The Dering Case: A Surgeon at Auschwitz
From April 13 until May 6 of this year, the London newspapers reported what must be the strangest libel case ever brought to court, even in a city more inured to libel proceedings than most—Dering v. Uris and Others. The plaintiff, Wladyslaw Alexander Dering—a Pole who is now a British subject, and who had been a prisoner-doctor at Auschwitz—accused the defendants, Leon Uris and his publishers, William timber & Co., of intolerable insult in the following passage from the novel Exodus:
Here in Block X [at Auschwitz] Dr. Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr. Schumann sterilized by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr. Dehring performed 17,000 “experiments” in surgery without anaesthetics.
The printers of Exodus—for under English libel law, a printer can also be held liable—capitulated before the trial, made their apology, and paid five hundred pounds. Mr. Uris and his publishers were more stubborn. They did not defend the accuracy of every detail in the passage; what they did set out to prove was its substantial truth.
The situation thus seemed straightforward enough. And yet, trying to encompass Dr. Dering, the narrow and strict conventions of the English libel suit almost burst apart. Libel is a verbal offense, not an offense of action, and its prosecution is associated with a society at peace rather than at war. In the course of this trial, however, the defense and the jury had to be reminded again and again of traditional libel procedures, for the evidence presented placed them in constant risk of thinking they were there, not to give or refuse damages to Dr. Dering, but to choose between his imprisonment or his hanging. In the end, the form of libel held. The jury did succeed in thinking of Dr. Dering as plaintiff and assessed the value of his reputation, or the harm done to that ineffable quality by the defendants, at a halfpenny. Dr. Dering was not absolved of the burden of legal costs: his share of them was fixed at some 20,000 pounds.
At the time Dr. Dering took umbrage at the passage in Exodus, he was practicing medicine at Seven Sisters Road in North London, under the National Health Plan. But other connections between the English government and Dr. Dering went back much further. In 1947, when his native Poland—and Czechoslovakia and France as well—requested his extradition, he was arrested and sent to Brixton Prison pending consideration of his case by the Home Office. He remained in prison for nineteen months, busying himself with the composition (in Polish) of detailed statements of self-defense, while the Home Office was busying itself with the conflicting statements of a Dr. Alina Brewda. Like Dr. Dering, Mme. Brewda had been a Polish prisoner-doctor at Auschwitz; unlike him, she is Jewish. The 1947 conflict between their recollections persisted into the libel suit when Dr. Brewda, who has remained in London since the war, appear as a witness for the defendants.
In 1948 another witness, also a Pole, was sent to England at the request of the Polish government to give evidence concerning the operation he had undergone at Auschwitz for the removal of a testicle. This man, who has since died, looked at Dr. Dering and stated he was not the doctor who had performed the operation. (The Auschwitz medical register owned by the Polish government and lent to the English court for the 1964 trial, makes clear that this particular operation was done by Dr. Dering's Polish colleague at Auschwitz, Dr. Jan Grabczynski: on May 6, 1943, the two doctors seem to have taken turns castrating fifteen young men in a row.) Dr. Dering received a hearing in camera at Bow Street on August 6, 1948, at which it was scrupulously decided that there was not sufficient evidence for a prima facie case. Instead of being extradited, he was released with an apology.
He went straight back to work: for fifteen months he practiced as an obstetrician and gynecologist at a London hospital, St. John and St. Elizabeth, in Finchley. Then, in 1950, he entered the Colonial Medical Service and went to British Somaliland where he worked in the Hargeisa Hospital for ten years, advancing (as he had at Auschwitz) to the rank of Senior Medical Officer (Surgical). After his return to England in 1960, he was awarded on O.B.E. in recognition of his African service. For the four years before the trial—though suffering, as he testified, from large varicose veins, from insomnia, and from anxiety—he was in medical partnership with another Pole, Dr. Jan Gajek. At the end of the trial, Dr. Gajek (who spent the war in the Polish Army Medical Corps) was interviewed as an old friend of Dr. Dering by the Daily Mail: “I knew him,” he reminisced, “when he was a student without a halfpenny to his name.” That, at least in view of the verdict, no one can ever say of Dr. Dering again.
A sampling of Dr. Dering's London patients by the same newspaper revealed their loyal indifference to the jury's contemptuous award. Mrs. Mary Brolan, twenty-six:
I wouldn't swap Dr. Dering for anything. I can't believe that a man like him would ever do anything wrong.
