Peoria, Arizona, United States

 

Gisella Perl After WWII
Dr. Gisella Perl after World War II. Source.

Her hands were cracked and covered in mud and dirt as she delivered the baby, broke its little neck, closed its eyes, and buried it in a hole outside. No one would know about this baby, or the others who would meet the same fate. She did it to save the lives of the women in the compound, for she was a doctor at Auschwitz and a prisoner herself.

Gisella Perl was a Romanian Hungarian woman born on December 10, 1907, to a Jewish well-to-do family. She dreamed of going to medical school but her father was reluctant to send her, worried she would abandon her strong religious upbringing. After she made certain promises to him, she was allowed to pursue her dream and became a gynecologist. She married a doctor and had a son and a daughter when they were raided by the Nazis in 1944. Dr. Perl and her family were stripped, shaved, and tattooed with a number before being sent to barracks and assigned to work. Her parents were sent to the gas chambers immediately and Dr. Perl soon learned of their fate. In the following weeks, she would be starved, beaten, threatened, ridiculed, humiliated, and dehumanized.

Perl was the head women’s doctor at the camp. She was given a room with a table, some makeshift beds, and paper bandages. She had no water, disinfectant, sutures, gloves, or anesthesia. All she had was an old pocketknife that she sharpened on a rock. The prisoners were treated for typhus, malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, sexually transmitted diseases, open sores, and lice, which infected the entire camp. She saved her margarine and put it on open wounds. She made makeshift splints and casts for broken bones. She performed more than 3,000 abortions because pregnancy was an automatic death sentence for women in Auschwitz. Even still, there were many days when the block overseer would walk in and clear the “hospital,” sending everyone in it to their deaths. Gisella wondered when she would be sent with them.

Perl relied on kind words to give the prisoners hope when they felt they could no longer go on. The hospital was overseen by Irma Grese, a twenty-one-year-old Nazi. Perl testified at Grese’s trial of her inhumane and sexually abusive behavior, bringing to light the sexual abuse that took place in the camps. Many others were too damaged and humiliated to discuss it. Irma Grese was under orders from Dr. Josef Mengele, infamous for deciding who would live or die with his pointed finger, and the barbaric experiments he performed on men, women, children, and babies, especially twins. Mengele removed organs from people without anesthetic, and if one twin died the other would be murdered (Walker, 2015). At first the S.S. encouraged pregnant women to step forward with the promise of better conditions, more food, and safety for their unborn child. One night while running an errand, Perl saw naked pregnant women surrounded by soldiers, thrown on their knees, being punched, kicked, torn apart by dogs, dragged around by their hair, and then thrown into the crematory alive. She vowed then that no woman would suffer such fate because of her condition if she could help it and she started aborting the babies.

In her memoir I Was a Doctor at Auschwitz, Perl said, “No one will ever know what it meant to me to destroy those babies. After years and years of medical practice, childbirth to me was still the most beautiful and most wonderful miracle of nature. I loved those babies not as a doctor, but as a mother. It was my own child I was killing again and again to save the life of a woman.” Her memoir goes on to detail the horrors she witnessed and documents her move from Auschwitz to Hamberg and then Belgen-Bernsen, where she was eventually liberated. She assisted with rescue and recovery efforts before finally leaving the camp in search of her family. Only then would she learn the fate of her beloved husband and son who died just before liberation, and she tried to commit suicide.

Upon recovery, Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to lunch and encouraged her to start practicing medicine again. She was granted citizenship in 1951 and began work as a gynecologist in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, delivered around 3,000 babies in New York alone, and became an expert in infertility treatment (Staff, 2021). Between 1955 and 1972, Perl authored or co-authored nine academic papers on the treatment of diseases common in pregnancy. Her work investigated treatments for vaginal infections in pregnant women, examined unintended effects of the contraceptive pill, and explored ways of treating and diagnosing thrush. Several were co-authored with Dr. Alan Guttmacher, the eminent director of the obstetrics and gynecology department and a reproductive rights leader who pioneered policies to increase access to abortion and the contraceptive pill (Gross, 2020). She opened her own practice on Park Avenue in 1966, which consisted mainly of Holocaust survivors.

Dr. Perl had to overcome horrific conditions but did not give up on humanity and continued to have compassion for her fellow inmates. She was a true hero, risking her life to save the lives of thousands of women, and living through unspeakable horrors herself while giving hope to others in the same circumstances. Dr. Gisella Perl died December 16, 1988, at the age of eighty-one. As new generations learn of the Holocaust, her beautiful nature, determination, and strength are her legacy.

 

References

  1. Staff, 2021, Gisella Perl- Biography retrieved from https://www.jewage.org/wiki/en/Article:Gisella_Perl_-_Biography
  2. R. Gross, May 20, 2020 The Auschwitz Doctor ‘who couldn’t do no harm’ retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200526-dr-gisella-perl-the-auschwitz-doctor-who-saved-lives
  3. Walker, January 28, 2015 The Twins of Auschwitz retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30933718.amp

 

 


 

JACQULINE MUSGRAVE is a freelance writer and independent contractor in the food and beverage industry who lives in Peoria, Arizona.

 

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