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Adelsberger book cover

"A Doctor’s Survival in Auschwitz:
Traces of Humanity in Hell"

Book Essay on:
Lucie Adelsberger, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story

(Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995),
135 pages. UCSB: D5135. G5. A33313 1995

by Lauren Chase
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$17 & searchable
at amazon

About Lauren Chase

I am a senior Law and Society major and History minor. I took this class because I am interested in human rights issues and believe that the Holocaust, among numerous other genocides, exhibited a moment in international history when individual human rights and international human rights laws were violated the most. I chose Lucie Adelsberger’s memoir, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story because I wanted to better understand how women survived in the concentration camps. Increasingly, I want to address the Holocaust in a way that brings out the ‘human’ element of the sacrifices, on both sides, for the people who were tortured and murdered and those whose livelihood was threatened by disguising the illnesses of others or their age so that they could survive.

Abstract (back to top)

Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story gives readers the opportunity to expand their understanding of this topic. This memoir was one of the first published following World War II, in 1945. Adelsberger, a Jewish physician, begins her story at the point when she refused to take a position at Harvard in 1933 because her mother still remained in Germany; this soon led to her work in the concentration camps. In May of 1943 she was permitted to practice her profession as a prisoner, which included immunology and allergy, in one of the large women’s areas in Auschwitz Birkenau. Here she witnessed the cruelty and starvation that women and children were forced to endure. This memoir depicts several methods that the Nazis used to degrade and dehumanize Jews and other Holocaust victims. More importantly, Adelsberger’s memoir speaks to the survival of humanity within the concentration camp. Specifically, it speaks not just of the terrors that were endured but of the relationships these women created with one another, of their similarities not only as Jews but as victims, of the selflessness and solidarity that helped to ease the horrors of their miserable fate; the humanity of the female inmates in their darkest hours. Ultimately, this memoir gives sight in to the suffering experienced by Jewish women during the Holocaust and how one woman doctor, among many others, had to endure this pain as a prisoner and as a doctor in a hell that did not provide her the tools to help aid her patients.

Essay (back to top)

“The only thing the doctors could do for their patients, emaciated, skeletal, or swollen with the edema of starvation and wallowing in feverish deliriums as they were, was to comfort and encourage them. It didn’t make it any better: they still died like flies…The bodies were pulled out of the bunks and dragged just as they were - filthy and feces-encrusted - along the muddy corridor… No pleas, no orders could bring the aides to the point of treating these cadavers with any degree of dignity. When life doesn’t mean anything anymore, respect for the dead doesn’t either.” (Adelsberger, 40)

If there is a central theme in Lucie Adelsberger’s biography it is the attempts of so many to remain “human” in the unimaginable setting that was Auschwitz. Although the Nazis worked effortlessly to deny and rob inmates of their human dignity in life and during death, this essay will reveal how one woman doctor, among very few, survived the assault and in its aftermath revealed how humanity can surpass brutality in keeping alive the legacy of the dead. As one of the first published memoirs written following the liberation, Adelsberger’s words are blatantly honest yet gruesomely horrifying “eyewitness reports of hell [that] are not pleasant nursery tales; [but rather] infernal and heartbreaking (Adelsberger, 133).” This memoir exceeds the imagination with powerful insights into both the livelihood of Jews in Berlin during the Nazi period, and life in Auschwitz-Birkenau from an unusual point of view, that of a female doctor without the aid of medical equipment or medicine in the Gypsy camp of Birkenau. Here Adelsberger witnesses firsthand the horrors of incurable illnesses and starvation that killed so many and led hundreds of thousands of others to their horrendous deaths in the gas chambers.

