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The Warsaw ghetto's underground medical school.

The only certainty about the Warsaw ghetto's medical school is that it existed at all, yet its reality is underscored by the fact that the few students who survived the ghetto's destruction were given full academic credit for what they had learned from perhaps the oddest faculty that ever administered a medical education. In his magisterial book Courage under Siege (1) Charles G. Roland, M.D., detailed this amazing chapter in Jewish and medical history.

One of the students, Marc Balin, was a dear friend of mine until his death in October, 2006; this essay is dedicated to his memory. Our relationship was soldered in a long evening discussion back in 1960 when, as the president of a local synagogue, I was challenged by Marc and Jeanine (also a Polish-born M.D.) to give them reasons why they should remain Jewish, given their life experiences. Both quite French-oriented, they quoted a French journal that argued that America was tolerant of religion but acutely aware of it and wondered how they could fit in. The details of that talk can be imagined by any American Jew like me, nontraditional, yet synagogue-oriented, and on uncertain terms with a nonreligious definition of being Jewish. The result, quite consistent with the law of unexpected consequences, produced a major religious event, which I shall discuss below.

They joined the synagogue, probably having their two young daughters (Paulette and Joyce) in mind, and a circle of friendship was formed that still exists, along with a now-diminishing group of survivors from all over Europe. The present was always jovial, the past the shadow of a shadow, usually dismissed and impervious even to questions from the children until Roland published his book. Prior thereto, as Janine put it, Mark's attitude was "Never, never. A sentence here and there ... he didn't want to go back to the tragic events of the past." Yet, one of his daughters (Joyce Fried), the mother of a budding rabbi, noted that "as much as he tried to put the war into the past I don't think he ever did."

Balin was a major interviewee of Roland. Perhaps because he was able to tell it all to another physician, anchored as both were in clipped clinical detail, revelations poured out as from a gushing wound. The school was established in 1941 under the rubric of the Jewish Council (Judenrat) Board of Health as a sanitary course for combating epidemics. Lest it be thought that fighting epidemics in the ghetto was a laudatory German measure, the fact was that Nazi medical "science" held that Jews were peculiarly susceptible to typhus, and they were fearful it might affect both the occupying army and the Poles, who were seen as future serfs for a Greater Germany. The notion was a self-fulfilling one, because putting 500,000 people into a space designed for 80,000 did indeed induce sweeping epidemics of typhus, the terror of the ghetto, as Roland titled one of his chapters.

Against incredible odds the hygienic-sounding training course was turned into a furtive medical school. It was "modeled on standard European curricular lines. Its intent was to educate Jewish youth in medicine and, if the situation permitted and the war lasted that long, to graduate physicians to fill the depleted ranks of the Jewish medical profession." (2) Balin's name appears throughout the text as a medical observer, translator, and caregiver. He had been a medical student in Paris and had the unfortunate timing to visit his Warsaw family in August, 1939, just prior to the German invasion.

The German understanding of a trade/vocational school was undercut by a distinguished Jewish faculty, some of whom were converted Christians caught up in Nazi definitions of Jews by blood. Together they produced two years worth of "primary" and "superior" courses sufficient to satisfy Warsaw University standards of which the ghetto school considered itself a part. Roland recorded that the double purpose of the school was to educate Jews and flout Germans, noting that "subterfuge [was] routine" enough to produce gallows humor amid that hell. "[L]ectures would begin as simple descriptions of epidemic diseases--the 'sanitary courses' cover--and then quickly shift to the actual subject under consideration: physiology, pathology, or biochemistry." (3) Faculty lives were as precarious as any. Balin noted: "We would have one day a lecture at 1 o'clock and the teacher wouldn't show up. A few days later we would find out that he was killed. Then they found a substitute. It was rather primitive," (4) a typical understatement by my friend, who kept his ghetto days close to his vest.

