Galveston, Texas — At the start of a lecture to two dozen physicians, nurses and academics in a classroom at the University of Texas Medical Branch here one recent morning, Cheyenne Martin poses a question.
“What comes to mind when you hear ‘doctors in the Holocaust?,’” asks Martin, a registered nurse and professor of ethics in the university’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
A hand goes up in the front row.
That’s the answer she usually hears when she asks that question — Mengele, the “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz, was the elegantly dressed, classical-music-whistling physician who greeted trainloads of Jews as they descended ramps at the death camp, waving the young and aged and infirm to the left, to their death in gas chambers, later conducting hideous experiments with twins and other prisoners.
“For 60 years plus,” Martin said, “what was known about medicine in the Holocaust was Mengele.”
She’s trying to change that.
In lectures around the country, in work with the Holocaust museum in nearby Houston, in a book on which she is now at work, Martin is documenting the role that members of the medical profession — primarily doctors and nurses, Jews and non-Jews — played in resisting the genocidal activities of the Third Reich.
According to Holocaust experts, physicians in Germany joined the Nazi Party in higher percentages than any other profession, many advancing up the ranks of the SS, but many doctors and nurses also fought back.
The number of such people who risked their own lives to save the lives that the Nazis were determined to eliminate is probably in the thousands, but their heroism is usually the stuff of “footnotes,” not of books or documentary films — largely because for a long time no one asked, and the dying-off generation of physicians and nurses were reluctant to talk about their exploits, Martin says.
“Nobody knows about them,” she says. “This is a great untold story … a legacy we need to celebrate.”
Martin’s curiosity in the topic was kindled by research she conducted in a related area at the Library of Congress several years ago. She read scattered references to members of the medical profession who took part in resistance efforts.
“Who were they? What happened to them?” she wondered.
Her research — and self-training — began. “I wasn’t a student of resistance. I’m not a trained historian.”
Martin has subsequently found members of the medical profession who “illegally” treated Jewish patients in Nazi-occupied countries, smuggled people and medical supplies, forged documents, set up an underground medical school in the Warsaw Ghetto, sabotaged Nazi medical experiments, substituted water for poisonous compounds in hypodermic injections under Nazi eyes, removed concentration camp tattoos from prisoners’ arms, gave incorrect-but-lifesaving diagnoses, hid patients from roundups, occasionally clandestinely caused a Nazi’s death, and who often became active in armed resistance efforts.
The White Rose resistance unit in Berlin was the only one whose roots were primarily in the medical profession; it was the initiative of medical students.
“A lot of people would join the resistance when they had lost everyone who had mattered to them,” Martin says.
“I found hundreds of doctors and nurses — both Jewish and non-Jewish — who were involved in underground activities in France and in Italy, transporting children and adults to safe havens,” she says. Some worked with “armed resistance groups in southern France and forest partisans in Poland and Belarus. These partisan groups often had a doctor attached to them.” Some “set up resistance operations, including mobile ‘MASH-style’ hospitals to treat wounded partisans.”
One such resistance unit, in France, in 1944 saved the life of downed U.S. pilot Chuck Yeager, who four years later went on to become the first person to break the sound barrier.
Martin, a Unitarian, has conducted her research in books and archives in personal interviews, traveling frequently to Israel and Europe.
“One of the most fascinating groups I researched was a group of French nuns who helped organize resistance efforts in their hospital in Limoges,” she says. “They saved hundreds of Jewish adults and children by hiding them in the hospital.
Martin interviewed Sister Joan of Arc, “one of the remaining nurse nuns,” who was honored as Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, in a Catholic retirement home in France. “She told me the story of taking care of and hiding a wounded survivor of a Nazi massacre of an entire French town, Oradur-sur-Glane.”
Although a U.S. military court in 1947 estimated that at least 350 doctors had “behaved criminally” in Germany during the war, the exact number of members of the medical profession who resisted the Nazis, or who lost their lives doing it, is not known.
“Not all doctors and nurses got involved in this,” Martin says, adding, “it was a substantial number.”
The subject, says Holocaust authority Michael Berenbaum, is “little known. We don’t know enough about it.”
It is important to a complete understanding of the Holocaust, he says; physicians were venerated parts of German society, respected opinion leaders. The seeds for the Final Solution were planted with the gassing of the mentally ill, under the aegis of “the psychiatric community. They were responsible for the deaths of thousands.”
Martin’s work offers “an extraordinary model of how to behave” in the worst of times,” Berenbaum says. It provides “a counterweight to the largely told story of how the medical profession became essential to the [Nazis’] killing process.”
Several books — most notably, Robert Jay Lifton’s “The Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 2000) — have described how physicians and other members of the medical profession were co-opted into participating in the Nazis’ murderous activities.
“If we only talk about the Nazi doctors, that’s only half the story,” Martin says.
As an ethicist, she concentrates on the lessons that the example of wartime medical resistance offers to contemporary practitioners and medical students, who face their own ethical dilemmas on the job.
“It does resonate with them,” Martin says.
“It’s not just history,” says Erica Fletcher, a doctoral student in medical humanities who attended Martin’s recent lecture.
Martin wants the doctors and nurses who resisted the Nazis to become as well known as Josef Mengele. “I would like some of these heroic professional to be household names. We need to address this history.”