Book Reviews

 Doctors From Hell.
The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans.
Vivien Spitz

Sentient Publications, 2005. vii-xxvii + 316 pp. Suggested price (hardback) $30.95, ISBN 1-59181-032-9.

Reviewed by Gillian McCann, Ph.D.

As a court reporter at the Nuremberg trails from 1946 to 1947, Vivien Spitz became one of the first people to learn of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany.. Spitz chose to be assigned to the trials of Nazi doctors and this experience at age 22 changed her life “significantly and forever” (p.10). The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials were the first international criminal trials in history. The book helps us to imagine what is must have been like to hear of these exercises in sadism as she did from the mouths of both perpetrators and victims. Spitz notes that there were no legal precedents in place for dealing with carefully orchestrated barbarism on a national scale. As a result she was what the SHOAH Visual History Foundation has termed “ a witness to history”. The trials essentially ushered in a new era in which terms such as “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” became necessary. Another landmark of history that was precipitated by these particular trials was the Nuremberg Code which established guidelines still in place today for medical research involving human beings. Spitz is clearly interested in both documenting the past and in using it as a cautionary tale in the present. From 1987 to 2004 she has been involved in Holocaust education using her status as a direct witness of events to challenge Holocaust deniers. Spitz felt strongly as a Christian of German ancestry that she had a particular obligation to address the issue of the Holocaust and this work is part of her ongoing commitment to education.

“Doctors from Hell” begins with Spitz’s trip with the U.S military to war ravaged Nuremberg in October 1946. The bombed out city, which was without heat or clean water, came as a shock to her and she and the rest of the allied forces were greeted with hostility by its inhabitants. The descriptions of her life in Nuremberg which are interspersed throughout the book are a record of her own loss of innocence. This included her realization that the father of a friend had been the leader of the Chicago branch of the German-American Bund, a fascist group that supported Hitler’s actions in Germany. The Americans adopted a siege mentality while in Nuremberg eventually living in the Grand Hotel which was the hub of American life during this period. The social life and camaraderie Spitz experienced there was the only counterbalance she had to the tale of horror that unfolded each day in the court room. This hotel was bombed by German terrorists in 1947, but miraculously no one was injured, however the event reinforced the social distance between Spitz and the German population.

The book is structured by the cases arraigned before the Tribunal made up of four American judges and indicting twenty Nazi doctors and three medical assistants. The experiments conducted by these doctors were committed upon prisoners of war without their consent. They included High Altitude, Malaria, Freezing, Poison and Sterilization experiments among others. Each chapter is devoted to one particular experiment and includes testimony from the trials, relevant photographs of victims and the doctors on trial. These sections are not for the faint of heart and depict the most barbarous acts imaginable. Almost as shocking as the actual acts is the complete lack of remorse shown by the defendants on the witness stand. Instead the accused, the majority of whom were highly educated doctors and surgeons, were resentful and defensive. Horrifyingly, one Gypsy man a victim of sadistic sea water experiments that left him permanently disabled, was questioned by a clearly racist defense council. This same man was harshly punished for attempting to stab the doctor who was responsible for his suffering and that of his fellow prisoners. In his own defense he stated, “ That man is a murderer. He has ruined by whole life.” Having read only extracts from these trials it is understandable that the author did not seek renew her contract at Nuremberg and returned to the United States in May 1948.

Upon returning to America Spitz experienced reverse culture shock faced with a country seemingly untouched by the tragedy that she had just witnessed. Spitz was deeply affected by the “coordinated evil and hatred on an unprecedented scale perpetrated by a modern, civilized society of my heritage”(p.273). Plagued by nightmares she did her best to carry on with life marrying and having two sons. In 1972 Spitz was asked to act as a parliamentary reporter in Washington. During this period she became increasingly disturbed that no efforts had been made by non-Jews to commemorate the Holocaust.

In 1980 she was present as a reporter for the bill that established the United States Memorial Council under the direction of President Jimmy Carter and Holocaust survivor and Chairman Elie Wiesel. In 1987 the next phase of Spitz’s work began when she became aware of a Holocaust denier in her hometown of Denver, Colorado. Spitz leapt into action unearthing transcripts and photographs that she had brought back with her from Nuremberg many years before. Since 1987 Spitz has spoken to more than forty thousand people all over the world in churches, universities, synagogues and law schools. She was also chosen to give testimony as part of Steven Spielberg’s SHOAH Visual History Foundation. As a result of her tireless efforts in Holocaust education in 2002 she was honoured as a “Righteous Gentile” by the University of Denver Holocaust Awareness Institute.

“ Doctor’s from Hell” is an extension of Spitz’s education work as it documents what she heard while covering the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. As a person of conscience she was forced to grapple very early in her life with the most profound moral questions of our time. How could ordinary people sink to such levels of depravity? What are the implications of these actions for ethics? The foreword to this book by ethicist Fredrick R. Abrams M.D. situates the work in the context of contemporary issues. Abrams notes that unethical experiments performed without consent continued to occur in the United States after the writing of the Nuremberg code. Both he and Spitz emphasize the importance of individual conscience and societal vigilance. Spitz continues her mission to warn us that it is up to each person to ensure that they question all authority and “ not allow malignant evil to go unchallenged and unchecked” (p.293). The impassive faces of the Nazi doctors on the cover of the book and the testimony inside warn against what can happen if we do not.

Copyright © 2005 Judy Cohen, all rights reserved.