A sad aspect of the school was that of the Jewish converts to Christianity, some of whom participated (sometimes reluctantly) in the teaching. Whatever the reasons--political, educational, philosophical, economic--for their conversions (all understandable given Poland's vicious Antisemitism), they were thrown in with the masses of other Jews indiscriminately. One interviewee believed that the majority of converts continued, even prior to 1939, to see themselves as Jews; others voiced an Antisemitism similar to that which existed outside the ghetto. An observant ghetto Jew summed it up: "The tragedy of the converts ... was perhaps even greater than ours. They suffered as Jews and finally died as Jews, unable to resolve the terrible dichotomy created by their ... conflicts. Their suffering took on a different quality. For us it was an inevitable adjunct of our heritage; for them it was an additional burden, an unrelieved trauma." (5)

There were two nursing schools during those ill-fated two years, whose female students and graduates performed with equal courage and devotion as their male counterparts. Some managed to survive and graduate from nursing and medical schools. Interestingly, almost all of the nurses remained in Poland after the war. The high quality of the school was attested by one student who completed her medical degree at Wroclaw University. She felt that she had learned more in Warsaw, due to the superior skills of the faculty there.

The single most striking achievement, macabre to the core, was the epidemiological study of the effects of starvation on the ghetto population. Roland put it well, if a bit clinically:
   By taking advantage of the unparalleled opportunity of having so
   much hunger all about them, the medical researchers created a body
   of knowledge that was unique.... Although perhaps half of the work
   done has vanished into the gas chambers, what remains [is] a
   significant contribution to our knowledge of the human body and the
   way it behaves in conditions of extreme hunger and starvation. (6)


The chief researcher in the starvation study was Dr. Izrael Milejkowski (1887- 1943) who stated bitterly the reason for undertaking the starvation project: "It was the only thing we had in abundance." He added, quoting the Latin poet Horace, that with the project "I shall not die completely." (7)

Two social aspects go straight to the heart of the impossible situation. For a time the Jewish hospital (where the school was located) was outside the ghetto walls. Faculty and students had to pass three guards--German, Polish, and Jewish--until the hospital was relocated in the ghetto. Needless to say, the traversal was difficult; females were sometimes raped; students and faculty with obvious Jewish features were harassed. It appears there was something called "a good face" that made it easier for some to pass through, and a few escaped. Even more deadly was the German rejection of Red Cross food designated for Poles to be extended to Jews. The blunt reply was that "the word Pole does not under any circumstance include Jews." (8)

Prior to the uprising, Balin had the searing task of classifying hospital patients (for temporary life in the hospital or death in Treblinka). The strain caused him to flee; however, he was picked up and deported. An amateur boxer, he managed to leap from the train only to be shot by the guard riding shotgun on top of the wagons. It was a shoulder wound, and somehow he made his way back to Warsaw where he was hidden by a Polish woman. Ultimately, the Balins immigrated to America, Brooklyn at first, and then to Ohio, where he established the first anesthesiology department in Lake County, adjacent to Cleveland, until his death.

The denouement of the Balin story is something right out of I. L. Peretz and involves this writer. Mark and Janine remained Jewish, hardly in a religious way, though all major customs were observed. At one of the weddings, Mark touched me greatly when he said: "I cannot imagine a simcha without you being there." At the last wedding, not long after his death, an ecstatic Hasidic affair in Washington, DC, all the currents were pulled together: A rabbi-in-training grandson (Steven Fried) was marrying a traditional Jewish girl.

An Aish ha Torah Cleveland-based rabbi, Yehuda Appel, recounted a remark by the future rabbi's mother (Joyce Fried the younger daughter of the Balins): "She told me that Harold Ticktin created this rabbi." Puzzled, he asked why. "You see," she responded, "if he hadn't persuaded my parents to remain Jewish we would not be here tonight." She later added to me: "Remember we had no family here, no aunts, uncles, or cousins. You, with all the others, became our surrogate family, which led to the creation of a new rabbi."

That long-ago 1960 chat, almost forgotten by me, initiated a process--bedeviled as it still is by shadows--that led to an ending that Peretz himself would have admired.

(1) Charles G. Roland, Courage under Siege: Starvation, Disease, and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto, Studies in Jewish History (New York and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1992).

(2) Ibid., p. 5.

(3) Charles G. Roland, "An Underground Medical School in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941-42," Medical History 33 (October, 1989): 410.

(4) Ibid., p. 412.

(5) Roland, Courage under Siege, p. 32, quoting Michael Zylberberg, A Warsaw Diary, 1939-1945 (London: Valentine, Mitchell, 1969), p. 220.

(6) Roland, Courage under Siege, p. 227.

(7) Ibid., p. 227.

(8) Ibid., p. 101, citing source on p. 255, n. 40.
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Author:Ticktin, Harold
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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