Return to ground zero: Hedy Epstein at Nuremberg

HEDY EPSTEIN

December 12, 2010, Sunday/ 13:33:00

“The Horror! The Horror!”

-- Joseph Conrad

“Heart of Darkness”

Here The Horror was born -- with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws (1935), which stripped citizenship from Germans who happened to be Jews...

 Here The Horror was nurtured and exalted -- at monster rallies between 1923-1939, where hundreds of thousands of Germans massed every summer to pledge fanatic fealty to “der Führer”... And here, in Courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice, beginning in 1945, the perpetrators of The Horror were brought to account for their deeds by the Allies: between October 1945-October 1946 24 Nazi leaders were tried at the Trial of Major War Criminals; 12 were sentenced to death... Nuremberg: ground zero.

Beginning in December 1946 another, less-known series of proceedings -- the subsequent Nuremberg Trials -- were conducted by American jurists. The first of these -- the Doctors’ Trial, held between December 1946 and August 1947 -- revealed for the first time the inhuman treatment which Nazi doctors had inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of concentration camp victims.

According to documents discovered by American investigators for the prosecution, and testimony given by survivors, the tortures devised by Nazi sadist-doctors for their victims -- Jews mostly, but also Roma, Polish and Czech dissidents, men, women and children -- included: infection with malaria and typhus, freezing experiments in which victims were immersed in ice water for hours or left outside naked in sub-zero temperatures, high altitude experiments in which victims were forced into a compression chamber and slowly suffocated, poison experiments in which lethal substances were placed in victims’ food and experiments to test the efficacy of sulfanilamide, in which victims were wounded, and the wounds deliberately infected.

All 23 defendants pled “not guilty” -- stating that they acted under orders, and that the experiments were necessary for the survival of the German state. Judges rejected both arguments. Fifteen defendants were found guilty: seven were sentenced to death by hanging.

On Nov. 21, a permanent multimedia exhibition marking the 65th anniversary of the trials was opened in the Palace of Justice. The proceedings, to which all Allied participants had been invited, were inaugurated by the German foreign minister. The French and Russian foreign ministers were also present, as was the American ambassador to Germany.

Among the 200 honored guests in Courtroom 600 sat a diminutive, elegantly dressed 86-year-old German-born lady named Hedy Epstein: a US citizen since 1951, Holocaust survivor and human rights activist.

Since 1970 she has spoken at thousands of schools, universities, churches and civic groups worldwide about the lesson of the Holocaust; since 2000 she has addressed the issue of Israel-Palestine, visiting the occupied West Bank five times since 2003. In March 2011 she will be a passenger on the Audacity of Hope, the American boat which will be part of Freedom Flotilla II traveling to Gaza.

An internationally known figure, Ms. Epstein lost both of her parents and other family members at Auschwitz. She herself was taken to England in 1939, one of the 10,000 Jewish children saved by the Kindertransport ships.

She spent the war years in England and returned to Germany in 1946 in an unsuccessful attempt to find any surviving family members. She was recruited by the US government, first as part of the US Civil Censorship Division, and then as a research analyst for the Doctors’ Trial.

In the only English-language interview she granted during her visit, Ms. Epstein discussed Nuremberg then and now with sunday’s Zaman.

What are your feelings about returning to this courtroom?

 I felt a kind of “ownership,” even though the room had been physically altered. The balcony where German observers sat has been removed and the area where the translators sat behind a glass partition is also gone.

When I entered the room I was greeted by the mayor of Nuremberg -- and then by a group of journalists to whom I wasn’t just “Hedy E.,” but some kind of “VIP” -- a role in which I am certainly not comfortable. There were no American reporters -- which I found odd, given the crucial role America played in the Doctors’ Trial, which was an integral part of the subsequent proceedings.

Comparing my presence then with my presence now, then I was a very small cog in the wheels of justice; now, probably because only a handful of us participants are still alive, I am an honored guest, but I still feel myself “little Hedy from Kippenheim” -- who through a series of lucky coincidences found herself in a place where important history was being made, then and now.

When you began work as a research analyst what was your reaction to the documents you studied?

 I was charged with looking for documentary evidence to be used by the prosecution and was sent to the former Nazi document center in Berlin to do this research. The center was located deep in a well-camouflaged, ill-lit underground bunker. A very grim atmosphere...

I was absolutely unprepared for what I found there. Profoundly shocked.

Like most people, I had no prior knowledge that Nazi doctors had performed thousands of medical experiments on concentration camp victims. What I found were detailed descriptions with no regard or compassion for the victims, along with gruesome photographs of the experiments’ results.

Often I became physically ill, needing to vomit, not being able to sleep and subject to nightmares -- nightmares that continue to this day, in which the victims are my parents, especially my mother.

One day, I found a document dated January 1942, listing people who were to be deported to Auschwitz -- and on it, my father’s name! As always, I was seeking for information about the fate and possible survival of my parents -- but this was a false hope, as I had a letter from my father dated Aug. 9, 1942, from a French camp where he had been interned -- the last I ever received from him.

Can you describe the atmosphere in the courtroom?

