Reflections on My Father's Experience with Doctors During the Shoah (1939-1945)
Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D.
The Journal of Clinical
Ethics, Winter 1996, Volume 7, Number 4, p. 311-14
What follows are some thoughts, occasioned by a recent three-hour filmed
interview with my father, Abraham Bursztajn, conducted by Dr. Mark Weisstuch
on behalf of the Steven Spielberg Foundation. The foundation, created
by the film director Steven Spielberg after the making of the film Schindler's
List, is dedicated to chronicling the memories of Jewish survivors
of the Nazi attempt at systematic destruction of European Jewry during
World War II (1939-1945), the Shoah. Here I will focus on how two physicians,
working under the shadow of death with limited resources, were able to
comfort and even promote hope and healing.
My father's interview had some special urgency: an exhibition at Yad
Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel's Jerusalem on the Lodz, Poland
ghetto, was scheduled to end by September. My father is one of the few
surviving members of a lost chapter of that ghetto's history: the Jewish
resistance. He is now seventy-nine, having had a quadruple bypass one
and one-half years ago, three years after the death of my mother, Miriam
Briks Feigala Bursztajn, who was his comrade in the underground and then
his partner in life for forty-nine years.
. . .
The full article can be found here [pdf]
On May 24, 2001, Abraham Bursztajn passed away.
Those wishing to make contributions in memory of my parents or others
can do so to the Educational Programs and Grants of the Shoah
Visual History Foundation.
Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation was established in 1994
to collect the testimony of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust,
and to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry through the educational
uses of these visual history testimonies.
Individuals interested in supporting the efforts of the Shoah Foundation
are encouraged to call 818-777-4673, write to P.O. Box 3168, Los Angeles,
CA 90078, or visit the Foundation's Homepage.
The hope is that we can eventually start to support research on the relatively
silent history of health professionals choosing good even in the midst
of the Shoah and than using the data to educate medical, mental health
professionals, and other professionals and academics as well as the general
public. There are a variety of reasons as to why there has been such
One guess as to why there has been such relative silence and marginalization
of this chapter of Shoah history is that memory tends to be affect
consonant. Thus in the midst of the horror of the Shoah, where
feelings of horror if you were a Jew in Nazi occupied Europe
were natural, and sickness or injury tantamount to a death sentence,
horrible memories such as from the Nazi doctors, were naturally
affect consonant. The good, is dissociated or otherwise avoided
subsequently via PTSD. Thus it is easier to remember horrible
behavior in horrible times than good behavior in horrible times.
One manifestation of feelings of survivor guilt is irrational survivor
shame: Thus the "good" health professionals and their
patients or those who were victimized by the Nazi doctors are
much more likely to avoid remembering the good deeds of those
in the resistance as well as their own good deeds.
Part of my parents difficulty in taking credit and feeling just pride
regarding those who they saved while in the resistance was to
feel very sad and ashamed as to those they good not save. As
a child in Lodz, Poland I remember people who my father had saved
in the Lodz ghetto rushing up to him on the street to hug him
and thank him; paradoxically he seemed embarrassed and would
just comfort those who rushed up to thank him. My mother could
speak with pride of his good deeds, but be relatively silent
as to her own good deeds. She would say: "Hitler murdered
the very best people".
Forgetting as an act of resistance: My parents last act of resistance
was to refuse to be driven out from Poland even as our apartment
in Lodz acted as an underground railroad station to the West
and Israel for those Jews seeking to escape post-war Polish antisemitism
and Stalinist oppression. Finally in 1959 when there were only
a few Jews left to help and we, their children, were reaching
an age where they would be vulnerable to Polish peer antisemitism,
my parents decided to leave to be reunited with family remnants
in the U.S.. Not remembering the past was a way of not being
driven out of space (Poland) and time (the post-Shoah present).
Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D.
Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
Harvard Medical School
Program in Psychiatry & the Law
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Department of Psychiatry of
Harvard Medical School
telephone: 617-492-8366 telefax: 617-441-3195