Several of the patients, like Mrs. Brolan, had young children; one patient was seven months pregnant:
He's wonderful with children and expectant mothers.
These tributes are not necessarily the expression of that irrational faith which some of the sick and some of the pregnant develop in their medical attendants. Nor is there any inescapable incongruity between Dr. Dering's service at Auschwitz and his service in Somaliland and in England. No one has ever questioned the sufficiency of his training. Had the war not come, had Dr. Dering not been sent to Auschwitz, he probably would have practiced without notorious impropriety throughout his life. But when he needed something for himself—whether it was to save his own life, as he argued, or to achieve his extraordinary release from Auschwitz in January of 1944, as the defendants argued (and certainly he managed both)—he was willing to turn his surgical skill to the castration of Jewish men and the sterilization of Jewish women. After the war, in Somali-land, in England, he perhaps felt relieved to practice medicine properly again. And he did so with the noticeable industry and competence which earned him his O.B.E., just as the same qualities had earned him his special favors at Auschwitz. His even history after the war reveals the fragile nature of what seems unexceptionable behavior, hinging—as it evidently does for people like him—only upon the temporary coincidence of self-interest and the moral standard.
Dr. Dering's halfpenny was the jury's concession of error in detail in the Exodus passage, and his lawyer A. Colin Duncan (the author of a textbook on defamation whom the presiding judge, Justice Lawton, called “the Homer of libel”) harped on each of these errors in his final argument for a “very, very substantial award.” But at the end of the trial, when all the evidence had been heard, the errors fell strangely on the ear. The first offense was the reference to “Block X” at Auschwitz, when in fact Dr. Dering had operated in Block 21. Mr. Duncan argued that “among readers who knew about Auschwitz,” Block 10, a prison ward, had “a sinister significance . . . as a secret place, with its windows barred and where was kept the ‘raw material’ for the Nazi maneuvers.” But surely in the average mind, a position of some authority in any block of Auschwitz would seem “sinister,” and by the time readers in London had been acquainted with both blocks, they were in all likelihood feeling an even greater dread of Dr. Dering's rightful 21 than of 10. It was hard to understand what degree of relief he could derive from the correction.
A second offense was the German spelling “Dehring”: it was “one of the unfairest things of all” because it obscured the fact that Dr. Dering was a Pole and a prisoner himself. Yet while it was supposed to strike an English jury as an outrage to hide Dr. Dering's Polish nationality, for the Poles who had described their surgery to this same jury, his being a Pole too could only have enhanced the bitterness of their memories. And at the time they had lain helpless on the operating table before him, it would have seemed to them scarcely credible that he was a prisoner like themselves.
There followed the reference to “17,000 ‘experiments' in surgery,” when in fact it could be shown that Dr. Dering had performed only (only) about 130 operations on sexual glands. The wording suggested, Mr. Duncan contended, that Dr. Dering “was himself experimenting by means of surgery.” But all that had been shown was that he had done the surgery; there was no evidence that he had devised the experiments of which his surgery constituted the second step. Since he had taken no known part in the first step—the attempt to sterilize the sexual organs by X-ray—it was libelous to suggest that he had been performing surgical experiments. He had simply removed testicles and ovaries. Nor had he taken any part in the third step—the laboratory examination of these organs for the purpose of studying the effects of radiation upon them.
It was also false, Mr. Duncan claimed, to say that the operations had been performed “without anaesthetics.” Dr. Dering had testified that he had assumed some pre-medication, some tranquilizing drug such as morphia, had been given to the patients a half-hour or so before they left the ward. Dr. Dering certainly felt that it should have been given. But the patients were consistent in denying that they received any such pre-medication. There was no drowsiness, no merciful haze: women recalled walking to Block 21 with clear heads. At Block 21, Dr. Dering himself gave the spinal anaesthetic, as Dr. Brewda confirmed. The manner in which the anaesthetic was given, Mr. Duncan did not raise again at this point of his argument. In the course of the trial Dr. Dering had thought aloud that the anaesthetic was administered on the operating table. But all the patients said they received it in an anteroom: they recalled their attempts to resist, their being cornered and held, their screaming at the moment of the injection, their being dragged then, semi-paralyzed, from the anteroom to the operating table.