Throughout her memoir, Adelsberger connects herself to the stories she tells, of Jewish life in Berlin during Nazi Germany, of how children fated their mothers to death, of how poorly the elderly were treated prior to and during the Holocaust, and of the conversations of future life outside of Auschwitz that so often carried the women and children in the barracks from one day to the next. Most noticeably though, Adelsberger’s memoir speaks not just of the terrors that were endured but of the relationships these women created with one another; of their similarities not only as Jews but as victims, of the selflessness and solidarity that helped to ease the horrors of their miserable fate, of the humanity of the female inmates in their darkest hours, of how each victim found within themselves the means to salvage their own dignity and hope as well as the dignity and hope of others through their own strengths. Adelsberger's medical knowledge and consequent loyalty to her patients and friends, helped not only herself survive emotionally and physically but it also aided those around her. Random acts of kindness and humane behavior that existed during Adelsberger’s time in Auschwitz were critical parts of life in Auschwitz and undoubtedly played a crucial role in her survival and in the survival of so many others. This insight above all else makes this memoir powerful and respectable because it reaches out of the depths of horror into the beauty of the human spirit and of treating one another, even in the midst of a horrendous fate, with the respect and love that very few outside of the barracks could offer. It is with this type of respect and familial bond that Adelsberger wrote her memoir, bringing about the humanity that survived within each female Jewish inmate she encountered during her time in Auschwitz Birkenau.


Born in 1895, Lucie Adelsberger was raised in Berlin where she settled as an adult as a physician specializing in immunology and allergies. For twenty years, she studied, practiced and contributed to the medical world with researched findings and publications in medical journals. Having achieved the highest rank in her profession, Adelsberger “was able to maintain a private practice and to gain entrée into academic medicine” (xv). Her work was noticed not only in Berlin, where “more than twenty percent of Germany’s female physicians” were located, but across the globe (xv). In 1933, international recognition gave Adelsberger an opportunity to relocate to the United States with a position at Harvard as a faculty member in bacteriology. However, due to her mother’s illness and inability to obtain a visa, she “let [her] last chance for emigration pass by unheeded (11).” At the time, Adelsberger was not aware of how this decision would affect her in the coming years during Nazi Germany. However, she still remembers this decision with few regrets for the experiences she faced in Auschwitz were a part of her fate, a fate that she lived to talk about when so many didn’t.

Antisemitism in Nazi Germany

According to Adelsberger, antisemitism in Nazi Germany began almost unnoticeably in the early 1930’s when the Gestapo published an edict that announced “that Jews in public spaces were permitted to sit only on the benches specifically reserved for them (3).” Such a “trifle-small matter” appeared ludicrous to many at the time, however, the consequences were great for this was the first step the Nazis took towards stripping Jews of their dignity. Increasingly, as Adelsberger points out, this regulation was quite burdensome for the Jewish elderly who were left behind and no longer able to emigrate from the country. For many older Jews who “dragged themselves through the day under the dead weight of monotony,” they were being deprived of one of their few pleasures, enjoying “a brief resprite on a park bench (3).” Such a denial was sadly only the least of the many horrible fates the elderly would face in pre-and-post-Holocaust Germany.

At this time, Adelsberger experienced changes to her professional life. Although she was able to maintain her profession, she was no longer allowed to be called a doctor under Nazi rule; instead, Adelsberger and her Jewish colleagues became Judenhandlers, attendants of the Jews. By 1940, antisemitism in Berlin grew greater than ever with required housing evacuations and regular raids on Jewish communities by the Gestapo. Even though “the same scene was repeated again and again in almost every city in Europe under Gestapo rule….the new [Jewish] actors were astonished at the role they were forced to play (8).”

One would think that such changes in social life would inspire nothing but fear in the hearts of every Jew, however, this fear grew slowly but when it struck, it existed with no end. According to Adelsberger, although many were “shocked and already wincing under the first tentative lightning bolts of the Hitler regime, [they] had not yet foreseen the coming storm of annihilation” that was upon them (10). Adelsberger’s fear did not begin with the threat of evacuation or raids; instead, her fear was leaving her mother behind for the “thugs [to] drag her away with their murderous hands (12).” Her mother, who suffered a stroke and was paralyzed, depended on her daughter for survival. However, to take her mother along with her through each move proved treacherous for Adelsberger. Instead of hoping for a miracle, she did what many other young people did at the time, she prayed for the death of her mother and for the courage to sedate her mother with “one swallow, one injection” (12). This, she claims, was the one prayer all Jews knew prior to their transport to the concentration camps: the death of their parents.

