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Volume 19, Fall 2006           
Nuremberg Trials 60th Anniversary
Euthanasia, Medical Experiments, and Sterilization

Section 1
Background and Preparation for the Nuremberg Trials
Section 2
Proceedings of the International Military Tribunal
Section 3
Twelve Subsequent Trials
Medical Trial
Medical Experiments
Medical Trial Judgment
Justice Case
Industrial Cases
Krupp Trial
Taylor's statement
Euthanasia Karl Brandt and three other defendants were charged with the “euthanasia” program (so-called mercy killing of handicapped—mentally, emotionally, and physically handicapped), killing large numbers of victims whom the Nazis deemed “unworthy of life.” Most of these killings took place in mental hospitals and nursing homes in Germany. Often relatives of the victims of these killings were told that their relative had died of natural causes.

Karl Brandt

Medical Experiments The great majority of the defendants were engaged in the pseudoscientific medical experiments on Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Russians. In all 1,500 documents were presented and 85 witnesses testified. The indictment charged the defendants with responsibility for performing medical experiments on concentration camp inmates and prisoners of war without consent of the victims.

The medical experiments were often involved with trying to find methods that would help heal military personnel from wounds or exposure to extreme cold.

In some cases inmates were infected with severe diseases, such as malaria and typhus, to test the effectiveness of certain medicines. With some of the inmates their wounds were deliberately infected with bacteria. Blood circulation was reduced by tying off blood vessels around the wound. Wood shavings and broken glass were forced into the wounds to try to simulate battlefield wounds. At Buchenwald Concentration Camp, poisons were given to inmates in their food to determine the effects of these substances. If the victims did not die, then they were killed so that autopsies could be performed to determine the effects of the poisons. Some of the subjects were shot with poisoned bullets.

Sterilization Various methods of sterilization were tested on inmates. These were tried to develop an efficient method in order to enable the Nazis to sterilize millions of people in as short a time as possible and with as little effort as possible. The methods included X-ray treatment, surgery and drugs.

Experiments at Dachau

The German Navy and Air Force were concerned about the survival or pilots who were shot down over the ocean and sailors cast into the sea from torpedoed ships. At Dachau Concentration Camp, subjects were deprived of food and water and were given seawater in stead to determine whether the seawater could be made drinkable. Also, at Dachau, experiments were conducted to determine the limits of human endurance at high altitudes and to try to develop a method of saving lives of aviators who had been severely frozen at those altitudes. These experiments were conducted in a room in which the low air pressure and freeing conditions found at altitudes of up to 68,000 feet were simulated. In another experiment at Dachau inmates were placed in ice water for periods of up to three hours. Then an attempt was made to try to revive them. Many victims died as a result of these experiments.

Medical experiments at Dachau
Russian POW
Medical experiments were done for
the German Air Force.

Experiments at Ravensbrück

A particularly graphic example of the types of experiments conducted were those performed on Polish women resistance fighters at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. The medical personnel tried to transplant bone from one subject to another to study bone, muscle and nerve regeneration. Sections of the bones and muscles were removed from the inmate subjects, resulting in horrible pain, mutilation and disfigurement.

Ravensbrück Barrack

The Ravensbrück victims who testified at the Doctors’ Trial offered details of the pain and humiliation they endured.

Maria Cabaj: A Ravensbruck Lapin (“rabbit”) describes her experiences:

In November 1942, after being in Ravensbrück for several months, the head of our barracks called out my name one morning and told me I must go to the Revier for an examination. This was like a bolt from the blue even though I knew I was in the group detained for experiments of which about fifty had already been carried out. When I entered the Revier, I saw some of the other prisoners there, too. We were told to undress and then we underwent a medical examination and were pronounced healthy. Then we were told to have a bath and were taken into a ward. They chose the most healthy women, those who were the youngest and best built. I was young and healthy—my life was before me.

Suddenly, I became submissive, helpless in the face of this barbarity, these experiments on living human beings. I was in the hands of a terrible enemy, forced to carry out all his orders.

Sister [Nurse] Erika shaved my legs. I was in the hospital ward for two days and two nights waiting for my operation. I was not given anything to eat and the living conditions there were deplorable. On the third day, SS women and nurses carrying syringes and razors came round the ward. I was given an injection of morphine in my thigh; I was dazed, but knew what was going on. I was told to get into a stretcher and was wheeled to the operating theatre. I saw the hangman Dr. Rosenthal coming toward me; from the corridor where I was lying on the stretcher, I looked through the window at the sky and thought I was looking at it for the last time. I was given an intravenous injection; I don’t remember what happened afterwards. When I awoke, I felt very bad pain in both legs and the whole of my body seemed to be paralyzed. I had a very high temperature. They operated on me four times more in the course of six weeks. In the end they put my legs in plaster up to the knees. I lay in the Revier in this condition for three months. Then I was sent to a general barrack where, in conditions of hygiene defying description, I spent another two months without any care, without proper food, hungry and in a bitterly cold barrack.

