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Auschwitz-Birkenau: Nazi Medical Experimentation

The German physicians who ran SS and Wehrmacht medical institutions, along with medical personnel at lower levels, participated actively in carrying out Nazi extermination plans. SS physicians assigned to the concentration camps, including Auschwitz, played a special role. They conducted criminal medical experiments on prisoners and committed other acts that violated medical ethics. Having furthered the extermination program in the concentration camps, they have gone down in history as medical criminals.

The SS physicians who carried out pseudo-medical experiments in Auschwitz included:

Professor Dr. Carl Clauberg

Carl Clauberg experimented with sterilization in the camp. Part of Block No. 10 in the Main Camp was put at his disposal. Several hundred Jewish women from various countries lived in two large rooms on the second floor of the building. Clauberg developed a method of non-surgical mass sterilization that consisted of introducing into the female reproductive organs a specially prepared chemical irritant that produced sever inflammation. Within several weeks, the fallopian tubes grew shut and were blocked. Clauberg’s experiments killed some of his subjects, and others were put to death so that autopsies could be performed.

In June 1943, Clauberg wrote to Heinrich Himmler:

The non-surgical method of sterilizing women that I have invented is now almost perfected . . . As for the questions that you have directed to me, sir, I can today answer them in the way that I had anticipated: if the research that I am carrying out continues to yield the sort of results that it has produced so far (and there is no reason to suppose that this shall not be the case), then I shall be able to report in the foreseeable future that one experienced physician, with an appropriately equipped office and the aid of ten auxiliary personnel, will be able to carry out in the course of a single day the sterilization of hundreds, or even 1,000 women.

Dr. Horst Schumann

Like Clauberg, Horst Schumann was searching for a convenient means of mass sterilization that would enable the Third Reich to carry out the biological destruction of conquered nations by “scientific methods” – through depriving people of their reproductive capacity. “X-ray sterilization” equipment was set up for Schumann in one of the barracks at Birkenau. Every so often, several dozen Jewish men and women prisoners were brought in. The sterilization experiments consisted of exposing the women’s ovaries and the men’s testes to X-rays. Schumann applied various intensities at various intervals in his search for the optimal dose of radiation. The exposure to radiation produced severe burns on the belly, groin, and buttocks areas of the subjects, and festering sores that were resistant to healing. Many subjects died from complications. The results of the X-ray sterilization experiments were unsatisfactory. In an article that he sent to Himmler in April 1944, titled “The Effect of X-Ray Radiation on the human Reproductive Glands,” Schumann expressed a preference for surgical castration, as being quicker and more certain.

Dr. Josef Mengele

Josef Mengele

Josef Mengele held a Ph.D. and a medical doctorate. In close collaboration with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Genetics, and Eugenics, he studied the phenomena of twins, as well as the physiology and pathology of dwarfism. He was also interested in people with different-colored irises and in the etiology and treatment of noma (“water cancer” of the cheek). This latter disease, widespread in the so-called “Roma Family Camp,” where Mengele had had a laboratory, had been previously almost unknown in Europe. Mengele’s first experimental subjects were Roma children. On Mengele’s orders, children suffering from noma were put to death in order for pathology investigations to be carried out. Organs and even complete heads of children were preserved and sent in jars to institutions including the Medical Academy in Graz, Austria.

Mengele also began selecting dwarves and persons with physical peculiarities (including inborn disabilities and the developmental defects that appear in dwarfism) from the Jewish transports brought to Birkenau for extermination, from the Jewish Theresienstadt Family Camp in Birkenau, and from the so-called Mexico (Sector BIII).

In the first phase of his experiments, Mengele subjected pairs of twins and people with physical handicaps to special medical examinations that could be carried out on the living organism. Usually painful and exhausting, these examinations lasted for hours and were a difficult experience for starved, terrified children (for such were the majority of the twins). The subjects were photographed, plaster casts were made of their teeth and jaws, and their fingerprints and toeprints were taken. As soon as the examinations of a given pair of twins or dwarf were finished, Mengele ordered them killed by phenol injection so that he could go on to the next phase of his experiments, the comparative analysis of internal organs at autopsy. Scientifically interesting anatomical specimens were preserved and shipped to the Institute in Berlin-Dahlem for more detailed examination.

Ruth Elias was pregnant when she was transferred from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. She said, “I delivered a beautiful big blonde girl, but Mengele ordered that my breast be bound so that, as he said, ‘We can see how long a newborn baby can survive without food.’” After watching her baby suffer for several days, a female Czech doctor gave Elias a syringe with an overdose of morphine to end the child’s agony.

Dr. Johann Paul Kremer

The killing of prisoners was also accompanied by research into the changes that occur in the human organism as a result of starvation – in particular, liver atrophy (“braune Atrophie”). This research was carried out at Auschwitz Concentration Camp by SS-Obersturmführer Johann Paul Kremer, M.D., Ph.D., professor at the University of Münster, where he lectured on anatomy and human genetics. At the Block No. 28 clinic in the main camp, he carried out assessments of prisoners attempting to gain admission to the hospital. Many of them were at the point of exhaustion, in the “Musselman” state, in the final stages of starvation to death. Kremer ordered most of them killed by phenol injection. Kremer selected prisoners who struck him as particularly good experimental material, and questioned them just before their deaths, as they lay on the autopsy table awaiting injection, about such personal details as their weight before arrest and any medicines they had used recently. In some cases, he ordered these prisoners photographed. Before their bodies were cold, they were subjected to autopsies and slides were made for Kremer of the liver, spleen, and pancreas.

SS Physicians Friedrich Entress, Helmuth Vetter and Eduard Wirths

In 1941-1944, SS camp physicians Friedrich Entress, Helmuth Vetter, and Eduard Wirths carried out clinical trials of the tolerance and efficacy of new medications and drugs, with such ode names as B-1012, B-1O34, B-1O36, 3582, P-111, rutenolu, and peristonu, on Auschwitz Concentration Camp prisoners. They did so on commission from IG Farbenindustrie, and particularly from the Bayer firm, which was part of that cartel. These preparations were given to prisoners suffering from contagious diseases, who had in many cases been deliberately infected.

Prof. Dr. August Hirt

In 1942, SS-Hauptsturmführer Prof. Dr. August Hirt, chairman of the anatomy department at the Reich University in Strasbourg, set about assembling a collection of Jewish skeletons under the auspices of the Ahnenerbe Foundation. To this end, he received permission from Himmler to select the required number of prisoners at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The selection of 115 persons (79 Jewish men, 30 Jewish women, 2 Poles, and 4 “Asians” – probably Soviet POWs) and the preliminary preparation, consisting of biometrical measurements and the collection of personal data, were carried out by Hirt’s collaborator, SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Bruno Beger, who arrived in Auschwitz in the first half of 1943. Berger finished his work by June 15, 1943. After going through quarantine, some of the prisoners whom Berger selected were sent in July and early August to Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp, where they were killed in the gas chamber. The victims’ corpses were sent to Hirt as material for his skeleton collection, which was intended for use in anthropological studies that would demonstrate the superiority of the Nordic race.


Sources: The State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Reprinted with permission.
Elias story in Bernard Edinger, “Claude Lanzmann Does it Again,” The Jerusalem Report, (January 22, 2018).