In WWII, the Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, set up several labor concentration camps. Nazi doctors performed medical experiments on the prisoners held there. The type of torture inflicted on the unfortunate prisoners depended on which camp they resided.
Prisoners at several camps were used as human guinea pigs in immunization therapy. Doctors infected people with contagious diseases to see if anyone had natural immunity. The intent was to create vaccines to improve the immunity of the members of the German army. Malaria, Typhus, TB, Typhoid Fever, Yellow Fever, and Hepatitis were all studied.
There was only one all-female concentration camp, located in Ravensbruck, Germany. Several Polish prisoners were used in the “Sulfonamide Experiments”. Sulfa was a new drug at that time and doctors were attempting to prove its efficacy. They were attempting to learn if Sulfa could be used in treating war wounds of the German soldiers.
In order to do this, doctors took several young, healthy women and cut open their legs in order to break the bone and insert debris into the wound. Dirt, glass, and bacteria were used to damage the leg and cause infection. After the damage to the leg was obvious, Sulfa would be used to heal the wound. Bone grafts and even leg amputation and transplants were attempted in these gruesome experiments. These women were mutilated. Those who didn’t die from infection were left disabled. The doctor doing these experiments was the only female doctor in any of the camps. Her name was Herta Oberheuser.
The women were referred to as the Ravensbruck Rabbits because after the surgeries, they would hop around the camp on their good leg and because they were treated like lab animals. The other prisoners protected these women. They risked their own lives by hiding the Rabbits, and even switching ID numbers with them.
The story of the Ravensbruck Rabbits is told in detail in Lilac Girls, a New York Times best seller, written by Martha Hall Kelly. In 1958, over a decade after the survivors were liberated from the camp, they were flown to the United States to receive treatment.
Racial experiments were conducted on several groups of people considered inferior by Nazi doctors. Dr. Josef Mengele is infamous for his horrendous treatment on twins of Jewish and Gypsy descent, as well as on dwarves. His “research” was focused on the genetic component of disease.
Dr. Mengele was also fascinated by people with different colored eyes, a condition known as heterochromia. He was known to keep the eyeballs of the patients with that condition, in order to do further testing on eye pigmentation.
Other experiments done on prisoners included artificial insemination, drinking exclusively sea water, and exposure to phosgene gas, a chemical used in WWI. The rationale behind these stories of horror were either to improve the health and stability of German soldiers, or to find a way to create a more “perfect” race.
The Nuremburg Trials, named after the town in Germany where the trials were held, were held between 1945-1949. Leaders from the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union brought to trial perpetrators of the most heinous acts ever committed. There were three categories of charges: Crimes Against Peace, War Crimes, and Crimes Against Humanity.
The Doctors Trial was conducted by United States military personnel. Twenty-three Nazi doctors and officers were tried. All defendants were found guilty. Seven were sentenced to death by hanging. Five were sentenced to life in prison. The remaining four, including Herta Oberheuser, were sentenced to 10-20 year terms in prison. Oberheuser only served five years of her term, she was released and began practicing as a pediatrician.
The incredible bravery of the Ravensbruck Rabbits did not end with their release from the concentration camp. Several of them testified again Oberheuser at the Nuremburg trials. Several years later, one of the survivors played a part in getting Oberheuser’s medical license permanently revoked.
The Nuremburg trials were successful in holding these deranged people accountable for their crimes. The trials had another positive outcome: the Nuremburg Code of Ethics. The code requires that human beings must agree to any medical experiments, can choose to quit the experiment at any time, and that no experiments can cause unnecessary suffering.
As horrendous as this piece of history is, it is important that we never forget the millions of people killed in concentration camps in WWII. More important still, is to remember the tenacity and spirit of people like the Ravensbruck Rabbits. No doubt, countless acts of bravery and kindness were shown by the prisoners of the camps. Some of those people survived to tell their story. Sadly, most of them did not.
Learn more about one of the survivors who is the focus of a documentary in progress.
marthahallkelly.com Author of Lilac Girls
elizabethwein.com shows the pictures of the real Ravensbruck Rabbits
rememberravensbruck.com Support the making of the documentary and see a survivor
PBS to learn more about the experiments
History Channel to learn more about the Nuremburg Trials