A great mass of argument in the trial centered on the subject of spinal versus general anaesthesia. It was possible, as always, for both sides to find expert medical witnesses to support opposite positions. Dr. Dering himself was at his most professional in the discussion of the advantages of the spinal anaesthetic. He had found it most serviceable in Somaliland. Some of his Auschwitz patients had themselves requested it. But as the counsel for the defendants, Lord Gardiner, remarked, those patients had requested their operations as well. And one felt that the medical experts for the prosecution who expatiated on the advantages of the spinal anaesthetic, never looked squarely at the situation which existed at Auschwitz where Jewish prisoners, some as young as fifteen, remained fully conscious in all their terror while their sexual organs were removed.
In the course of giving evidence, Mr. Duncan continued, Dr. Dering had also argued that he had operated without general anaesthetic because of the acute shortage of competent anaesthetists. Yet the medical register of Auschwitz showed that anaesthetists had been available for many other operations performed there at the time. The shortage seems to have existed, as Lord Gardiner remarked, only in the operating room in which Jewish prisoners were sterilized—and even one of these prisoners was given a general anaesthetic by another doctor. One woman testified that she had been given ether for her first ovariectomy (performed by the Jewish prisoner-surgeon, Dr. Samuel, who later, too old and eczematic to be of further use, went himself to the gas chamber), and a spinal anaesthetic for the second ovariectomy performed by Dr. Dering.
So much for the errors in the Exodus passage. If Dr. Dering could have denied ever having operated upon the former patients who testified in the case, it would have immensely helped his effort to disprove the substantial truth of the passage. But their testimony was beyond denial. Auschwitz was a methodical nightmare, and each operation done there had been entered in a register kept by Dr. Dering and his colleagues. This register was smuggled out of Auschwitz and so survived the war; with the greatest precautions for its safety, it was lent from the Auschwitz Museum in Poland to the English court. Each entry in the register, in successive columns, gave: (1) the operation number; (2) the date; (3) the prisoner's camp number; (4) the prisoner's name; (5) the diagnosis; (6) the action taken; (7) the surgeon's name; (8) the assistant's name; (9) the type of anaesthetic; (10) the drug used; (11) remarks. Since the war, Dr. Dering had had his own camp number removed from his arm, but the former patients who testified at the trial still wore theirs. These tattooed numbers tallied now with the camp numbers in the register, and the scars on the bodies tallied with the entries in the sixth column. And so with the name Dering in the seventh column, the witnesses were fixed forever as his patients.
The work that remained for the defendants, therefore, was to attack the two main assertions of Dr. Dering's self-justification: the first, that he had had no possible choice, that no one in his position could have refused to do the operations; and the second, that obliged to operate, he had operated in an exemplary fashion.
In this trial “I had no choice” meant: “If I chose not to operate, I would have been severely punished, or tortured, or killed.” Justice Lawton, in his summing up, reminded the jury that a man who had broadcast for the Germans during the war had made legitimate use of this defense by fear. Yet it is one thing, under orders, to broadcast for the enemy; it might be a second, under orders, to heave the dead bodies of fellow prisoners into mass graves; but it seemed more than a third, it seemed a worse thing, under orders, to mutilate the bodies of living people. As Lord Gardiner argued (and shortly after his broadcasting instance, Justice Lawton told the jury that Lord Gardiner had been right to do so), there must some day come some order a person would risk death to refuse.
In the trial, to be sure, this entire exchange had an air of unreality. Since Mr. Duncan insisted on repeating that Dr. Dering had been in danger of death, the defendants were equally bound to define the moral limits of self-preservation. But they questioned the argument from the factual, as well as the ethical, point of view: they believed it could be shown that Dr. Dering had not been in danger of death. By the end of 1943, they argued, forced labor was needed desperately by Germany. If a sick or injured person could be got back to work quickly, it was better to give him medical attention than to kill him—and to see that medical attention was available, it was better to keep doctors alive than to kill them. After the “Save the Doctors” order issued by the German government in 1941, doctors might be punished but very few were killed.
