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.

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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 marginalization:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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".
  4. 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