Reflections on My Father's Experience with Doctors
During the Shoah (1939-1945) [in Lodz]
Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D.
First part reprinted from: The Journal of
Clinical Ethics, Winter 1996, Volume 7, Number 4, p.
What follows are some thoughts, occasioned by a
recent three-hour filmed interview with my father, Abraham Bursztajn, conducted
by Dr. Mark Weisstuch on behalf of the Steven Spielberg Foundation. The
foundation, created by the film director Steven Spielberg after the making of
the film Schindler's List, is dedicated to chronicling the memories of
Jewish survivors of the Nazi attempt at systematic destruction of European Jewry
during World War II (1939-1945), the Shoah. Here I will focus on how two
physicians, working under the shadow of death with limited resources, were able
to comfort and even promote hope and healing.
My father's interview had some special urgency:
an exhibition at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel's Jerusalem on the
Lodz, Poland ghetto, was scheduled to end by September. My father is one of the
few surviving members of a lost chapter of that ghetto's history: the Jewish
resistance. He is now seventy-nine, having had a quadruple bypass one and
one-half years ago, three years after the death of my mother, Miriam Briks
Feigala Bursztajn, who was his comrade in the underground and then his partner
in life for forty-nine years.
My father encountered the first physician in
1941. Soon after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, my father
Abraham, the youngest and only unmarried sibling of seven Bursztajns, had been
left in charge of the family's lumber yards in Lodz, while most of the remainder
of the family had left for Warsaw. During World War I Warsaw was a relatively
safe haven, and my father, not having other family responsibilities, volunteered
for the dangerous job of overseeing the family's holdings in what was considered
to be an area far more likely to be involved in the fighting. He was eventually
captured by the Nazis, thrown into jail, and tortured. The Nazis had established
a list of prominent Jewish families who had assets. My father's family was on
this list and he was tortured to reveal their whereabouts. He did not.
In the midst of being tortured after a
particularly severe whipping with a cat-o'-nine tails, Abraham fainted. He was
surprised to awaken in the jail infirmary. His torturers had not given up hope
of making him reveal his family's whereabouts. They wanted to keep him alive to
continue the torture. Before him stood a doctor, himself a Jewish prisoner, who
ministered to the other prisoners. "I will die here," my father said to the
older man. "One of us will, but it will be me," said the physician. "I do not
have any way to treat you, but you are young. If you don't give up hope, you
This physician inspired my father by
acknowledging the hopelessness they shared, but then apportioning the darkest
part to himself. My father did his part and survived, and eventually returned to
what was by then the Lodz Ghetto. Upon his return, he was offered a choice
job -- to be a Jewish policeman. However, he refused to collaborate. This enraged Rumkowski, known as the King of the Jews, the Nazi-installed figurehead of the
ghetto. He slapped my father. The first instinct of Abraham, who as a teenager
had been an accomplished amateur boxer, was to strike back. Somehow he found the
quickness of mind to act with restraint. Still enraged, Rumkowski sought to
humiliate him. My father's punishment was to work on sewage disposal.
Abraham transformed the job into a way to
create hope. His first priority was to create a home for a Jewish Resistance
cell. He found willing members among some of the sewerage co-workers, and
recruited others by pulling people he knew off the train platforms as they were
waiting to embark for Auschwitz. One of these people he recognized as Miriam,
the daughter of Hersz Jonah Briks, a furniture craftsman he knew from his
family's lumber trade.
Miriam had already given up hope after her
father's death from starvation. But my father recognized her at the train
station. She remembered how generously her father had been treated by Abraham at
his family lumberyard. She agreed to disembark, and my father coolly approached
the Nazi officer supervising the deportation and said: "She is one of the
sanitation co-workers who has been ordered to stay in the ghetto until the last.
