The secret medical school in the Warsaw Ghetto
|Poland, Warsaw Ghetto. Passers-by next to a Jewish child in rags lying on the sidewalk (sleeping, sick or dying?). 1941. German Federal Archives. Via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.|
In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The invaders quickly started to repress the Jews of Poland and confiscate their property and businesses. In November 1940, the Jews of Warsaw were confined to a walled-in area of about three-and-one-half square kilometers. About 400,000 to 500,000 people, the second largest Jewish community in the world and thirty percent of Warsaw’s population, were imprisoned in five percent of the city’s surface area. The population density was fifteen times that of New York City. The Nazis allowed two hospitals to function in the ghetto: the Czyte Hospital and the Bauman and Berson Children’s Hospital. They removed nearly all of the medications, instruments, and equipment before turning them over to the Jews.
According to the Nazis, the Jews were forced into a ghetto because “Jews were especially susceptible to typhus, and therefore must be confined.” The Germans were very afraid of typhus, a louse-borne disease that killed five million Germans after the first world war. Of course, once so many people were crammed into such close quarters without enough water for bathing and an inadequate caloric intake, there were typhus outbreaks in the ghetto.
Although Jews were prohibited from attending school in occupied Poland, the Nazis allowed the ghetto to establish “Sanitary Courses in Fighting Epidemics” in 1940. These were to be classes in basic hygiene and basic epidemiology, and they started out as such. However, from May 1941 until July 1942 these classes were used as a “front” for clandestine medical education. Although the Nazis made unannounced inspections in other parts of the ghetto, they never inspected the site of the “Sanitary Courses” in a building near but outside of the ghetto.
Students were sometimes beaten or raped on their way to class. The organizers of the school believed that if the war lasted for many years, there would be a need to “qualify physicians to fill the depleted ranks of Jewish . . . [doctors] in Warsaw.” The courses were based on the standard European curriculum of medical studies. The “primary course” in basic science was two years long. There was minimal lab space available. Anatomy was taught in a hospital morgue. Textbooks were in short supply. Catholic medical colleagues at Warsaw University, at considerable personal risk, smuggled in teaching materials, including pathologic anatomy specimens.
The “superior course” from years three to six consisted of clinical clerkships. Conditions in the hospitals were deplorable. The staff available for teaching was small and was reduced even more when faculty disappeared, were killed, or randomly taken for labor projects. There were usually two patients per bed. The patients had lice and their wounds had maggots. Everyone was starving. Doctors sometimes gave lethal doses of morphine to adult and child patients before the Nazis took them away to be killed. Some patients threw themselves off the hospital roof when the Nazis came to “transport” them.
Students took oral and written examinations on a regular basis. About 500 people were educated in the fifteen months the school existed. A question that is often asked: “Why did the faculty and students undertake this dangerous and futile enterprise?” Firstly, until mid-1942, “perhaps the majority of inhabitants of the ghetto believed that many of them would survive the war.” Also, there was plenty of medical talent in the ghetto to serve as faculty, as well as, unfortunately, an abundance of patients. The potential students lacked other forms of intellectual activity. It was thought that studying medicine without the occupiers’ knowledge was a form of resistance. The teaching and learning of medicine helped produce something that resembled a normal life. The other choice was “total desperation, total demoralization, suicide, escapism . . . [alcohol], but instead we started to study.”
Of the twenty-seven Warsaw Ghetto medical faculty, nine survived the war. Some of the students continued their studies after the war. The Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed by the German army in 1943, after two months of fierce armed resistance by Jewish fighters in the ghetto.
Most of the information in this article was taken from the first reference.
- Charles Roland. An underground medical school in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941-1942,” Med Hist, 33(4):399-419, 1989.
- Danny Ehrlich. “Medical heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, Yom Hashoah in the shadow of covid,” Times of Israel, April 19, 2020.
- Fran Kritz. “The Warsaw Ghetto can teach the world how to beat back an outbreak,”National Public Radio, September 2, 2020.
- George Weisz, Andrzey Grzyboski, William Albury. “The fate of the Warsaw Ghetto medical faculty,” IMAJ, 14;209-213.
HOWARD FISCHER, MD, was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.
Highlighted Vignette Volume 14, Issue 2 – Spring 2022
Fall 2021 | Sections | Moments in History