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.

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book reviews

A review of A Delayed Life: The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz, by Dita Kraus

As I was consulting Amazon to get the full title of the book I just read, I noticed that there’s another book entitled The Librarian of Auschwitz. It’s a novel written by Antonio Iturbe, and was published in 2017. Iturbe’s award winning story is a fictionalized story about Dita Kraus, who, according to the fictionalized account, was taken from her home in Prague by the Nazis in 1939. In the fictionalized account, while she was imprisoned, Jewish leader Fredy Hirsch trusted Dita Kraus to care for eight volumes that were secreted into the prison camp, hence the title of the book– The Librarian of Auschwitz.

I did not actually read The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe. I read A Delayed Life: The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz, which was published in February of this year, written by Dita Kraus herself, and is the true story about her life. A Delayed Life is currently a less famous book than The Librarian of Auschwitz is, but having finished reading Dita Kraus’s true story, I kind of wonder why a fiction book needed to be written. Dita Kraus has led an extraordinary life and, according to her official Web site, she’s still going strong, even though two of her three children have died.

Today, Dita Kraus, neé Polach, is 91 years old, and according to her true life story, she has a very positive outlook on life, despite weathering some true tragedies. I was amazed by her resilience. This woman survived years of forced labor in Nazi concentration camps, moving to a completely different culture after surviving the camps, being barred from her homeland after it was overtaken by communist rule, the death of her only daughter when her daughter was a teenager, the mental illness and eventual death of her eldest son, and the death of her husband. She’s a remarkable woman. I’m sure the novel based on her life is excellent, but her true story is extraordinary and definitely worth reading.

An interview with Dita Kraus that was aired in English on France 24.

The real Dita Kraus was born and raised in Prague in what was once Czechoslovakia. In 1939, the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and began to persecute Jewish people. In 1942, when she was thirteen, Dita and her parents were deported to Ghetto Theresienstadt. As the time of deportation nears, Dita notices her friends being shipped away, mostly never to be seen or heard of again. Dita Kraus landed in Auschwitz in December 1943. She survived, mainly because she was young, strong, and lied about her age. She told Dr. Josef Mengele that she was sixteen, rather than thirteen, and when he asked her what her occupation was, she said “painter”. He asked her if she could paint his portrait. If not for that lie, she probably would have been sent to the gas chamber, as many of her contemporaries were.

Before they would show up for their appointment to get on the trains going east, the friends would give away their possessions. Up until that point, Dita Krauss had enjoyed a relatively normal life. Her parents were middle class and educated. She went to school and had friends, including one little girl named Gerta. Dita and Gerta got along very well, but their parents didn’t hit it off. As I read about how the families got together for dinner one night for the sake of their daughters, who were friends, I was reminded of a similar dynamic between my parents and a former friend’s parents. Dita’s story about how she and her friend tried to get their parents to be friends was very relatable to me. Of course, it turned out that the friendship was doomed to fail… just as it did in my case.

Dita and her parents later went to Auschwitz, where Dita’s father died. She and her mother managed to survive Auschwitz, and were later transferred to Hamburg, then Bergen-Belsen, where Dita’s mother succumbed. Dita managed to survive the Holocaust, although she writes that she became extremely thin and weak, and she saw many fellow prisoners die of typhus and exhaustion. After the liberation, Dita worked as a translator for the British. She was filmed working with the British as the documented the horrors of the Holocaust. Many years later, Dita Krauss would travel to London and watch the footage. She recognized herself in one film segment lasting about a minute. The staff members that curated the footage were very excited; very few people who saw the films recognized themselves, especially after so many years. The staff eventually made the footage into a video and sent it to Dita in Israel, where she and her late husband, the late author Otto Kraus, settled after the war.

Dita and her husband, Otto, initially worked on kibbutzes in Israel, which was very interesting to read about, since I had heard of them before I read A Delayed Life. It was fascinating to read about the way people cooperated for everyone’s sake. Dita and Otto were finally able to move into their own home, thanks to money paid to them by the German government after the forced labor. I was amazed at how Dita is able to express herself. She even manages to inject wry humor at times, as well as little conversational asides. For instance, on a trip to Japan, she had the chance to eat crab. She writes that Jews aren’t supposed to eat crab (or other shellfish), but then she casually adds “but I don’t keep kosher”.