Auschwitz Birkenau

Among the last Jews to be deported, Adelsberger was placed on a transport on May 17, 1943 with the promise of heading to a labor camp. This illusory promise vanished within moments of entering Concentration Camp Auschwitz II: Auschwitz Birkenau. Here, the lives of the 260 new arrivals, 122 of which were women, were slowly erased. Adelsberger describes this as the moment when she and her fellow Jewish arrivals “were cut off from the whole world out there, uprooted from our homeland, torn from our families, a mere number, of significance only for bookkeepers. Nothing remained but naked existence – and for the most of us not for very long (30).” From the beginning, Adelsberger felt a connection to the women beside her because like them, she too was cut off from her family and her personal past because of her heritage. However, they each shared a less apparent commonality, regardless of the attempts of SS; they could not be stripped of “the thoughts in [their] hearts” (30). Of all the material possessions they had been stripped of, their thoughts were all that could be salvaged and perhaps were the most vital to their fight to survive and to remain hopeful.

The Gypsy Camp

Once tattooed and stripped of her belongings, Adelsberger was chosen as one of three physicians in her transport to work in the sick ward of the Gypsy camp in Birkenau. Notably, such a distinction did not provide special status or exemptions from hard labor; in addition to the usual labor, she was exposed to the deadly illnesses that plagued the camps. A normal day for Adelsberger in the hospital block began at four in the morning with roll call for the eight hundred to a thousand or more feverish and emaciated people who slept in the overcrowded bunks. In the Gypsy camp, she was expected to aid the suffering of the Nazi victims without the aid of medical equipment or medicine. The doctors “had hundreds of patients to care for and were required to fill out detailed case reports for each one of them,” which could take hours to do flawlessly. Failure to complete these reports without error carried with it the risk of “twenty-five strokes of the oxtail” (39). Given the requirements of daily roll calls, which could take a couple hours to one or two days, and case reporting, “there wasn’t much time left for treatment, not that the camp direction seemed to consider treatment necessary” (39). Under these conditions, there was little that Adelsberger could do to medically alleviate the women and children of their pains. However, Adelsberger’s commitment to helping others was persistent and often times threatened her own survival. On numerous occasions Adelsberger would disguise the illnesses of the victims she treated or disguise the ages of the children so that they would not be chosen for the gas chambers. Such an instance occurred in August 1944 with Ilse, a thirty-two year old woman whose body had been physically and emotionally destroyed by exhaustion, hunger, heat and physical abuse. Adelsberger knew that the selections were coming in September and that Ilse, “still thin as a rake, was under the greatest threat…if the camp physician should find her, she’d be lost” (95). Taking a risk, Adelsberger had her transferred to the mill, where she worked for three days and “was beaten and dragged back to camp” (96). Ilse survived the selection, as did many other women that were transferred under Adelsberger’s guidance.

The Children of Auschwitz Birkenau

According to Adelsberger, “the problem for us in Auschwitz was not whether selection, but when and how… no Jewish prisoner reckoned on ever leaving Auschwitz alive (65).” Escaping this fate seemed unimaginable; however, it was much more threatening for Adelsberger’s sick young patients who were “automatically relegated to selection, including all children under fourteen together with their mothers or those who had taken them on or under their wing (62).” With control over some administrative decisions, Adelsberger was able to help some of the young children in the women’s camp escape the gas. The children, as Adelsberger describes them, had scabies “that covered their undernourished bodies from head to toe,” and “their mouths were infested with malignant noma ulcers that riddled their lips and perforated their cheeks (57).”

When treating these children, Adelsberger was once again in a position of medical duty, without any means to help and with patients who illustrated the juxtaposition of medical duty at its greatest. Two of the children under Adelsberger’s care were twins who had been exposed to the experiments of Josef Mengele. Through them, Adelsberger learned the horrific ways medicine could be used against children. Despite this, Adelsberger nurtured the children with the only means possible, with human compassion and love. Even though the Gypsy children appeared weak and submissive, it must be noted that they fought to the very end with every resolve of an adult in a similar situation. In January of 1945 with word of a Russian advancement, Adelsberger watched the end of the Gypsy camp. Of the first to be sent to the gas were the children who kicked, screamed and fought against the SS as they were being taken away. They refused to go quietly.