Moreover, Dr. Dering's subordinate at Auschwitz, Dr. Grabczynski, who testified for the prosecution, was forced to admit under cross-examination that if his senior-in-command, Dr. Dering, had refused to perform the operations, he too would have refused. And the evidence of other non-Jewish prisoner-doctors at Auschwitz was available to show that it had been possible not to take part in these operations, to refuse, and yet not be executed or even subjected to heavy punishment. (When on one occasion Dr. Dering did refuse to administer a lethal injection of phenol, he received a kind of boarding-school punishment: he was not allowed an excursion beyond the camp grounds for two weeks.) The testimony of a French woman, Dr. Adelaine Hautval, with which the defense closed its case, was the most impressive and the most damaging to Dr. Dering's cause. She had been asked directly to take part in these operations at Auschwitz, and she had directly refused. She repeated her conversation with the SS Dr. Wirths:
He asked me, “Cannot you see that these people [the Jews] are different from you?” and I answered him that there were several people different from me, beginning with him.
Lord Gardiner then asked Dr. Hautval—causing the only moment of laughter in the trial—“As a result were you shot?” She was there to answer, “No.”
Dr. Dering's fear of imminent death was rendered less plausible, too, by the fact of his unusual success as a prisoner. He entered Auschwitz as a laborer but rose steadily in rank to become chief surgeon. He enjoyed more freedom of movement about the camp than other prisoners. He did not deny that he had more access to food than other prisoners. He did not deny Dr. Brewda's quietly excruciating description of him at their first meeting at Auschwitz outside the operating theater (“He was smartly dressed and clean shaven. He had on leather shoes in good condition”). He did not deny his white pullover, knit at Dr. Brewda's suggestion (as a bribe for food) by a girl in the ward from which his surgical patients were drawn. He could not deny that, after 1941, of all the prisoner-doctors at Auschwitz only he and Dr. Grabczynski were released to live in Germany. Dr. Brewda had watched him go.
. . . I saw Dering leaving the camp. He was still wearing his prisoner's uniform and carrying two suitcases.
In 1947-48 Dr. Dering said he had later been sent back to Auschwitz, but at the trial Lord Gardiner proved that this was a lie: Dr. Dering and his two suitcases never returned. He was released to work in a hospital with the Dr. Clau-berg of the Exodus passage, who reported to Himmler on June 7, 1943 that good progress had been made in the program of sterilization of Jewish women and that it should soon be possible, with a staff of about ten, to sterilize hundreds, perhaps a thousand, in a day. Dr. Clauberg called his assistant, Dr. Dering, his Kettenhund (dog on a chain).
In addition to all of this, Dr. Dering's argument that he had to operate or die was confused by his gradually formulating several other (and more laudable) motives for having operated. As Lord Gardiner explained, in the course of those nineteen months in Brixton Prison in 1947-48, Dering produced a variety of reasons for having done what he had done. One of these was a concern that sexual organs which had undergone irradiation might eventually develop complications, such as cancer. Dr. Grabczynski, in testifying to this motive for the operations, contributed even more than Dr. Dering to the delineation of a quite new image of the Auschwitz doctor. According to Dr. Grabczynski, he and his colleagues had no sooner received the order to remove the sexual organs than they were consumed with fear for the future health of the prisoners upon whom they were about to operate. Indeed, they were so worried about the danger of not removing these irradiated organs that they neglected to take up such “lesser points” as what would happen to them if they refused to operate. “It was important; but first of all we were discussing what to do about the patients.” (This fear that their patients might develop cancer in the future was a remarkable instance of medical speculation. According to an expert witness in radiology called by the defense, no such fear in connection with the kind of irradiation administered to the Auschwitz patients would obtain among doctors today and, as far as he knew, had not obtained among doctors anywhere in 1943.)
But presumably the doctors' decision to operate was made on humane as well as medical grounds: if they did not operate, the patients might be sent to the gas chamber and the required organs removed from their bodies after death. They operated, therefore, to save the patients' lives. However, Lord Gardiner argued, the Germans had another use for the young patients' lives—the use of labor. Moreover, it would have been recognized as an impractical plan to search for these few among the heaped thousands of dead bodies which the opened gas chamber would present. In fact, all the possible measures the Germans might have taken to gain their end if the doctors had refused, had been thought out meticulously in advance by the doctors who did not refuse.
