At age 16, Gisella Perl had graduated first in her secondary-school class, the only woman and the only Jew. She asked her father to send her to medical school, but he refused at first, fearing that she might forget her faith. But Perl was determined, assuring her father she would remain observant. Her father relented, and Perl went on to gain her degree in medicine and establish a practice in Berlin.
When the National Socialist party rose to power in 1933, Jewish doctors were stripped of their positions and purged from universities and government. Perl and her husband, Ephraim Krauss, and their two children returned to their native Hungary, where she became a beloved doctor. Life was peaceful, for a while. Perl remembered evenings listening to her son play violin, in their home near the Carpathian Mountains. That halcyon time ended when Germany invaded in March, 1944.
Dr. Perl and most of her family were rounded up and sent to the Sighet Ghetto. A few months later they, along with 400,000 Hungarian Jews, were deported to Auschwitz. This deportation was described by Elie Wiesel in Night: “And then, one day all the foreign Jews were expelled from Sighet…Crammed into cattle cars by the Hungarian Police, they cried silently. Standing on the station platform, we too were crying. The train disappeared over the horizon; all that was left was thick, dirty smoke…”1
Dr. Perl vividly recalled her first sight of the sprawling death camp: billowing black clouds of smoke from the crematorium, tinged crimson by “sharp red tongues of flame (that) licked the sky”. As they embraced for the last time, she and her husband made a promise to each other: “We will meet someday in Jerusalem.” Dr. Perl never saw her husband again.
Dr. Perl was one of five doctors assigned to set up a camp hospital. Informed that she would be the camp gynaecologist, Perl nevertheless had her medical bag and all of her instruments taken away by another German doctor, who informed her that she would not be needing them. She reported directly to the head doctor, joseph mengele, (יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ) who forced her to assist him with his “research”. The next several months would be a time of unspeakable horror for Perl and the women prisoners whom she had to treat.
Dr. Perl went to extraordinary lengths to protect and heal her fellow prisoners. Aware that anyone found to have a contagious disease would be killed, Perl submitted vials of her own blood when prisoners were ordered to provide samples. She treated severe wounds with paper bandages, and did the best she could to conceal pregnancies. Pregnant women would be executed or worse, experimented upon. Survivors of the camp praised her for her help. She became known as “The Angel of Auschwitz”. Having no medical tools to work with, she treated patients with her voice, “…telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again.” 2
Dr. Perl was able to save countless lives, but not those of her husband and son. Upon learning of their fate, she fell into despair, at one point attempting suicide. Instead, she came to the U.S. to tell of the horrors she had seen. It was then that she accepted a lunch invitation from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who encouraged her to “Stop torturing yourself; become a doctor again.”
Granted U.S. citizenship, Dr. Perl moved to New York City and began a career working at Mount Sinai hospital, specializing in infertility. She eventually opened her own practice, delivering over 3,000 babies. Dr. Perl wrote a book about her experience, titled I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz. Dr. Gisella Perl passed away on December 16, 1988, at the age of 81.
1. Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.
2. I was a Doctor in Auschwitz Available through Amazon
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