Gisella Perl was one of the several million Jews to be sent to a concentration camp during the Second World War. She was one of the lucky few to survive unlike the majority of her family. Despite the death and horrors of the camps, Perl managed to save many of the lives of her female camp mates. Yet Perl’s name is largely unknown. Why? The likelihood is how she saved many of these women’s lives, by providing them with abortions.
Gisella Perl was born in Romania in 1907, graduating first in her high school as the only woman and the only Jew. Her father was initially reluctant to allow her to enrol in medical school fearing she would lose her faith, but when he relented Perl learnt the skills that saved hers and countless of others’ lives. After graduating she became a gynaecologist in Sighetu Marmației.
However her work was interrupted when the Nazis invaded this part of Romania, illegally, via Hungary. Originally placed in a ghetto, Perl and her family, barring her daughter who was sheltered by a non-Jewish family, were sent to Auschwitz in March 1944. Due to her medical training she was selected to work for the camp hospital under the notorious Joseph Mengele.
While called a hospital, it lacked the proper equipment and resources that a hospital required and could be almost as dangerous as the gas chambers. Even basic resources like anaesthesia and drugs were not available. This along with poor nourishment, and hygiene due to a lack of toilets, all made the job of staff much harder. Perl began to rely on her voice as a treatment, hoping she could at least give her patients some kind of relief:
”I treated patients with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again. I didn’t know when it was Rosh ha-Shanah, but I had a sense of it when the weather turned cool. So I made a party with the bread, margarine and dirty pieces of sausage we received for meals. I said tonight will be the New Year, tomorrow a better year will come.”
However Perl, like many in the camps, did not realise the true extent of Mengele’s experiments until too late. Mengele had told Perl to send pregnant women to him, telling her they would be sent away for better nutrition. Many women upon hearing this themselves would approach Mengele telling him they were pregnant. Perl then found out that these women were used as guinea pigs in Mengele’s twisted experiments:
“…two lives would be thrown into the crematorium. I decided that never again would there be a pregnant woman in Auschwitz.”
Perl, due to her beliefs had not performed abortions prior to the war and under her own admission struggled greatly with this decision. However she believed it was better to save the life of the mother by performing an abortion before a woman could be sent away where they would die along with their foetus. Perl hoped these women would one day be able to give birth in safer conditions. Such abortions were made harder as Perl was forced to perform these with her bare hands, in the filthy barracks at night without any pain relief. It has been estimated that around 3000 abortions were performed by Perl, giving the women she performed them on a chance continue working, which in turn saved them at least temporarily from death.
Perl ended the war in Bergen-Belsen, moved with the surviving Auschwitz prisoners as part of the desperate attempts of the Nazis to mask what they had done from the oncoming Allied troops. As the camp was liberated she was delivering a baby, the first to be born not under threat of death. Perl had saved countless lives not just through abortions but her care to her fellow inmates, spending many of her nights treating them for the lacerations they suffered from whips brandished by guards. The testimony from her fellow inmates saved her from being accused of collaboration. However the death of her family in the camps; her husband, son and her parents drove Perl to attempt suicide whereupon she was placed in a convent to recuperate. Perl then moved to the US and eventually managed to open a new practice before moving to Israel. Upon entering the delivery room every time she prayed:
“God, you owe me a life – a living baby.”
Perl would go on to deliver around 3000 babies before her death in 1988. Over a hundred mourners attended her funeral with the Jerusalem Post bequeathing the title of “the angel of Auschwitz” on her.
The choice that Perl made has been subject to some debate, some have been inflexible on the position on the morality of abortion. These people believed no matter the circumstances there was no justification such as David Deutschman who said:
“there is no rational or moral justification for . . . wholesale slaughter of infants . . . whether it was done by the brutal Nazis, or by a sentimental and well-meaning female medical personality.”
However many, even those who may generally not approve of abortion, have defended Perl such as Hans Meyerhoff who said:
“[She] risked death and eternal damnation . . . and came to be hailed on behalf of ‘simple humanity’ at the price of thousands of lives which might have been, but never were and never will be. [She] was right in being what she was by committing this enormous wrong.”
Such supporters of Perl believed that she was faced with a choice of preserving the life of the mothers or losing both, Perl did her best to save as many lives as possible, which under the circumstances was only possible through the termination of the foetus. However more important than any moralist’s opinion on Perl’s actions, was the opinion of Perl’s patients who considered her to have saved their lives. One anonymous patient proclaimed:
“Without Dr. Perl’s medical knowledge and willingness to risk her life by helping us, it is would be impossible to know what would have happened to me and to many other female prisoners”.
In the opinion of this writer, whilst I am pro-choice and in support of abortion under circumstances in cases much less horrific than this, I find it hard to see how those who did not suffer under such circumstances, those who faced a choice between abortion or the death of themselves and their foetus, to judge the actions of a doctor who was just doing her best to save as many lives as possible.