book reviews

A review of Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans

A few weeks ago, I was reading comments on a news article about migrants at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia who had complained that they had received unnecessary hysterectomies at the hands of an OB-GYN there. The story shocked me, and I was immediately reminded of horrors such as the Holocaust and the many eugenics experiments and forced sterilizations that went on in the United States in the 20th century.

I was not the only one who saw comparisons to Nazi Germany when I read about the women in Georgia who had undergone hysterectomies without their consent. Someone in the comments section of the article mentioned Vivien Spitz’s 2005 account of being a young court reporter at the Nuremberg Trials. The book, entitled Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, was a full accounting of her experiences in post World War II Germany, spending day after day, listening to and recording the testimonies of people who had survived the Holocaust.

I’ve now read a lot of books about the Holocaust. Most were written by survivors. This was the first account I had ever read by an American who saw the aftermath of the brutalities visited upon many thousands of people. It was Vivien Spitz’s job to listen carefully in court and transcribe exactly what had happened as each testimony was given. She was often shocked and horrified, not just by what she saw and heard, but also by the actions of the men on trial, as well as some of the witnesses. The trials were conducted by American judges, in English and German.

Since I am currently living in Germany, it was especially interesting to read Spitz’s graphic accounts, although it’s very difficult to reconcile the Germany I “know” to the one she describes. I put quotes around the word “know” because it occurs to me that as an outsider, there is still a lot I don’t know about Germany and its culture. And while the 1940s seems like a long time ago, if you really think about it, it wasn’t so long ago. Vivien Spitz died in 2014, the year my father died and the year Bill and I returned to Germany. She could have been my grandmother. I could have known her well.

Interspersed within Spitz’s descriptions of testimonies she heard about the absolutely horrifying “medical experiments” done by supposed physicians who had ostensibly promised to first do no harm, there are stories about what it was like to live in Nuremberg right after the war. It was definitely not a pleasant experience. She describes homes with no heating and no hot water, sleeping in thick feather beds because that was the only way to get warm. She lived with two women, one French and one British, who weren’t really her friends. She describes going to operas and seeing some nearby countries, but the mood in Germany wasn’t particularly convivial. Some locals were friendly, but a lot of them saw her, and other Americans, as the enemy.

Spitz also wrote that after a year in Germany, she was ready to go home. But going home wasn’t so easy, because of the spread of communism and the mass evacuations of people. The government was not able to get her home on a plane or by ship. She eventually had to go to France to pay for her own ticket on the SS United States, a ship that voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City. She was on the ship with thousands of Czechs who were fleeing their country because it was being overtaken by communists. She writes that when they saw the Statue of Liberty, they all wept with gratitude. Spitz later billed the government the $400 she spent on her ticket and was reimbursed.

When I read the terrible news accounts of what is going on at the borders of the United States right now, I can’t help but remember that the United States was supposed to be a land of opportunity. It was supposed to welcome people who needed a home and a fresh start. And right now, some of what is going on at our borders is starting to echo what happened in Nazi Germany.

No, we’re not in a Holocaust and, to my knowledge, the blatant horrors of what the doctors from Hell did to Jews, political prisoners, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and resisters is not yet going on in America. But when I read stories in 2020 about physicians in the United States sterilizing women without their knowledge or consent, I am reminded of what Vivien Spitz heard about in court. She explained that at one point, the killings of Jewish people slowed because there was a shortage of workers. So, instead of immediately murdering the people so hated by the Nazis, the doctors from Hell came up with ways to quickly and cheaply sterilize them so that they couldn’t reproduce. And then, when they were no longer “useful” to the Nazi cause, they were exterminated. Additionally, people deemed not useful— disabled people, “idiots”, insane people, and the elderly— were euthanized, even if they were Germans.