Dita writes that although she’s lived in Israel since 1949, she still identifies as Czech, rather than Israeli. For many years, she was forbidden to go to her homeland, thanks to its being ruled by the Communist Party since 1948. I especially enjoyed reading about her first trip “home” to Prague in 1989, right before the Velvet Revolution. When she visited, Prague was still under communist rule, but that fell apart just months later. She includes an amusing anecdote about how an airport official kind of “winked and nudged” about falsifying documents in their passports so they wouldn’t get in trouble with Israeli authorities when they went home. The official didn’t know that Israelis didn’t live under the same rules the Czechoslovakians did. Very soon after that visit, Prague was once again open to everyone, and Dita could go home when she wanted to… although most of the people she knew were gone forever.

Dita Krauss’s story reads as if she’s sitting in a room with the reader, speaking casually to them. She reminded me of my grandmother, talking about the past. I almost felt like she could be a friend of mine as she described the horrors of the Holocaust and the events that led up to being deposited in the children’s section of Auschwitz. I felt dread for her as she described how life changed when the Nazis took over so much of Europe. To be honest, it made me think of how things are in the United States today, although since I live in Europe, I’m kind of watching them from afar.

I think I expected this book to be just about the Holocaust. But there is a whole lot more to Dita Kraus’s story than her time as a prisoner. After the war, she and her husband moved to Israel and basically had to completely give up their culture. They even renamed their son, born Peter Martin in Czechoslovakia, when they moved to Israel. He was henceforth known as Shimon, and he completely adapted to life in Israel, forgetting his Czech heritage. Although he was very handsome and finished school and his time in the Israeli military, Shimon eventually suffered from mental and physical illnesses and died wheelchair bound at the relatively young age of 69.

Dita’s daughter, Michaela, was born healthy and named after a child she had once known and adored. Michaela got very sick when she was still a little girl, suffering from juvenile cirrhoses of the liver. She craved salt, but was healthiest when she ate nothing but certain fruits and vegetables, without salt. The disease made Michaela swell with edema, which she felt was ugly. The girl died after having taken too many diuretics, perhaps in a attempt to shed edema before meeting her boyfriend.

Dita’s youngest son, born ten years after Michaela and thirteen years after Shimon, is still living and is a doctor, as is his wife. His name is Ronny, and he spent years in the United States before moving back to Israel to be close to his beloved mother. Dita has four grandchildren

Not only was Dita Kraus’s story interesting and occasionally even funny and entertaining, it was also educational on many levels. I don’t tend to read a lot of novels these days, so I don’t know if I will ever get around to reading The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe. I am, however, glad that I took the time to read Dita Krauss’s real story. Far from being just about how she’d safeguarded books in a prison camp, this book is all about Dita Krauss’s incredibly life story, which transcends her time in the prison camps. I highly recommend it.

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book reviews

A review of In the Hell of Auschwitz: The Wartime Memoirs of Judith Sternberg Newman

I don’t know why, but I have a strange habit of reading books about the Holocaust when I’m living in Germany. I am particularly apt to read them in the spring or summertime, when the weather is nice and there’s hope and renewal in the air. Maybe it’s my way of coming back down to Earth, or maybe it’s simply more bearable to read such depressing, heartbreaking material when the weather is fine. I don’t remember why I downloaded Judith Sternberg Newman’s 1963 book, In the Hell of Auschwitz: The Wartime Memoirs of Judith Sternberg Newman. Sometimes I have a specific reason for reading these books. I can’t think of any specific event that led me to discover Sternberg Newman’s extremely horrific yet triumphant story. I am glad I read the book, though. It’s one of the few I’ve read lately that hasn’t taken me weeks to finish.

Judith Sternberg Newman’s father died before the Holocaust happened; Judith was just seventeen when he perished of a heart attack. Her mother was left to raise Judith, her sister, and her brothers alone. They were living in Breslau, Germany, which is now known as Wroclaw, Poland. Born in 1919, Judith grew up in a close-knit family. In 1939, Judith had an opportunity to go to England to train as a nurse. She decided she couldn’t leave her family, even though the Nazis kept taking everything away from Jewish people and life was becoming more and more difficult. She stayed in Breslau, and trained as a nurse at a hospital there. Her nursing skills would eventually save her life.

