By Tonia Twichell
ISWASWILLBE: The Holocaust Series
Paintings by Geoffrey Laurence
Exhibit April 3-Aug. 4 at the Fulginiti Pavilion Gallery on the
Anschutz Medical Campus, co-sponsored by the Mizel Museum in
(May 2016) In 2013, the Liaison Committee for Medical Education polled all
medical schools in North America to find out how many require students
to learn about the role of physicians in the Holocaust.
answer: 22 of 140, a dispiriting number to some University of Colorado
faculty members who had requested the question be included in the annual
In a June 2015 letter to journal Academic Medicine, Matthew Wynia, MD,
MPH, director for the CU Center for Bioethics and Humanities, William
Silvers, MD, and Jeremy Lazarus, MD, wrote, “… it appears that the
specific attention to arguably the most influential set of events in the
history of professional ethics in medicine is required at only a
fraction of U.S. and Canadian medical schools – and this despite a
uniform requirement to teach ethics and professionalism.”
knew there was interest in the subject. Silvers, who was involved in
organizing a series of seminars on medicine and the Holocaust in the
Denver area starting in 2008, says overflow crowds attended some of the
presentations at Anschutz Medical Campus.
When Wynia came to CU
three years ago, he and Silvers collaborated to continue the program on
campus. In October 2015 Silvers pledged $100,000 to kick-start the CU
Holocaust Genocide and Contemporary Bioethics program. All three
physicians were involved in its creation.
“I always felt a
personal responsibility to not lose the lessons that should have been
learned in the Holocaust,” says Silvers, whose parents were survivors of
the camps. His mother was liberated from Auschwitz, his father from
Dachau. “I especially felt strongly about the role of medicine since I
am in medicine.”
Wynia became involved in Holocaust education
while working as the director of the Institute of Ethics at the American
Medical Association and was asked by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
to collaborate on a program around the museum’s Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race exhibit.
“I have an interest and a
passion to better understand physicians who become killers,” Wynia says.
“What is the path to evil? These are people who are sworn to uphold
human dignity and to pursue the well-being of people they take care of.
Despite that, they become entirely perverted. What’s more, there are
research abuses that take place in the U.S. Why is it that it doesn’t
The program’s seminars will incorporate other
historic genocides as well as more recent abuses like the Tuskegee
syphilis study (1932-72) and health professional involvement in prisoner
torture in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. But the clearest example of
medical complicity in genocide is the Holocaust, which Silvers calls
the “sentinel genocide of Western society for our generation.”
almost every arena of medical ethics there is some feature or often the
core that was influenced by the Holocaust,” Wynia says. “All of the big
issues today and the way we think about them are influenced by this
history. It’s distressing not having this information included as part
of a student’s education.”
Most people don’t know the extent of participation by health care professionals during the Nazi regime.
people know about medicine and the Holocaust usually extends to (German
physician and SS captain Josef) Mengele and his medical research
abuses,” Wynia says. “His crimes aren’t the most important thing to
understand. What Mengele did – that’s what happens after things have
already gone way too far.”
The physicians would like the seminar information eventually to be included in interdisciplinary courses on campus.
they will encourage students and campus professionals to attend
Holocaust program seminars to learn the relevance of the Holocaust in
their own careers. Seminars in early May featured bioethicist and author
Art Caplan, PhD.
“There were medical heroes in the camps, but not
as many as you’d hope,” Wynia says. “Of all those people who performed
‘rampe’ duty at Auschwitz (the process of selecting who would live and
who would go to the gas chambers), of all the doctors, nurses and
dentists, just one person is known to have refused. A physician. And he
was not punished. That leads one to wonder, ‘What if many had said no?
What if the medical profession had stood up?’”
Silvers hopes students take the lessons to heart.
want them to have an appreciation of potential for human beings to do
wrong and for medical professionals to have the moral compass to do
right,” Silvers says.