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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

Sisters in Sorrow: Voices of Care in the Holocaust
Edited by Roger A Ritvo and Diane M Plotkin

(College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1998)
314pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $35.95; ISBN 0-89096-810-1..

This book contains the harrowing personal testimonies, letters and reflections of various Jewish doctors and nurses who took care of the sick and infirm in Nazi transit and concentration camps. It contains telling observations and details of significant differences in conditions between Theresienstadt, Westerbork, Auschwitz and Belsen. It also contrasts the treatment of women and men in the camps, and provides a different perspective on the experiences of women prisoners.

The volume chronicles the ingenuity and resilience, plus the survival skills which these women exhibited in adapting to the concentration camp environment - hampered by unsanitary conditions, a starvation diet, the lack of medicine and hospital equipment such as anaesthetics, disinfectants, sterilisation instruments and hot water. Despite the petty humiliations designed to degrade and dehumanise the victims, and the debilitating insecurity and uncertainty of living under constant threat of death, the women alleviated the suffering of their fellow victims and attempted to maintain as normal a life as possible, and to remain human in the most inhuman conditions. Nevertheless, it proved impossible to live without 'dirty hands', and breaking the rules of traditional behaviour became unavoidable in the struggle for survival. The volume addresses the agonising moral dilemmas that confronted these women carers: that it was necessary to participate in the Nazi killing process in order to save lives. Because the Nazis decreed that pregnant women were to be gassed, and new-born babies to be killed, the women doctors were forced to compromise their professional integrity and ethical standards in an attempt to save the lives of the mothers. The healers were trapped in an escapable medical paradox, having to perform clandestine abortions, which contravened their professional and personal ethics, and killing new-born babies in order to save their mothers from the gas chambers.

It is poignant that many of the accounts refer to the incomprehension and indifference that the women encountered on liberation, and returning to their former homes as refugees. One observed: "You feel nobody can understand what you went through...we were at home but we were strangers"(p. 91).

For the most part the material is descriptive in form, and not a contribution to the analytical literature of the Holocaust. However, there are some unforgettable personal stories, and important moral issues are raised. The book is a useful addition to the subject, and a supplement to such classics as Olga Lengyel's Five Chimneys and Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors.

Rab Bennett, Manchester Metropolitan University

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