Written by Cate Goldwater Breheny
Do you know when Holocaust Memorial Day is? In my experience, not many people do. Your old school may have made it the subject of an assembly, but it is otherwise often forgotten.
Holocaust Memorial Day falls on the 27th of January, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. Nearly a million Jews and Roma had been murdered in an act of genocide.
This year’s theme is “be the light in the darkness”. As medical students, we might see ourselves fulfilling that role in our everyday lives; certainly as doctors, we hope to be a light offering hope for our patients in their moments of darkness. And yet too few of us consider our role in casting light upon medical history and recognising the legacy of the Holocaust in healthcare.
Indeed, medical students are rarely taught about the Holocaust. Only 16% of US and Canadian medical schools (22 of 140) have any specific teaching about the Holocaust. Relevant statistics for the UK and Europe are difficult to find.
There are several pressing reasons for medical students to learn about the Holocaust. The first is simple: we swear oaths and don white coats in part to express our professional resolve not to repeat these crimes. This becomes meaningless if we no longer understand our responsibility and culpability for the past.
Secondly, learning about the Nazi doctors’ thought processes helps us to ensure we will not repeat their mistakes. Without proper Holocaust education, it is easy to think of Nazi doctors as ‘just a few bad apples’ – after all, most of us have only heard of Josef Mengele. In reality, doctors joined the NSDAP eagerly and in greater numbers than other professions. World-renowned academic medics believed passionately in eugenics and Aryan superiority. Nazi Germany was the first country to mandate ethical teaching in medical schools and Nazi doctors considered their actions ethical.
Take the example of Karl Brant, the physician who devised and executed the Action T4 programme to murder disabled Germans. He was tried at Nuremberg, found guilty and hanged, but his last words were: ‘I have served my Fatherland as others before me.’
Finally, with the prominence of ethics teaching in medical schools, it is important to acknowledge the central role of the Holocaust in modern medical and bioethics. The Nuremberg code is the foundation of our professional ethics, most notably in upholding informed patient consent, and it is a child of the Holocaust. Some might still argue that this only applies to “crazed” Nazi physicians – surely good doctors don’t need to be told? This reasoning, however, fed into American physicians’ reluctance to adopt the code, inadvertently sanctioning the exploitation of disadvantaged, often African-American patients in unethical research trials.
Is it not disingenuous to teach us about these events without acknowledging the context in which they occurred? The history of medical racism is rooted in the history of European antisemitism, and ignoring our history leads to the perpetuation of these cycles of racist violence.
Curricula and days are crowded, and other groups clamour for their voices to be heard and their bodies exhumed. This is not an either-or situation, but the Holocaust is fundamental to understanding modern medical ethics and the history of eugenics – it simply cannot be ignored if any insight into medical racism is to be had.
This year, take a moment to talk to a Jewish student. Have a look at the Holocaust Memorial Day website. Read the AMA Journal of Ethics special edition on Medicine and the Holocaust. In short, be the light in the darkness.