In February 1942, while wearing her nursing uniform and working in the children’s ward at the hospital, the police came for the Jews who worked at the hospital. The police had told them they were simply going to a work camp, but Judith and her friends had heard the horror stories. One of the head nurses even decided to take cyanide rather than allow the police to arrest her. She died at the scene. Although Judith was not on the list to be deported, she decided to go voluntarily when she heard her family had already been rounded up. Judith was engaged to be married within two weeks. There would be no wedding. Her fiancé would be one of the many thousands of people lost to the Holocaust.

At a temporary camp, Judith was reunited with her mother, where the horrors of their situation became very real. They watched as over 80 people committed suicide rather than become prisoners. They saw mothers poison their babies, then kill themselves.

In the dead of night, SS police woke up the exhausted Jewish prisoners and packed them into a freight car. There was no water, no food, and no toilet. The car had just one window for fresh air. It took two days to reach their destination at Auschwitz. Some people had died en route. Others died immediately after arrival. Some were badly injured when they were forced to leap from the train, as there were no steps to help them and they were being goaded by guards and their dogs. Five crematoriums operated day and night. The air stank of burning flesh, smoke, and fear.

Judith Sternberg had arrived at Auschwitz at the height of Hitler’s Final Solution. She watched many people die in horrific ways. She witnessed people being starved, beaten, forced to work until they died of exhaustion, and many who died of diseases like typhus. She saw many women who were brutally raped. Some of her fellow inmates were forced to dig their own graves and were buried while they were still alive. Those who tried to escape were recaptured and executed. The other prisoners were forced to watch them hang.

Judith lost all of her family members, as well as many friends who were murdered in cold blood during Hitler’s regime. Somehow, perhaps through the grace of God, or due to very good fortune, Judith managed to survive. She was a nurse, and her skills were valuable. But although she enjoyed being a nurse, the work at Auschwitz was very grim.

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust memoirs, but I think Judith Sternberg Newman’s may be one of the most graphic accounts I’ve read yet. I cringed when I read some of her descriptions of what happened to people, killed simply due to their religious beliefs, political affiliations, or sexual preferences. She wrote of the “lucky” Jews who were allowed the special duty of helping to kill their Jewish brethren. They were fed better and had better accommodations. After a couple of months, they were always dispatched so that they couldn’t tell too many stories of what they’d seen.

This book, for sure, is heartbreaking on many levels; yet somehow, it manages to end in triumph. Judith managed to survive Auschwitz when it was liberated by the Russians and Americans. She describes the Russians as uneducated buffoons who loved babies, drinking, and took sexual liberties with the women. She described the Americans as friendly, clean cut, and more cultured. I couldn’t help but shake my head at that characterization, particularly since every day, I am reminded more and more of the Holocaust as I watch Trump wreak havoc on the United States.

Judith went back to Breslau to see if she could reclaim her life. Very few people she knew before the Holocaust had survived. The house she’d grown up in had been burned to the ground. None of her possessions survived, since the professor who had kept them for her had himself wound up displaced. She eventually married Senek Newman and in 1946, they made their way to Rhode Island, in the United States. Judith became a nurse in the U.S. and she and her husband had three sons and a daughter. In 1961, Judith and Senek bought a farm, which her family members still operate today.

At the end of her book, Judith describes the United States as a wonderful place, where people live in freedom and harmony. She died in 2008, at the ripe old age of 88. I wonder what she would think of the United States today, as migrants and undocumented immigrants are being rounded up and sent to detention centers, where they sit in freezing cold rooms and get separated from their children. To my knowledge, there haven’t yet been any mass exterminations. But so many of the other aspects of Trump’s plan to force out “illegals” rang so familiar to me as I read Sternberg Newman’s account of her time in Auschwitz. Judith didn’t know the America we have today. She ends her book with three words: “God bless America”.

If you can stand to read the details of what Jewish people endured during the Holocaust, I would highly recommend Judith Sternberg Newman’s book, In the Hell of Auschwitz: The Wartime Memoirs of Judith Sternberg Newman. I think it’s very important reading, especially today. Yes, most of the stories are heartbreaking. I cringed as I read about parents being forced to strip naked while their children obliviously played nearby, completely unaware of the horror they were about to face in the gas chambers. I sighed as I read Judith’s descriptions of her friends being murdered and strangers left to die in the cold. It’s hard to believe that the Germans I know today could be convinced to treat other human beings in such an incredibly cold, cruel, and callous manner. If it could happen to Germans, it can (and has) happened to Americans. This is an important book. I’d encourage you to read it if you can. It’s only 99 cents on Kindle.