Gisella Perl showed academic promise at a young age. At the age of 16 she was the only woman—and the only Jewish person—to graduate from her secondary school. She had great academic aspirations, and approached her father requesting to go to medical school. Her father was hesitant, not wanting his daughter to lose her faith and leave Judaism. She did not relent. In a 1982 interview with the New York Times, Perl recounted returning to her father months later, this time holding a prayer book her father had given her, “I swear on this book that wherever life will take me, under whatever circumstance, I shall always remain a good, true Jew.” Her father gave in, and years later when she was paid by her first patient, she bought him a prayer book with his named engraved in it.
In 1944, Dr. Perl was working as a gynecologist, had just married a surgeon and was living in a Jewish ghetto with her family in Hungary (modern-day Romania). In March of that year, Dr. Perl and her husband, son, parents and extended family were sent to Auschwitz, where they were immediately separated. Her young daughter, however, was hidden with a non-Jewish family. Dr. Joseph Mengele—the German physician and SS Captain of Auschwitz—assigned Dr. Perl to work in the hospital.
Dr. Perl recalled that at first her duties were fairly standard, years later noting, “I had to bandage bloody heads, treat broken ribs, and clean wounds.” Soon, however, her tasks became more arduous. She was ordered to inform Dr. Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, of any pregnant women within the camp. He said these women would be sent to a different camp where they would be given better nutrition. Dr. Perl recalled in her interview with the New York Times, “women began to run directly to him, telling him, ‘I am pregnant.’” Soon, she realized the truth. These women, “were all taken to the research block to be used as guinea pigs, and then two lives would be thrown into the crematorium.” She decided right then and there that were would never be another pregnant woman in Auschwitz. She was given no medicine, medical instruments or training, and found herself wholly unprepared for the morally demanding work she would undertake.
While some women arrived pregnant, others became pregnant in the camp, where sexual exchanges and rape were all too common. Within the camps, women’s bodies and sexuality were objects that both SS officers and, sometimes, male prisoners, felt they had the right to possess and use. In fact, there was a special barracks that the SS used to rape and molest women, despite decrees against engaging in sexual acts with Jewish women. Their actions and feelings towards Jewish women created inner conflicts for the SS officers, leading to violence against the women, who were blamed for seducing the officers. One survivor told HISTORY, “I was with my mother and we saw these women in striped uniforms with blonde hair, some longer than others. And I remember asking my mother why they were allowed to have hair while we weren’t. My mother said to me, because that is how the SS like them. I never knew what that meant at the time.”
While most sexual acts in Auschwitz were not consensual, sometimes sex was used as a commodity in exchange for goods. Upon her arrival, Dr. Perl was given men’s shoes that were far too big for her. She needed a piece of string to tighten them and learned of a male prisoner who had string. When she was able to locate him, she brought her bread ration as an exchange, but he was not interested in her food. He looked her up and down and demanded her body. She was disgusted, but knew that in order to survive she needed shoes to take her to and from work—it was a matter of life and death. Women used what they had to survive, and their brave acts of trading sex for goods caused shame and embarrassment, and could also lead to a life-threatening pregnancy.
When Dr. Perl learned of a pregnant prisoner, she would explain to the expectant mothers the situation—if the SS knew she was pregnant her life—and that of her unborn child—would be over. She would perform abortions and terminate pregnancies in the middle of the night with her bare hands (without any tools, anesthesia, bandages or antibiotics) on the dirty floors and bunks of the barracks. Occasionally, a woman would get to the final stages of her pregnancy, unnoticed by the SS and, sometimes, without even knowing it herself. Dr. Perl would perform the births, and when requested, would silently take the breath away from newborns in order to save the mothers. She envisioned a world where these women would have children with their loved ones after the war, raising a family outside of the horrors of a concentration camp. Towards the end of the war, there were rare cases of babies being born within the camps and surviving, often because the Germans were preoccupied with the Allies closing in.
Aside from the surgeries performed on pregnant women, Dr. Perl tended to the wounds the SS inflicted upon women’s breasts with their beatings and whips. She also treated women in the night for other conditions. Since she felt helpless without tools and medicine. She recounted in her autobiography, “I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz,” that she would “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.”
As the Russian troops were approaching in 1945, the Germans began to hastily shut down gas chambers and concentration camps. Dr. Perl was moved to a camp near Hamburg, and two months later, to Bergen-Berlsen. When the war was over and the camp was liberated, Dr. Perl spent months looking for her family. While she was able to save countless lives in Auschwitz, she was the sole survivor of her family, except she would later discover that her daughter also survived. The guilt, pain and burden of the Holocaust weighed heavily on Dr. Perl, leading to a suicide attempt in 1947. She survived, and later that year came to the United States to speak to doctors and other professionals as an ambassador of the 6 million killed in the Holocaust. When Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to lunch, Dr. Perl declined, saying she was kosher. Eleanor insisted and provided a kosher lunch. Dr. Perl told the New York Times, it was Eleanor who encouraged her to start practicing again. “Stop torturing yourself; become a doctor again,” Eleanor advised. She was granted U.S. citizenship in 1951, moved to New York City and began her career working at Mount Sinai hospital, specializing in infertility.
She eventually opened her own practice on Park Avenue, making it her sole mission to bring life into the world. Dr. Perl explained to the New York Times, “I was the poorest doctor on Park Avenue, but I had the greatest practice; all of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were my patients.” She was in practice for 43 years, delivering approximately 3,000 healthy babies. Every time she entered the delivery room, she recounted in her autobiography, she would pray, “God, you owe me a life—a living baby.”
In 1979, Dr. Perl moved to Herzliya, Israel to be with her daughter and grandson and to fulfill a vow she made in 1944. She explained, “After four days in the cattle car that took us to Auschwitz, suddenly the SS officers opened the door, and prisoners in striped pajamas threw us out. My father and husband both embraced me, saying, ‘We will meet someday in Jerusalem.’”
Today, Dr. Perl is often referred to as “The Angel of Auschwitz,” for both her work with expectant mothers and hospital patients. In 1948, she wrote a book about her experiences, “I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz,” which was one of the earliest (and only) books to openly discuss the sexual violence women experienced during the Shoah. Dr. Gisella Perl passed away on December 16, 1988, at the age of 81.
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