The second way by which Dr. Dering's action might be vindicated was that, obligated to operate, he had operated in an exemplary fashion. To attempt to prove this at the trial there were mainly Dr. Dering himself and Dr. Grabczynski. To attempt to disprove it, there were the Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of London, William Charles Wallace Nixon; Dr. Brewda (upon whose honesty Mr. Duncan, and to some extent Justice Lawton,1 cast a large shadow of doubt); and several former prisoners upon whom Dr. Dering had operated. Dr. Dering and Dr. Grabczynski were the first to testify. But after the patients had been heard, it was agreed that Dr. Grabczynski should come from Cracow to London a second time so that he might have an opportunity to deny testimony that had not yet existed for him to deny the first time. The Polish government, however, found great difficulty in reissuing Dr. Grabczynski's passport, and the Observer subsequently reported that Warsaw had requested a copy of his testimony on the first visit, to decide whether some further action by a Polish court might be in order. Dr. Grabczynski did not appear in the Dering case again.
The only other witness at the trial who had presumably watched Dr. Dering perform ovariectomies at Auschwitz was Dr. Brewda. She testified that at least two of the operations he performed on ten Greek girls, one day in November of 1943, were completed with shocking speed: “It was as though he was operating on corpses.” Between these two operations she did not observe that Dr. Dering washed his hands or that the instruments were sterilized. She also maintained that he operated “blind”: that the incisions were too small to allow for the proper “covering of the pedicle,” the mending of the “stump” of the severed ovary, to lessen the danger of hemorrhage. And indeed, in the night that followed, Girl “B” died of what Dr. Brewda and another prisoner-doctor, Dorota Lorska, diagnosed as internal hemorrhage. Of the ten Greek girls Dering operated on that day, two died.
Dr. Brewda was believed by Mr. Duncan to be motivated by malice in this testimony, but as Lord Gardiner pointed out, the evidence of Professor Nixon completely supported her testimony. (Nor did Lord Gardiner neglect to mention, in emphasizing the importance of Professor Nixon's confirmation, how extremely difficult it usually is to persuade a doctor to give professional evidence against another doctor.) Professor Nixon had examined the patients who had testified. Without any qualification he called Dr. Dering's work “crude, bad surgery”:
Well, I have practiced in China, Africa, and the Middle East, and I have never in all my surgical life seen such scars as I saw last week when I examined the patients—such scarring, such deficiency, such pigmentation.
From the size of the incisions he pronounced it impossible for the surgeon to have reached and seen and held the severed tissues so as to mend them properly. He therefore agreed with Dr. Brewda that the patients who died must have suffered internal hemorrhage.
As one listened to Dr. Dering testifying in his own defense, it began to seem possible that he felt his reputation worthy of compensation because he had quite simply never comprehended the enormity of his actions at Auschwitz. He seemed to see them as commonplace, hardly worth talking about if Mr. Uris had not started talking about them first. Unlike Dr. Grabczynski, he did not want to play the ethical philosopher. He saw himself as a man of sense; he was ready to pay Lord Gardiner the compliment of considering him another: he tried to draw the defense counsel and himself together in remarking that Exodus was both anti-British and anti-Polish. He was apt to preface his answers with “Lord Gardiner,” implying by his tone that they were the only rational beings in the courtroom. They were surrounded by malicious or hair-splitting or hysterical people, but surely they two could see this matter of the operations in perspective. Professor Nixon and the radiological expert might deny that a small dose of X-ray in the sexual glands could eventually cause the growth of a carcinomous tumor, but Dr. Dering still insisted that “it was common sense not to make too much of people losing a destroyed or damaged gland and winning their lives, and the doctors' lives as well.” He had been helplessly involved in what he saw not as the evil, but the mere folly, of other men: he spoke of the experiments (of which the operations had been the second stage) as “silly.”
One of Lord Gardiner's questions suggested that while Dr. Dering had been a member of a Polish underground at Auschwitz, it was that of a “clique of Polish army officer type” which kept deliberately apart from the underground movement called the Auschwitz Fighting Group, whose leaders included Cyrankiewiecz, later Premier of Poland. Dr. Dering was reminded that another member of this group, Dr. Langbein, had alleged that at Auschwitz Dr. Dering showed him his tobacco pouch, which was a tanned scrotum. Dr. Dering denied this story, and denied too that his group had been the sort of clique Lord Gardiner described. But the point that Lord Gardiner was trying to establish here, and that he made again in his final speech to the jury, was that Dr. Dering thought of himself as superior not only to Polish Jews but also to other Polish Gentiles. That he still thought of himself as well bred, emerged in the unexpected direction of his denial of a point in Dr. Brewda's testimony. He was questioned concerning the last two of the ten Greek girls on whom he had operated:
Q. Do you remember Dr. Brewda saying “Leave them alone. They have suffered enough already,” and you said, “Shut up. I have my orders. They will kill me. I have to do it”?