She needs to come with me." When the officer looked skeptical, my father played
his final card and showed him the photograph he also carried around with him as
a passport. It was a family photograph given to him by a high ranking German
officer who had anti-Nazi sympathies. The Nazi officer in charge let my mother
By 1944 he and the other members of the
Resistance cell were convinced that the Nazis were planning to liquidate the
remnants of the Lodz Ghetto. They had no arms with which to mount a revolt. And
by that time, they knew of the doom of the earlier Warsaw Ghetto uprising. After
much debate, it was decided that the only remaining way to resist was to go into
hiding. But where? The sewer system itself, if waterproof areas could be
created, offered a natural hiding place. The stench of the sewers was sure to
confuse the dogs which the Nazis had already employed to sniff out other
Resistance hiding places.
The problem was obtaining the cement necessary
to create, essentially, an underwater underground bunker in the sewer system.
The only available cement was in a Nazi warehouse, well secured and outside the
ghetto walls. My father and one of his comrades decided to take the risk of a
night raid outside of the ghetto. The raid met initial success, in part due to a
pair of wire cutters my father had surreptitiously secured that morning while
visiting a Nazi maintenance storehouse to empty sewage. However, on the way back
to the ghetto, carrying 100 lb. bags of cement, my father and his colleague
encountered enemy fire. A Nazi patrol, located below the bridge they had to
cross to re-enter the ghetto, gave chase. Running in a zigzag fashion, he evaded
the automatic weapons fire until a bullet struck him. Wounded in the shin and
bleeding profusely, he could no longer run. With the enemy rapidly closing in,
Abraham looked for a refuge. He found one in a nearby dumpster. Still clutching
his bag of life-saving cement, he jumped in and pulled the cover over him. The
Nazi patrol rushed by.
When the area cleared, he somehow staggered
with the cement back to the resistance's rendezvous. Now that the cement had
been saved, he needed to save himself. Surely that morning at work, the Nazis
would investigate, notice the blood on the bridge, and look for absentees from
the morning's work detail to interrogate as suspects in the raid. Before
daybreak, my father's comrades contacted a doctor still left in the shrinking
Jewish ghetto. The doctor said he would help as he could, even though he no
longer had instruments with which to remove the bullet.
My father remembers that, in the hours before
dawn, the doctor came. The physician first straightened a coat hanger to fashion
a crude probe. Sterilizing it as best he could, the doctor used the makeshift
probe to pull out the bullet lodged in my father's leg. The only anesthesia was
the knowledge that the cement had been obtained. The next morning my father was
able to appear for the morning roll call, a crude bandage hidden by a baggy pair
With nightly construction, a sewer system
bunker was constructed with the raid's precious cement. Covered by water for
concealment, it had pipes bringing in air, water, and even electricity. Even as
the remnants of the ghetto were being liquidated, these life lines were
surreptitiously connected by members of the resistance. For the final six months
of the Nazi reign of terror, fourteen people were able to survive by hiding.
My father was not able to save his family of
origin. The two physicians who saved his life were, as many others, most likely
murdered by the Nazis. But he and his comrades in the resistance cell, including
my mother, did save the lives of others. By now, the memories of his family, his
comrades in the resistance who had been murdered by the Nazis, and those
physicians who saved his life, had become assets which neither the Nazi terror
nor the passage of time could obliterate. Each night as they would emerge from
the bunker to forage for food in what was an increasingly empty ghetto, it felt
as if the dead were keeping watch. Finally, the living, the Russian army, came
to the rescue.
Beyond having personal meaning for me, my
father's memories are more generally meaningful. Physician integrity can be
maintained irrespective of third party pressures. If those physicians my father
encountered during the Holocaust could preserve the decency of authentic
doctoring, then so can we all, whatever the circumstances. Supporting hope and
patient autonomy even in the most resource limited conditions is a fundamental
duty, even as we face the most hopeless of realities with our patients.
I hope that a more systematic study of
doctoring during the Holocaust will be undertaken. The only work I know of,
Robert Jay Lifton's Nazi Doctors , focuses on those physicians who
were Nazi's themselves. There is much more to learn about those who had the
courage and wisdom to resist, as did the Jewish doctors of my father's memories.
