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Love in the Shadow of the Third Reich

Love in the Shadow of the Third Reich

“Soon after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, my father Abraham, the youngest and only unmarried sibling of seven Bursztajns, had been left in charge of the family’s lumber yards in Lodz, while most of the remainder of the family had left for Warsaw. During World War I, Warsaw had been a relatively safe haven, and my father—not having other family responsibilities— volunteered for the dangerous job of overseeing the family’s holdings in what was considered to be an area far more likely to be involved in the fighting. He was eventually captured by the Nazis, thrown into jail, and tortured. The Nazis had established a list of prominent Jewish families who had assets. My father’s family was on this list, and he was tortured to reveal their whereabouts. He did not. In the midst of being tortured, after a particularly severe whipping with a cat o’nine tails, Abraham fainted. He was surprised to awaken in the jail infirmary. His torturers had not given up hope of making him reveal his family’s whereabouts, and they wanted to keep him alive to continue the torture.

“Before him stood a doctor, himself a Jewish prisoner, who ministered to the other prisoners. ‘I will die here,’ my father said to the older man. ‘One of us will, but it will be me,’ said the physician. ‘I do not have any way to treat you, but you are young. If you don’t give up hope, you will survive.’”

So begins Harold Bursztajn’s Reflections on My Father’s Experience with Doctors During the Shoah (1939-1945).* Dr Bursztajn's memoir, published in 1996 in The Journal of Clinical Ethics, was occasioned by a 3-hour filmed interview of his father Abraham Bursztajn, conducted by Dr. Mark Weisstuch on behalf of the Steven Spielberg Foundation. In that essay, Dr. Bursztajn focused on 2 physicians who worked under unimaginable conditions with very limited resources but who were able to “comfort and even promote hope and healing.”

In another filmed interview with Psychiatric Times — this one conducted in 2011— Dr Bursztajn recounts the story of his parents’ survival of the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto … how they met, how they fell in love and married, and how they managed to survive where nearly 200,000 others perished. Ultimately, this is a story in which courage and love triumphed over evil. That filmed interview can be viewed here. We invite you to watch.

* Acknowledgement: We would like to thank The Journal of Clinical Ethics, which kindly provided the PDF of Dr. Bursztajn’s article. The article was published in that journal in 2006:7(4):311-314.

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