A. No, no, no. I could be strict, but I was never rude, especially to women. . . .
Nonetheless, Dr. Dering's patients testified to rude words as well as rude actions. And handy as Dr. Dering was with denials, he neglected at least one. It evidently did not enter his mind that it might also be well to deny the testimony concerning his callous indifference in his encounters with the patients. It was as though he could not comprehend silence and indifference as marks against him, and so repeated evidence of his coldness went unchallenged. A permanent image left by the trial is of Dr. Dering on his hospital rounds. A woman testified:
He said words. I could not understand them. It was enough for me when I saw . . . . [The witness made a pushing away gesture] Then he turned round and went past all the beds. When he was leaving the room the woman doctor [Dr. Brewda] told him about my bad state again. Then he returned to my bed and tore away the plaster and bandages. That is right and the truth. I cannot explain the pains I had . . . .
Another woman was also asked about the visit of the doctor whose name she did not know:
Q. Whoever it was, did he look at the wound?
A. Not very much. The girls were side by side and he passed their beds but he did not approach us.
Q. Did he speak to you, or the one beside you?
Q. Is the true fact that you don't remember after all these years?
A. This I cannot forget.
Dr. Brewda's testimony produced an even sharper image of detachment:
As I entered through the corridor [outside the operating room], I could hear screaming. I heard “mama” which I think is Greek for mother. I entered into the anteroom. I saw two men holding a screaming girl sitting on a couch and a second one crying. Dr. Dering was washing his hands in the anteroom.
No one can be certain of the particular points of the case upon which the jury based their decision. But it is possible that even if they disagreed about the professional conduct of the operations—the spinal versus the general anaesthetic, the small versus the large incision—they may still have come to their final agreement that Dr. Dering's protest of libel was unwarranted by their observation of this one thing: his indifference to suffering inflicted by him upon patients who had not consented but could not resist.
Some of the details of Dr. Brewda's statements against Dr. Dering in 1947 had been shown to be inaccurate. It was he, she had said, who first mentioned “17,000” operations to her, but she had been wrong to deduce that all of these were “experimental.” And she had also been wrong in reporting a 100 per cent mortality among the men undergoing the “experimental” operation. These were the errors which Dr. Dering felt most keenly, so keenly that Justice Lawton had to remind him that the second one did not occur in the Exodus passage, and therefore was no business of the court's. Mr. Uris had informed his lawyers that he had used another Polish source, a book called Underground by Joseph Tenenbaum, but part of Dr. Dering's resentment of the Exodus passage was clearly his impression that it had been based on Dr. Brewda's earlier statement.
In court now Dr. Brewda, under attack from several directions, was redeemed from another. Dr. Dering had denied that she had been in the operating room on the day of the Greek girls' surgery, but the women themselves remembered her having spoken to them and comforted them:
. . . She told me “N'ai pas peur, mon enfant.” I understand a little French and ''N'ai pas peur” means “Don't be afraid.”
She was comforting me and saying: “My child, courage.”
I was awake and I saw, in the reflection of the lamp, that they did something to me. During the time of the operation I felt like vomiting. Then I felt the warm hand of Dr. Brewda. She told me “Encore un peu, mon enfant.” I cannot forget it.
If after the war Dr. Brewda mistakenly assumed Dr. Dering's history at Auschwitz to be worse than it was, her exaggeration was gratuitous, since the truth was ugly enough. It was out of character, too, since in other circumstances she had shown herself capable of speaking admirably.
But in this trial—as perhaps in all such—the unpredictable voices, the revelatory words, were those of the witnesses not trained in either medicine or law. They were the foreign voices, those whose statements had to be translated, those of people who could not understand a word of all the rapid English which swirled about them as they stood by turn in the witness box. The argument put forward for Dr. Dering by Mr. Duncan and his associate, Mr. Neill, was that these witnesses, especially the women who had been girls of only seventeen or eighteen at the time of their operations, had been distressed and bewildered then, and were now confused or mistaken in their recollection of all details. When Justice Lawton asked, “You are not going to suggest to them that they are all telling a pack of lies?,” Mr. Neill answered with pointed caution: “I don't think I can.” Similarly, in his final speech, Mr. Duncan “did not contend” that “these unfortunate people,” were “conspiring to tell lies.” That would be too cruel to say openly, and so the solution was to imply it.