One source for such study is the all too neglected four-volume Anthology of
the Armed Jewish Resistance 1939-1945, edited by Isaac Kowalski . In the
future, an additional resource will be the film archives of the Spielberg
Foundation, which occasioned this note. This is an invaluable entré, soon to be
lost as the last survivors age and die, into the psychology of doctoring under
extraordinary life-threatening conditions. Exploring the meaning of these acts
can also further help us to understand the psychology of that extraordinary
handful of Jews and their Christian friends who had the "Conscience and Courage"
 to actively resist the Nazi reign of genocide. The later is itself a useful
reminder that the scope of psychological understanding of extraordinary behavior
goes beyond psychopathology to encompass acts of wisdom.
1. Lifton RJ. The Nazi Doctors:
Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic
2. Kowalski, I. Anthology of the
Armed Jewish Resistance, 1939-1945. New York: Jewish Combatants
Publishing House, 1986 (Vol. I & II), 1991 (Vol. III), 1992 (Vol. IV).
3. Fogelman, Eva. Conscience and
Courage. New York: Anchor Book, Doubleday, 1994.
On May 24, 2001, Abraham Bursztajn passed away.
The hope is that we can eventually start to
support research on the relatively silent history of health professionals
choosing good even in the midst of the Shoah and than using the data to educate
medical, mental health professionals, and other professionals and academics as
well as the general public. There are a variety of reasons as to why there has
been such marginalization:
1. One guess as to why there has been
such relative silence and marginalization of this chapter of Shoah
history is that memory tends to be affect consonant. Thus in the midst
of the horror of the Shoah, where feelings of horror if you were a Jew
in Nazi occupied Europe were natural, and sickness or injury tantamount
to a death sentence, horrible memories such as from the Nazi doctors,
were naturally affect consonant. The good is dissociated or otherwise
avoided subsequently via PTSD. Thus it is easier to remember horrible
behavior in horrible times than good behavior in horrible times.
2. One manifestation of feelings of
survivor guilt is irrational survivor shame: Thus the "good" health
professionals and their patients or those who were victimized by the
Nazi doctors are much more likely to avoid remembering the good deeds of
those in the resistance as well as their own good deeds.
3. Part of my parents difficulty in
taking credit and feeling just pride regarding those who they saved
while in the resistance was to feel very sad and ashamed as to those
they good not save. As a child in Lodz, Poland I remember people who my
father had saved in the Lodz ghetto rushing up to him on the street to
hug him and thank him; paradoxically he seemed embarrassed and would
just comfort those who rushed up to thank him. My mother could speak
with pride of his good deeds, but be relatively silent as to her own
good deeds. She would say: "Hitler murdered the very best people".
4. Forgetting as an act of resistance:
My parents last act of resistance was to refuse to be driven out from
Poland even as our apartment in Lodz acted as an underground railroad
station to the West and Israel for those Jews seeking to escape post-war Polish
anti-Semitism and Stalinist oppression. Finally in 1959 when
there were only a few Jews left to help and we, their children, were
reaching an age where they would be vulnerable to Polish peer
anti-Semitism, my parents decided to leave to be reunited with family
remnants in the U.S.. Not remembering the past was a way of not being
driven out of space (Poland) and time (the post-Shoah present).
Survivors of the Shoah Visual History
Foundation was established in 1994 to collect the testimony of survivors and
other witnesses of the Holocaust, and to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and
bigotry through the educational uses of these visual history testimonies.
To learn more about the Shoah Visual History
Foundation and its Educational Programs and Grants go to:
Shoah Visual History
Foundation, or call 818-777-4673, or write to P.O. Box 3168, Los Angeles, CA 90078.
Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D.
Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
co-Founder, Program in Psychiatry & the Law
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Department of Psychiatry of Harvard Medical
telephone: 617-492-8366 telefax: 617-441-3195
* Reprinted here with
written permission of the author, Harold J. Bursztajn, MD.