Academic Fellows Convene to Develop Testimony Based Curriculum on Nazi Medical Experiments

Wed, 01/18/2023 - 2:37pm
Left to right: Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow, Dr. Amanda M. Caleb, Dr. Jason Adam Wasserman
Left to right: Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow, Dr. Amanda M. Caleb, Dr. Jason Adam Wasserman

A group of Bioethics and the Holocaust Fellows recently gathered at USC Shoah Foundation headquarters in Los Angeles to develop content for new curriculums that will feature Visual History Archive testimony from survivors of Nazi medical experiments.

The Holocaust marked a profound and sadistic deviation from traditional notions of medical ethics, with medical and scientific communities in the Third Reich actively participating in the labeling, persecution and eventual mass murder of millions deemed “unfit.”

The fellows are the first cohort being trained as part of the “Project on Bioethics and the Holocaust: Using Testimony in Medical and Health Professions Education,” a partnership between USC Shoah Foundation and the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics & the Holocaust (MIMEH).

The goal of the program is to produce readily accessible resources on medicine, ethics, and the Holocaust that will empower students and in-service professionals internationally to become agents of change who prioritize ethical principles and human dignity in the medical and health professions.

Dr. Stacy Gallin, Founding Director of MIMEH and the Co-Chair of the Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust of the International Chair of Bioethics, attended the three-day initiation workshop and described how first-person testimony from survivors of Nazi medical experimentation can inform responses to a range of contemporary issues.

“The resources from USC Shoah Foundation provide us with the ability to experience the humanity of the people who suffered during the Holocaust, to really hear their stories and life experiences,” Gallin said in an interview while attending the workshop.

“Doing this right now, in the face of rising antisemitism and hate crimes, is really, really important.”

The three Bioethics and the Holocaust Fellows are Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University; Dr. Amanda M. Caleb, a professor of medical humanities at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine; and Dr. Jason Adam Wasserman, a professor of Foundational Medical Studies at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.

The fellows sat down for an interview to talk about their participation in the program and the material they’ve found in the Visual History Archive that will be used to inform and humanize the medical curriculum.

Can each of you speak about what brought you to the fellowship?

(Rabbi Bedzow) I have an interest in Bioethics and the Holocaust and am always looking for ways to engage students through various modalities to see which is the best way in which they learn. I think that using testimony is a really exciting way to not only improve the ways to teach, but also improve the way we deliver this type of information. 

(Dr. Caleb) My background comes out of narrative and literature. One of the things I'm really drawn to is how we understand and use narrative, and particularly ideas of testimonial justice. I teach medical students, and it's a really important part of patient care to look at the objective components of patient care [and] also at the subjective experience of the patient. So, for me, there's direct relevance to what I'm doing in terms of my teaching, and, more broadly, in my research interests in how we use things like narrative in testimony.

(Dr. Wasserman) Like the others here, I have a long-standing interest in medicine in the Holocaust, and specifically the way in which bioethics emerged from lessons from the Holocaust, at least eventually. In particular, I was drawn to the idea of using testimony and narratives to give a humanistic angle to those bioethical lessons, insofar as I think bioethics suffers from being sort of overly analytical and abstract. The narrative testimonies [in the Visual History Archive] give a humanistic account of the same phenomena [and] allow us to wrestle with the ethical complexities, but in a really humanistic way, as opposed to an abstract and philosophical way.

Are you surprised that in 2022 there's still a gap in the medical curriculum and a need to train people in bioethics and the Holocaust?

(Rabbi Bedzow) No, on two accounts. One: I think that education is never static. People grow up in different ways and therefore learn in different ways. So, we are always going to have to change the way that we teach. And we should always be thinking about that. Secondly, it would be great if people knew more about the Holocaust, but they don't. So, I'm not going to be upset that they don't know. I'd rather do the work and put the educational material out.

(Dr. Wasserman) I'm not surprised because I think the way in which we've collectively wrestled with the Holocaust—-especially medicine and the Holocaust—-is unfolding in a somewhat predictable sociological path. So, some of the earliest lessons that we derived took 20 to 30 years to even start to come into the field of medicine. [For instance] the notion of informed consent in the United States came well after the Holocaust. and [that’s] a relatively simplistic idea. But the Holocaust is so full of complex moral questions that there's always more to learn from it. And there are always new and important ways to push its lessons forward.

(Dr. Caleb) I'll be a little bit cynical [in my answer]. I think we have a tendency to want simple answers, and definitive answers as well. And so, I think things like contextualizing bioethics through the Holocaust creates the complexity that [Dr. Wasserman] just described, creates a sense of [the need to understand] the importance of things like history and narrative that I think we take for granted and [which is] not part of this simple 'What is the right thing to do? Just tell me the answer' [paradigm].