Many of the experiments done on the prisoners were not only extremely painful and cruel, but they were pretty much of no scientific value whatsoever. People who “volunteered” to be test subjects were promised things like early release or better living conditions. Naturally, those promises were never fulfilled, and the victims were forced into unbelievable suffering and gruesome deaths. The survivors were forced to watch as their fellow prisoners languished in agony.

Vivien Spitz paid a price for her service in Germany. She writes that when she returned to the United States, she suffered tremendous culture shock. Life was going on as usual in the States, but she was haunted by what she’d seen and heard in Europe. It took three solid years before she stopped having nightmares. And then, she got married, had two sons, and enjoyed a long, prosperous, and prestigious career as a courtroom reporter in the United States. Unbelievably, as she still heard people denying the Holocaust and became outraged when she read one accounting of a German teacher at a Denver school refer to it as the Holohoax. The teacher was fired, but sued because she believed her right to free speech was violated.

I will warn that this book is not easy reading. Spitz describes the experiments in harrowing detail. She includes photos from the proceedings, mainly of people involved in the trial, but there are also some very graphic pictures that might stick in one’s head. A picture of amputated arms and legs, forcibly taken from prisoners to be “transplanted” to wounded German soldiers comes to mind. Also, it’s very sobering to read that the Nazis had more regard for dogs who were used in experiments than people. Many things that were done to prisoners in the Holocaust were not allowed to be done to dogs because it was considered too inhumane!

I can’t say I “enjoyed” reading this book. I’m glad I’m finished reading, although Vivien Spitz comes across as a warm, delightful person with fascinating tales. I do think it’s an important book to read, particularly during the dark times we’re in right now. Remember, the horrors of the Holocaust didn’t start with the medical experiments, mass murders, and deportations. They started with a charismatic leader polarizing the people and influencing them to take an “us versus them” attitude. There has been a lot of violence this year in the United States and many people with hateful ideas are emboldened to plotting things like kidnapping governors and gunning down political protesters. I think Doctors From Hell is an important look at what can happen when a division of the people can go on too long. We stop seeing each other as human beings, and it becomes “acceptable” to some people to murder and maim in the name of a cause and their own prejudices and outright hatred of those who aren’t like them.

An interview with Vivien Spitz.

One last thing… I mentioned that this book was published in 2005. Vivien Spitz died in 2014. Toward the end of her book, she writes:

When we are born in the United States, we are born with blessings we just take for granted. We will not be arrested, bludgeoned, tortured, and exterminated solely because of our race, religion, or political activity. Born into freedom, with free will in the human story, we innately know the difference between right and wrong. We must each wage a personal war against obedience to unethical, immoral, and illegal evil authority. We owe our responsibility and accountability to humankind.

Spitz, Vivien. Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans (p. 292). Sentient. Kindle Edition.

I’m sorry to say that it seems like many Americans are forgetting that our society is supposed to be about freedom and fairness for everyone. I think it’s never actually been that way for everyone– but Spitz points out, to be born in the United States is a privilege. Or, at least it has been until recently. Vivien Spitz was a white woman, and probably made her statement about our “privilege” to be born American through the lens of a woman who never had to worry about being killed by the police. Sadly, as we all know, not everyone in the United States “will not be arrested, bludgeoned, tortured, and exterminated solely because of our race, religion, or political activity.” And that is becoming more true by the day.

In the next paragraph, she writes:

In genocides there are four categories of human beings: the perpetrator, the victim, the silent bystander, and the rescuer. What is the guilt of the silent bystander? Do we ordinary people have the courage to be rescuers, at the risk of personal safety, and sometimes the loss of life? We have proven that we can be rescuers.

Spitz, Vivien. Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans (pp. 292-294). Sentient. Kindle Edition.

Americans can’t afford to be “bystanders”. I hope those who are American and reading this review will remember that on Election Day. I won’t tell you whom to vote for, although I’m sure if you have read this blog, you know that I hope it won’t be Trump. What’s most important is that you do your part and fulfill the responsibility to vote. I truly hope you will, especially this year.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon from sales made through my site.

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