As a Jew growing up in West Orange and a member of Congregation B’nai Shalom, Stacy Gallin became fascinated in learning about the Holocaust.
Then, as a doctoral student at Drew University in Madison, before she achieved a PhD in medical humanities, Gallin began an in-depth pursuit of one of the grimmest aspects of the Nazi genocide: the sadistic medical experiments performed on tens of thousands of Jewish, Roma, mentally ill, and homosexual inmates in concentration camps.
At Drew, she studied the history of eugenics, a pseudo-scientific theory popular in the early 1900s that sought to improve human genetics through selective “breeding,” forced sterilization, and selective immigration.
“Before Hitler adopted eugenics as part of his ideology, people in America were involuntarily sterilizing anybody who was considered ‘not fit,’ such as alcoholics, criminals, and people with Huntington’s disease.
“Those who were deemed ‘not fit to breed’ paved the way for what happened in Nazi Germany,” she told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 10 phone interview.
What especially intrigued Gallin was the willing involvement of many German doctors in using prisoners as human guinea pigs.
Although it seemed incongruous, “doctors joined the National Socialist Party in greater numbers than members of any other profession,” she said. “Hitler was very big on physicians because they were a key in his war. The exiling of Jewish physicians created many opportunities for non-Jewish doctors.”
Among such assignments was performing experiments on the imprisoned, especially Jews, “who were considered to be ‘vermin,’” Gallin said. “They were a cancerous tumor that needed to be removed,”
Gallin, who lives in Manalapan with her husband, Stuart, and their two young sons, is an adjunct faculty member at Drew. In September she will teach a course there on biomedical ethics and the Holocaust.
She is also working with Rabbi Melinda Panken of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan to prepare a study seminar on her work; she said she would like to present her research at other synagogues, as well as schools and JCCs, while she searches for a full-time faculty position.
Her discipline is a catalogue of state-sanctioned horror that extended far beyond the work of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, who was infamous for his experimentation on twins and his design of techniques for mass murder.
Gallin estimated there were 30 known types of experiments conducted by Nazis.
Among them was the “immersion-hypothermia project” conducted at Dachau from August 1942 to May 1943. Inmates were imprisoned in tanks of ice water to determine ways of improving survival rates, with the aim to help German air force crews shot down into the cold waters of the North Sea.
Other experiments sought cures for deadly diseases by infecting healthy inmates with malaria, typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, yellow fever, and infectious hepatitis.
Still other doctors performed the transplantation of bones and organs from one prisoner to another, often without the use of anesthesia.
While such horrors ended with the defeat of the Nazis, Gallin said, “there continue to be unethical medical practices that take place. There is a huge issue with organ trafficking in China right now, and physicians are participating in alleged torture in Guantanamo Bay and in executions in states with the death penalty.”
She cautioned against the the overuse of the Nazi analogy, but added that such procedures as genetic testing to determine serious fetal abnormalities and aborting those fetuses must always be seen and assessed through the lens of medical ethics and human dignity.
While Gallin said she has strong beliefs on these “hot button” topics, she refuses to share them with her students.
“I try to leave my opinions out because they are value judgments, and it is my job to provide the necessary tools so that students can make their own educated decisions as to what they believe is morally right or wrong without taking into account my opinions,” she said.
Gallin is determined that her field of study not be forgotten.
“Very few schools offer Latin anymore because it is thought to be a dead language, and I don’t want the Holocaust to become the same thing. Medical participation in the Holocaust is extremely important and relevant to modern society,” she said. “We have to put human life and human dignity before all else, in the curricula of the healthcare professions in particular.”