It was somber, with the opposing parties in a life-and-death fight. The defendants, seated on wooden benches, all declared their innocence, some of them shouting. “Ich bin nicht schuldig!” (“I am not guilty”) and others stating only “Nein!” I never saw a single sign of regret or remorse from any of them.

On one occasion during the main trial, a recess was called. On impulse, I stood and crossed the room to confront Hermann Göring.

There we stood: Göring, a giant of a man, Hitler’s hand-picked successor, and I, a small woman dressed in a US Army uniform, who had been -- like millions of others -- orphaned by the murderous policies of the man standing inches away. I could not speak, but just looked up at him, straight in the eyes. After a moment, he squirmed uncomfortably and asked his counsel who I was. The lawyer replied that I was a member of the prosecution at the Doctors’ Trial and urged Göring not to speak.

I couldn’t help but think that it was not long before when, if we had been face-to-face, it would have been I who would have been squirming -- and probably in my last moments of life.

On another occasion during the Doctors’ Trial I was able to witness a confrontation between one of the most notorious doctors and one of her victims, a Polish dissident named Vladislava Karoweska -- who had to be carried into the courtroom because she was permanently paralyzed as a result of the tortures inflicted upon her by Dr. Herta Oberheuser, the only female defendant in the trials.

When identified by her victim, Herta showed no emotion whatsoever. Later, on the witness stand, she was asked how she could conduct such experiments. “They were only Polish women,” she answered. “They were going to die anyway.”

The experiments conducted by Dr. Oberheuser involved cutting open leg muscles with a rusty knife, then infecting the wound with wood shavings or dirt -- to test the efficacy of the drug sulfanilamide, which would be administered to wounded German soldiers -- but which was not, needless to say, given to the victims of the experiments.

What are my thoughts on this? It doesn’t take a doctor or a nurse to know that when a wound is infected, death will be the result -- as of course it was for the thousands of Dr. Oberheuser’s victims at the female Ravensbrück concentration camp. Incidentally, Dr. Oberheuser received a 20-year prison sentence, but was released after only five years.

Would you comment on the “not guilty” pleas -- and on the sentencing?

I have opposed the death penalty for many years -- but I had not reached that point in 1946. Then, still hating Germans -- a hatred I conquered in 1970 -- I concurred with the sentences and regretted that some defendants had been acquitted.

Indeed, to the end, even at the moment of death, defendants showed no remorse. For instance, Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician, stood on the gallows and arrogantly declared: “I have no shame in standing here. I served my Fatherland.” The president of the German Red Cross, Karl Gebhardt, also executed, said, “I regret that there is still injustice in the world.”

Does it surprise you that doctors were able to “suspend” their conscience?

It’s simple: They had all taken the Hippocratic Oath -- to heal and not harm. All of them were in clear violation of this oath. The justification they gave for performing these horrendous experiments was that they were following orders -- but perhaps the principal lesson of Nuremberg is that orders from superiors are no excuse! And this has contemporary relevance in relation to tortures being conducted today by medical personnel on political prisoners.

In that connection, Professor George J. Annas, chairman of the Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights Department at Boston University, recently stated that the Doctors’ Trials “marked the birth of American bioethics.” Would you comment on this?

What was the philosophy behind these experiments? The Nazis operated on the immoral principle that “necessity knows no law,” a principle enunciated by [Theobald von] Bethmann-Hollweg, German chancellor between 1904-1917, and before that by Hegel, who said, “What is useful is right.” Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy chancellor, said, “National socialism is applied biology.” In other words, “The end justifies the means.” According to the Nazis, the experiments were necessary to preserve German society as it was then.

Regarding the contemporary relevance of the Doctors’ Trials, Professor Annas adds, “Specifically in the context of our continuing war on terror in which the United States uses physicians to help in interrogations … few Americans, I am sure, ever thought that their government would condone and practice torture and inhuman treatment of prisoners, let alone publicly justify torture as necessary for national security.” Is America letting “the ends justify the means”?

I don’t know if the American doctors at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo justified their actions on the same basis as Nazi doctors did. I rather doubt that they did, but they probably applied similar reasons for their immoral behavior.

It seems that after 9/11, per Bush, all our actions to fight terrorism are acceptable/desirable. I don’t make comparisons, in the belief that every situation has to stand on its own merits and demerits, but despite that, equating the American doctors with the Nazi doctors is tempting.

This is because any doctor involved in experimenting on humans, where permission has not been granted, is involved in criminal action -- and should be tried. Are the American doctors war criminals? I’ll let better minds than mine decide that. But between you and me -- yes, I do consider them to be war criminals.

How do you explain the indifference to these US policies, both among the general public and the medical establishment?

I believe that because it [the public] has been exposed to so much random violence on TV -- reality shows, etc. -- that people have become numb. Adding to that, the use of euphemistic propaganda language by the government keeps people from recognizing evils for what they really are. Furthermore, the use of terms like “us and them” and “the other,” dehumanizes us. Thus, allowance is given for treating “them” in ways we would not treat one of “us.”

As for the silence of the medical establishment -- is money/lobbying a factor? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Finally, in light of the past and present history of torture-by-doctors, do you have any concluding words?

 Beware!

*Hedy Epstein’s autobiography, “Remembering Is Not Enough,” will be published next year. Mark Lieberman is a lecturer at İstanbul Technical University.

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