Remaining “Human”

As mentioned previously, many Jewish women survived not only because of their inability to give up, they survived because of the ways in which others, including Adelsberger, pushed them to move on. Under many circumstances, survival was contingent on the others within the barracks of the Gypsy camp, their skills, their compassion and their willingness to die for the life of others. As illustrated in Adelsberger’s memoir, hunger, starvation and dehydration were key culprits to death, and rations were often meager and disease infested. Although cooking was forbidden in the concentration camp, Adelsberger and her barrack mates sacrificed themselves and their meals for the survival of others. According to her memoir, they “painstakingly collected each individual piece of coal and every splinter of wood [they] could salvage” to build a fire. (71) One Czech physician who was skilled in installing stovepipes and running electrical wiring was their cook. In the days leading up to such a meal, each member would save small pieces of their rations to contribute. Such edible joys were taken with as much delight as material ones for the women in Auschwitz Birkenau. Increasingly, women would give each other gifts of their own treasured possessions to celebrate birthdays and to help each other in the winter. Adelsberger remembers “one winter coat that a Polish Jew whom [she] didn’t know had given [her] in January after the great cold spell,” and how happy Fiek, a close friend, “was with her birthday present in the camp: that light blue nightgown with the colorfully embroidered collar (73).” Increasingly, she remembers the “Canada” commando and the risks they took in looting items, such as clothes, cigarettes and soap, from new arrivals and giving them to other inmates in the camp. This behavior can be seen as thoughtless and insensitive to the Jews who owned these items; however, these items “benefited not just [the ‘Canada’ commando] personally but, indirectly, the whole camp, through barter or presents” (75). The “Canada” commando demonstrates that the survival of many was dependent on the expenses and sacrifices of other Jewish victims.

Relationships that formed in Auschwitz Birkenau were much more essential to survival than any material possession that could have been looted or bartered from one victim to the next. Two of Adelsberger’s greatest friendships were with two young girls from Slovakia who were “endowed with strength and courage and will, and tempered with a kindly helpful disposition” (97). To these two girls, Adelsberger was their ‘camp mother’ and to her, they were her ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother.’ Although seemingly childish, this relationship provided all three of them with the type of comfort that could only be provided by a family. Adelsberger remembers times when they would “[spoil] her with all sorts of kindness, from polishing shoes to sewing on buttons” (99). For many women in the Holocaust, the creation of surrogate families, such as this one, helped in their survival. Adelsberger elaborates on this:

The very fact that people came together, stood up for one another, often putting their own lives in jeopardy and denying themselves the very morsel of bread they needed for their own survival, and that they formed a family more tightly knit than many a natural one, was something exceptional; and not only for those who survived, but also for the many for whom such friendship and love of their comrades eased the horrors of their miserable end. (100)

It is with this type of solidarity that the women and children in the Gypsy camp were able to conquer the horrors that they experienced in Auschwitz Birkinau.and it is this type of beauty that is often forgotten when looking back on the Holocaust.


Following the death march of January 1945 that killed thousands, Adelsberger was liberated in Neustadt, and that same year, she published her memoir in German. As discussed above, her memoir talks about more than the atrocities that plagued Auschwitz Birkenau, it speaks of the beauty that transcended through the relationships and solidarity of the victims of the Holocaust. Adelsberger’s contribution honors those whose lives were brutally taken away while also illustrating the human element that is often times overlooked when studying the Holocaust. Most importantly, she tells of the importance of keeping the stories alive, of honoring the dead in the best way we can, by not forgetting what happened to them and of their sacrifices.