Yet when the former patients spoke, one believed them. They seemed able to choose out of all their languages the few right words which could erase the passage of time by which Justice Lawton was much troubled, and which brought their experiences at Auschwitz to life again. These “wretches,” these “miserable creatures” (as they were, with good intention, so often called by all the professionals of the trial), expressed themselves with unassuming talent.
One man had spoken up before his surgery:
I did not know what they would do to me. When I came to know that I was to be operated on then I said, “Why are you operating on me? I am fit, not sick.” He [Dr. Dering] answered me in French, “If I take not the testicle off you, they will take it off me.”
Mr. Neill cross-examined one woman, whom he seemed to suspect of improper coaching because she knew she had been involved in an “experiment”:
Q. You knew that [it was an “experiment”]?
A. In the beginning I did not know it. Afterwards I knew.
Q. Who told you that?
A. Nobody had to tell us because we were received like beasts.
A witness having uttered her desire for vengeance, Mr. Neill hoped to find the same motive in another, a man. He asked:
You feel very bitter about this, don't you?
But the answer ignored the implication of the question:
I don't feel good, I feel pain in my heart and shame in my face.
The moment of castration was recreated:
After some minutes I saw Dr. Dering when he had my testicle in his hand and showed it to Dr. Schumann who was present.
After her first ovariectomy, performed by Dr. Samuel, a patient recalled the words he said to her, still terrifying in their ambiguity:
Dr. Samuel said to me after the operation, “If you will live then you will be as all the others I operated on.” He told me that he opened and closed the abdomen. That was all that he told me.
The same patient was conscious during her second ovariectomy performed by Dr. Dering:
I saw the lamp over me and it was full of only red. I screamed for very strong pains. . . . I heard they cut inside and I saw that they took out something.
Another woman described the condition of her wound five days after surgery:
My abdomen was full of pus; it secreted as a spring.
These appalling words were spoken because in Exodus Leon Uris flatly stated that Dr. Dering had performed 17,000 experimental operations. That shadowless number was not profoundly disturbing; even the greater one, the 6,000,000 Jews who died in the course of the war, fails now in itself, with constant repetition, to evoke personal anguish. But in his effort to confute the generalization, Dr. Dering brought into being the evidence of individual victims. A little cluster of survivors recreated the agony felt by young men and women who first were robbed of all dignity of body (for the men, through such procedures as the brutal semen test); who then underwent the inexplicable terror, in a dark room, of irradiation; who then saw and felt the mutilation of their sexual organs by surgery; who returned to cold wards to lie in bed for months, ill-fed, ill-tended, with unhealing, suppurating wounds; who were liberated two years later to endure in freedom the lifelong hunger of childlessness.
Their intolerable recollections outlast all other aspects of the trial. The boy of sixteen who was still with his mother for part of their journey to the concentration camp, but then was separated from her to go alone through his ordeal of castration. The company of young girls, at attention, whom Dr. Schumann reviewed before making his selection for surgery. Their outdoor walk, all in tears, from Block 10, where they slept, to Block 21, where they were operated on. The girl who received the spinal anaesthetic with her body bent over, her head clamped between the thighs of an orderly, her back held exposed and still for Dr. Dering's insertion of the needle. The ironic cross inscribed upon the body of the Jewish woman who has both the horizontal (“the German school”) incision of the first ovariectomy and the vertical (the Polish school?) of the second.
All this happened, as Justice Lawton reiterated, a long time ago. But in all times all people have felt, in their separate ways, the sexual beauty of young and healthy bodies. Even rape, in violation of the body, implies the body's grace. Only in the testimony of these witnesses, one looked down with a vertigo of mounting comprehension into a time and place, the pit of Auschwitz in 1943, where men who lived by nothing but self-interest and a technique of the hands, cut to pieces the most valued capacity of other men, and of women.
1 Justice Lawton, to add to the too abundant ironies of the trial, was known in the 30's for his Fascist associations. However, as Jack Winocour wrote in the New Statesman, he tried the case with “impeccable propriety and fairness.”