Two other victims of the Ravensbrück experiments, Dagmar Hajkova and Hana Houkova, also described their ordeals at Nuremberg:

[Dr. Gebhardt came to visit the Hohenlychen Hospital near Ravensbruck and the doctors present considered him a very important visitor.]

The ten Polish women were brought in, and behind closed doors they were examined. It took a long time, and nobody was allowed to be even in the corridor. The next morning we found out that five of the Poles had been admitted to the Revier. Their room was under lock and key, and the SS nurse Erica Milleville was in charge.....

The first day they operated on two. Two days later on three others. The screams never ceased from the chamber of torture. The Revier was full of them. The girls were not given any pain killers, so that the course of the experiment would not be impaired in any way. Dogs that had undergone the same experiment received strong doses of morphine for five days.

After a few days the first Pole, a girl of seventeen, died. Her leg was huge, swollen, monstrous, blue with red wounds, and the stench emanated from them was nauseating. The Poles from the Revier told us that Gebhardt cut the leg off and took it with him.

Oberhauser was telling us that these were great scientific experiments that should solve a number of important questions in the treatment of gun shot wounds and other war injuries, and especially the gangrene and bone transplants.

There were two kinds of experiments. In the first type gangrene, tetanus and staphylococci bacteria were implanted or injected into artificially cut wounds of healthy extremities. This happened in the case of the first five, who were desperately and hysterically screaming and who all died, one of tetanus, two of gangrene, one of blood poisoning, and one bled to death.

The other operations were called by the “scientists” bone, muscle and nerve surgery. In such cases, for instance, parts as large as two inches (5 cm.) were removed from the shin bone and replaced with metal supports or not replaced at all; in this case the doctors were waiting “how the organism will help itself.” Muscles and nerves were removed and replaced by others taken from another healthy woman. The bone transplants were supposed to prove that without the periosteum bones could not grow; muscle and nerve operations served research on regeneration of tissue. Such operations took two or three hours. They repeatedly removed from some women’s hips and calves larger and larger parts of muscles; naturally, this resulted in ever increasing weakening and deformation of the extremities. In order to carry out better and more detailed “research,” they removed some women’s entire hips, shoulder joints or the whole upper extremity along with the shoulder blade. Then the professor, or his assistants, also physicians from Hohenlychen, like Grawitz, Kogel and Schultz, wrapped these in sheets and carried them to their car. Naturally, the women thus operated on were immediately after the surgery killed by an injection.

Clearly, all these operations had terrible consequences, especially when the experiments were repeated on the same “rabbit” twice, three times, even six times by both methods. If a wound caused by gangrene or some other suppurating infection healed, it was opened again and re-infected, or the limb opened at another, still healthy spot. New sections of bones were cut out, or other parts of nerves from the calf removed. As a result of the putrefaction and excised muscle tissues, the poor women’s legs became several centimeters shorter and of course weaker. Healthy beautiful people were artificially transformed into cripples; healthy, beautiful legs became grotesquely twisted limbs of skin and bone. It was the more ghastly because in the majority of cases the victims were young girls. (Excerpt from, Vera Laska, ed., Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust. New York: Greenwood P, 1983, 225-6.)

Dr. Gebhardt

What makes the story of the Ravensbrück Lapins all the more compelling is the underlying reason for the women’s pain. The main purpose of the experiments was to vindicate the reputation of Dr. Gebhardt.

Dr. Gebhardt

Hitler had suspected him of contributing to the death of the SS officer Reinhard Heydrich, since Gebhardt had not administered sulfa drugs in treating Heydrich’s fatal gunshot wounds. Himmler warned Gebhardt that the only way he could demonstrate his loyalty to the Fuhrer was to conduct experiments proving the worthlessness of sulfonamides in treating gangrene. Not surprisingly, the Ravensbrück experiments were slanted in Gebhardt’s favor; women in the sulfonamide-treated experimental group received little or no nursing while those in the untreated control group got some care. In most instances, it was the controls who survived the experiments.

American Justices in the Tribunal for the Medical Case

The American judges who constituted the Tribunal for the Medical Case were Justice Tom Sebring on the Florida Supreme Court, Justice Walter W. Beals, a justice of the Supreme Court of Washington, and Justice Johnson Tal Crawford, former justice of Okalahoma District Court in Ada Oklahoma; the alternate was Victor C. Swearingen, former district attorney general of Michigan and former special assistant to the United States attorney general.

Dimensions Online
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Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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