Halakha, Ethics and the Holocaust

Student-Run Conference Explores Medical Dilemmas Born out of the Holocaust

Hundreds filled Yeshiva University’s Furst Hall on the morning of October 21 to attend the 7th annual Fuld Family Medical Ethics Conference. Titled “Out of the Ashes: Jewish Approaches to Medical Dilemmas Born out of the Holocaust,” the daylong event featured a diverse lineup of speeches, panels and sessions dedicated to an array of moral and ethical dilemmas within the medical realm created by the Shoah.

The annual conference, sponsored through the generous support of Rabbi Dovid and Mrs. Anita Fuld, serves as a yearly high point for the Yeshiva University Student Medical Ethics Society (MES), an entirely undergraduate-run enterprise under the guidance of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) and the Office of Student Life.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF, introduced the event by describing the Society as “a real force on the YU campus dealing with important social and religious issues…This conference is just one example of the power of our students, within a dual curriculum, finding the time to run amazing initiatives.”

Dr. Michael Grodin, director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, delivered the opening keynote lecture, offering context and background on the involvement of the German medical establishment with the racist policies of the Third Reich.

Grodin described how the ideas of state sponsored eugenics (the policy of only permitting “fit” citizens to reproduce) and sterilization had roots in early 20th century America and were only later adopted by Nazi Germany. The acceptance of these ideas altered the motivations of doctors by shifting their focus from healing sick people to trying to create a more racially “perfect” society with devastating consequences for all those deemed unfit.

He went on to detail how Nazi policy quickly degenerated from eugenics to euthanasia, the slaughter of non-Aryans and human experimentation. He closed by recounting different forms of experimentation conducted by Nazi physicians within concentration camps—including testing the effects of high altitude, hypothermia, typhus, sea water consumption and simulated war wounds—and shaped them as cautionary tales for medical trials and research today.

After setting the stage with this foundation, Grodin was followed by a plenary discussion on “Human Experimentation” featuring Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler,  senior rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS); Irene Hizme, who along with her twin brother Rene, survived the experimentation of Joseph Mengele at Auschwitz-Birkenau as six year olds; and moderator Dr. Edward Burns, executive dean of YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The audience followed in a hushed silence punctuated by occasional muffled sobs as Hizme shared her memories of this horrible ordeal and the stories of others in her situation.

“At age six we had no comprehension of what was happening. We had no frame of reference. This is the way we thought life was. This was our life,” said Hizme as she described a life filled with gratuitous examinations, unknown injections and unneeded surgeries.

“You might say it was good to be a twin in Auschwitz,” said Hizme. “You avoided an immediate death. But our days were filled with fear and trepidation of visits to Mengele.  We were hungry. We were cold. We watched shootings. We watched hangings. We watched brutal beatings. These were all just part of the heinous crimes perpetrated against us.” At the close of her speech, Hizme related how the effects of this childhood trauma still haunt her today, making her terrified to visit doctors or hospitals.

Hizme stressed that the pre-med students in the room must not abandon humanism and must remember that within each person that they will treat there is a soul. As a grandchild of survivors, Yosefa Schoor, co-president of the Medical Ethics Society and pre-med student at Stern College for Women, noted that the conference touched her deeply. “It is of such importance to have survivors speak with us on a personal level about their torturous experiences and about continuing to live a full, productive, Jewish life after the Holocaust,” said Schoor. “I am so grateful to Irene for giving this to us.”

The afternoon of the conference was filled with a variety of speakers and sessions including “Medical Halakhic Dilemmas Faced during the Holocaust” with Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, conference chairman, mentor of the Medical Ethics Society and associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Einstein; “The Nuremberg Laws and Code in the Light of 21st Century Medical Ethics” with Dr. Harry Ostrer, professor of pathogoly, genetics and pediatrics at Einstein; “Trauma and Resilience in the Second and Third Generation After the Holocaust” with Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at YU’s Azrieli Graduate Shool of Jewish Education and Administration; “The Halakhic Status of People with Special Needs; A Response to Nazi Euthenasia,” with Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school at Yeshiva University High School for Boys; “Nazi Medicine: Its Role in the Gassing Process and the Ongoing Implication of their Pseudo-Scientific Work” with Dr. Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Exploration of the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust; and “The Status of Concentration Camps in Halakha,” with Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Professor of Talmud and adjunct professor of Bible at Yeshiva College. All conference sessions are available online at YUTorah.org.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that our world is one that continues to be founded on ethics, morals and halakah,” said Mordechai Smith, MES co-president. “Our hope is that this conference will play a role in this process. We have created a forum that will uniquely discuss the scientific, ethical and medical repercussions of the Holocaust to ensure that this generation is informed and sensitive to how the Holocaust impacts us today.”

David Katz, a resident of Teaneck, NJ and father of YU students shared his appreciation for the hard work of the conference’s organizers. “I think the interplay of halakhah, medical ethics, current events and history is very important,” he said. “It is crucial for people to stay current. I try to attend several of these events every year. I think it is wonderful that they do this.”