Can each of you speak about what you've found in the Visual History Archive? Are there particular pieces of testimony that have surprised you?

(Dr. Wasserman) I'm so impressed with the archive [and] I want to say, right off the bat, that it can feel overwhelming to ponder what's in there. It’s a treasure trove of narrative. And so, it's been really interesting to even just start to scratch the surface because I already started to uncover these gems that are going to be so useful in developing particular lessons and educational material around particular concepts that can be so difficult for students to understand.

(Dr. Caleb) [When I look at the archive] it is so overwhelming. I feel like I have not gotten nearly as deep [into it] as I need to. One of the things that strike me, because I'm looking at the medicalization of social policy, is [that] you can read these policies, you can kind of abstractly understand [their] impact on an individual, but when you hear their testimony, you understand the lived experience of what this policy from on-high means to day-to-day life. And that is incredibly powerful.

I was really struck by the comparison between survivors who were children at the time of some of these laws coming into place and [they sort of get] a sense of discrimination, but maybe [don’t] fully realize what was going on at the time, to survivors who were older and who really saw the impacts [of these laws] on their ability to simply live their lives. The ability to have that comparison and to really have that richness of lived experience is incredible to the work we're doing.

(Rabbi Bedzow) The richness of the testimony allows me to not only see the content of what is said but everything else that the communication can convey. And personally, I am watching people who could be my family. And that's the craziest thing. The stories that I’m hearing are similar to the stories I heard about my grandparents and their relatives. While listening to one person, I said to myself, ‘This guy reminds me of my grandfather.’ And that hit hard. It was a way of connecting to my past in a way that I wasn't expecting. 

When you looked at the testimony in the Visual History Archive, what moved you the most?

(Dr. Caleb) It's hard to pick one moment. But I have to say [the testimony that moved me the most was] not from the VHA. It was the [Dimensions in Testimony interview] with Eva Kor. Stacy [Gallin] and I had the privilege of knowing her, traveling to Auschwitz with her, and being able to talk to her again was unbelievable. It was incredibly emotional, more emotional than I anticipated. I knew it was coming, but to be able to connect personally, to ask those questions and feel like she was with you again, that was extraordinary.

And I think even for individuals who didn't know Eva, [[Dimensions in Testimony] allows you to know her still. Her personality comes through. The importance of her message. So, to me, that's been sort of overwhelmingly personal and emotional, but in all the ways I wanted to be reminded of how important her message is. Not that you forget it, but I think having her there saying it again, just reinforces all the importance of the work we're doing. 

(Dr. Wasserman) Along those lines, I think that the Last Goodbye virtual reality experience was incredibly powerful—for all the reasons that you would expect—because of the embodied feeling that it conveys. But I noticed that when virtually I was in the barracks with Pinchas Gutter and he was talking about that, I actually felt somewhat more emotional in that experience than I had when I visited Auschwitz and I was in the barracks but was not with a survivor. So even though it was virtual, having the presence of a survivor in that space was quite emotional.

How is your work as part of the Fellowship going to add to the material you’re producing for the medical curriculum?

(Rabbi Bedzow) We used to just assign a lot of readings and YouTube videos and sometimes we'd have guest lectures, but now giving students the ability to see people talk about their own experiences, I think will convey the gravity of what we're trying to teach much more effectively than the other modalities we give to them. 

(Dr. Caleb) Being able to hear someone's story first-hand through testimony is an incredibly powerful tool that really reminds [students] of the importance of humanity and of the reason why they're in [the medical] profession or why they want to be part of this profession to begin with. And I think if you’re reminded of that humanity, that can be a powerful tool when you're thinking about ethical decision-making as well. 

(Dr. Wasserman) I'll just say maybe less about the archives themselves, but the opportunity to come here and collaborate and workshop—even though we are working on independent projects—to be able to do that in a collaborative fashion together, to be able to workshop ideas, not just with my colleagues here, but with people from USC Shoah Foundation, I think amplifies those ideas and how to clarify, how to see new possibilities within the resources that are held here, within the technologies that you have. And I think we're going to be able to leverage all that experience and those resources into a better, product overall, for sure. 

(Rabbi Bedzow) In regard to Holocaust education and Holocaust bioethics, I think that this relationship with USC Shoah Foundation makes us better scholars and makes the field stronger. And I actually think the future of USC Shoah Foundation will be very tied to the future of the field of Holocaust bioethics.