Push underway to get Holocaust education into med school

Dr. Frank Sommers

More often than not, doctors are trusted, even revered. But history shows they can easily sink to unspeakable evil.

During the Nazi regime, doctors routinely violated their ancient oath to do no harm by conducting sadistic experiments on concentration camp inmates and murdering the weak and disabled in the cause of perfecting the German volk. They willingly, even enthusiastically, did the Third Reich’s twisted bidding.

In the years since, painful questions have challenged the profession. How did healers become killers? Or, as a recent issue of the Israel Journal of Health Policy Research pondered, “could the Holocaust, one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated on humankind, have occurred without the complicity of physicians, their societies and the scientific community?”

Most importantly, could it happen again?

Those issues were tackled recently by the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. In a commentary last summer titled, Medicine and the Holocaust – it’s Time to Teach, the publication’s editor, Richard Horton, explained that medicine’s success in the 1930s “contributed to its hubris and collusion with a racist political regime.” He also took notice of the recent rise in nationalism and anti-Semitism.

The profession is now even more powerful than it was then, Horton continued, and by including the Holocaust in the curriculum of health professionals, “medicine could do much to vanquish the evil that is anti-Semitism.”

The Lancet article resonated locally. Meeting last November, members of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) voted unanimously to “endorse and promote the recent call by the editor of The Lancet to include the Holocaust in the curriculum of health professionals.”

That was music to the ears of Dr. Frank Sommers, a Toronto psychiatrist and child survivor of the Holocaust. When the motion passed, doctors “burst into applause and I was very relieved and gratified,” Sommers told The CJN.

Sommers, a co-founder of Doctors Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (DARA), said teaching about Holocaust-era medicine in medical schools was an idea he’d entertained for years, but The Lancet article provided the impetus for him to take it to the OMA.

The vote followed an impassioned plea from Sommers, who was born in Budapest in 1943, just before the Nazi occupation of the city, and whose immediate family survived by hiding in the basements of bombed-out buildings.

“My larger extended family were shipped, stripped of their human dignity and murdered in the gas chambers and crematoria of Nazi extermination camps, which were planned, produced and directly supervised by German doctors and scientists,” Sommers told the OMA meeting.

By passing the motion, he said the OMA would be “adding our voices, resolve and commitment to bring life to the words: Never Again – any time, and place.”

Sommers said he’s also received support for the idea from the Canadian Medical Association.

Now, “we need to reach out to all medical schools,” Sommers told The CJN. “Faculty needs to signal to young doctors that this is a very real and serious part of medicine. There was a high level of scientific and medical complicity” in the Holocaust.

As the journal Academic Medicine agreed in 2015, the subject “needs to become a mandatory, integral component of 21st-century health professions education, aimed at enlightening health professionals to what went terribly wrong, what can still go wrong, and making sure it does not recur.”

These lessons, it added, “can serve as powerful vehicles for nurturing students’ humanistic qualities, that is, their deep-seated convictions about one’s obligations to others, especially others in need.”

In Israel, a curriculum module on the Holocaust and medicine became a requirement for all medical students at Bar-Ilan University in 2017. The idea is to integrate lessons from the Third Reich into doctors’ “professional identities.”

In the United States, about 20 of the country’s 140 or so medical schools teach about medicine and the Holocaust, and that may mean only one lecture, according to the Houstan-based Center for Medicine After the Holocaust.

Whether the subject is taught at any of Canada’s 17 medical schools is not tracked, said a spokesperson for the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.

However, the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, where Sommers teaches, has started with baby steps. It is developing a curriculum on physician responsibility and one on religious discrimination that may include subject matter about the Holocaust, according to a spokesperson. The development of the new curriculum only recently began and it’s unknown when it will be introduced.

There is a long, disturbing litany of moral failings by doctors during the Nazi years. For one, German doctors and health-care providers joined the Nazi party at a higher rate than any profession, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, with 45 per cent of them signing up, compared to seven per cent of teachers. They were rewarded with the jobs of Jewish doctors and professors who were ousted from their posts.

Guided by eugenic theories of race, German physicians, nurses and bioscientists forcibly sterilized as many as 400,000 people and “euthanized” another 200,000 disabled children and adults under the so-called T-4 program.

Perhaps the best-known example is Josef Mengele – the “Angel of Death” – a doctor who decided which arrivals to Auschwitz would live and which would die, and who performed barbaric experiments on prisoners.

Of the 20 physicians tried for war crimes at the post-war doctors’ trial in Nuremberg, 16 were found guilty and four were executed.

“I would be quite willing to speak to medical students about all this,” Sommers said.