The dead were strong; in their destruction they displayed a strength bordering on the colossal. Can the living afford to be any weaker?     -Lucie Adelsberger p.135

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/24/08)

Book Reviews

  • Harnett, Lynn. “Beauty and Monstrosity.” Rev. of Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story, By Lucie Adelsberger. Amazon Book Reviews (Oct. 2003). 28 January 2008.
    This review of Lucie Adelsberger’s memoir, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story, summarizes the content of Adelsberger’s story. It does not analyze the content nor does it discuss Adelsberger’s style as an author. This resource was somewhat helpful to this assignment because it gave me a good back drop to look at when selecting my book; however, it was not helpful in writing this assignment.
  • Beth. “A Very True Account.” Rev. of Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story, by Lucie Adelsberger. Barnes & Noble Reviews (Jan. 2002). 28 January 2008.
    This review calls Adelsberger’s memoir “one of the best” books on concentration camp survivors. It does not provide any summary of the memoir and was ultimately not useful in my research for this assignment.
  • Sara. “A Book Hard to Forget.” Rev. of Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story, by Lucie Adelsberger. Barnes &Noble Reviews (Dec. 2003). 28 January 2008.
    This review not only gives a background of Adelsberger’s own struggle, it gives a historical overview of the Holocaust and the monstrosities that occurred during it. Sara, the reviewer, discusses the importance of the survivor’s stories in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and commends Adelsberger on her portrayal. This review was somewhat helpful in picking a book for this assignment.

Web Sites/Articles (Discussing Lucie Adelsberger and topic: Doctors in the Holocaust)

  • Baumel, Judith, “'You Said the Words you Wanted me to Hear The Words You Couldn’t Bring Yourself to Say': Women’s First Person Accounts of the Holocaust, The Oral History Review, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter-Spring 2000), pp.17-56.
    This article discusses the importance of oral documentation and the autobiographies that have surfaced about women since the Holocaust. She claims that their importance lies not only to sexuality and reproduction but on other issues which were indirectly biological and more gender orientated such as crafting familiar groups for personal survival. It is this type of survival mechanism that was exhibited by Adelsberger in her memoir.
  • Nevins, Michael, M.D. Moral Dilemmas Faced by Jewish Doctors During the Holocaust
    Jewish Virtual Library. (Date not specified). 14 March 2008. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/dilemma.html
    This article explores the many ways in which Jewish doctors had to sacrifice themselves emotionally and professionally in order to save others during the Holocaust. Dr. Nevins only speaks briefly about Lucie Adelsberger in this article stating that she is “another model of medical heroism” during this period in history. He also summarizes her experiences.
  • Saenger, Paul M.D. “Jewish Pediatricians in Nazi Germany: Victims of Persecution.” Children’s Hospital at Montefiore/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York. (May 2006). 14 March 2008. http://www.ima.org.il/imaj/ar06may-8.pdf
    In this article, Dr. Paul Saenger discusses the history of pediatrics in Germany prior to and during the Holocaust. He begins by discussing the early changes within this medical practice, starting in 1933 when the German Society of Pediatrics asked their members of Jewish descent to resign voluntarily and following Nuremberg Laws of September 1935. He continues his article by discussing what happened to many of the Jewish doctors once deportations to concentration camps began; many were transported to the gas chambers with their patients while others, like Lucie Adelsberger, survived. The article discusses Adelsberger’s experience similarly to how they are presented in her memoir, chronologically and with great depth. Dr. Saenger does not analyze Adelsberger’s experiences, rather, he uses them as evidence of how Jewish doctors were treated during the persecution of the Jews.

Other Books by Doctors in Auschwitz

  • Nyiszli, Miklos, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993), 222 pages. (amazon page)
    Dr. Miklos Nyiszli was a Jewish doctor who was taken prisoner in Auschwitz. His fate was somewhat different then other doctors who were sent to the camp. Nyiszli volunteered to work as a doctor at the camp and was then designated to perform ‘scientific research’ on his fellow inmates under the supervision of the “Angel of Death”- Dr. Josef Menegele. In addition to serving as Mengele’s personal research pathologist, Nyiszli also served as physician to the Sonderkommando in Birkenau. In Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account Nyiszli tells his horrifying story and what it took him to survive this miserable fate.
  • Pearl, Gisella. I was a Doctor in Auschwitz. (New York: International Universities Press 1997, c1948), 189 pages. UCSB: D805.P7 P46 1997
    Originally published in 1946, this memoir by Gisella Perl discusses her personal account of being a doctor in Auschwitz during the Holocaust and the many ways in which she survived. Dr. Perl discusses not only her own experiences, as a doctor and an inmate but also the spirits of the women she was in contact with.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
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