Although usually seen as winged seraphs of the heavens, ancient biblical stories tell us angels can appear in both light and dark forms, some seeking to inflict pain as others offer salvation. Such opposing symbols were not only represented in celestial dramas but sometimes took shape in the real events of history, manifesting the classic battle of good versus evil. During the darkest days of World War II, when Europe had succumbed to the doctrines of political lunacy, two such angels worked side by side in one of the grimmest environments known to humans, the medical ward at Auschwitz. Now regarded as one of the most lethal concentration camps of the Holocaust, Auschwitz brought an end to more than 1.1 million Jewish people, most of whom died as a result of starvation, disease, execution, or medical experiments.
Among the doctors who conducted human trials was a man named Dr. Josef Mengele, known to the prisoners of Auschwitz as the “Angel of Death.” Facilitating endless suffering through his unorthodox methods, Mengele was an unstoppable force of medical depravity who did what he liked, as he liked, with the bodies of the helpless. But hiding in plain sight was another angel, one of compassion and strength, who opposed his efforts at every turn and retrieved many innocent lives from his grasp. While brutal figures in SS uniforms seized every opportunity to rip decency from the lives of their prisoners, a woman named Gisella Perl, dubbed by those who loved her as the “Angel of Auschwitz,” used her unique position to quietly defy one of the most terrifying regimes in history.
Before Auschwitz became a reality, Gisella Perl was a successful gynecologist living in Romania with her husband and two children. When the Germans invaded her small town in 1944, she made the split-second decision to place her young daughter with some non-Jewish neighbors just hours before the Nazis rounded up her family, including her parents, and packed them all on a train to Auschwitz, a harrowing eight-day journey that would transport them to a waking nightmare. Upon their arrival, the Perl family, like all prisoners who landed on that infamous platform, were instantly torn from each other’s arms and relegated to separate barracks. Of course, that would be last time she saw her family.
While most women were jammed into appallingly tight quarters where they would soon face grueling work or, even worse, the gas chamber, Perl’s background as a doctor set her apart from the others. Her practical medical skills were valuable in an environment where people were chronically ill, and so the Nazis pragmatically decided to use her rather than kill her.
Thus, Perl was assigned work in the camp’s medical ward under the direct supervision of the notorious Dr. Mengele who was busy using his position to further his ghastly research into the secrets of heredity and human abnormalities.
Depending heavily on human experimentation, Mengele pursued his interests in identical twins, dwarves, or people with physical abnormalities such as heterochromia iridum, or eyes of two different colors. Even more terrifying, the bizarre zeitgeist of wartime validated his work with a grant used to build a pathology laboratory attached to the crematorium at Auschwitz, making him free to use his human subjects in any way he deemed appropriate, mostly because his research into the physiological differences of Jewish prisoners bolstered the Nazi agenda and spoke directly to the belief in Aryan supremacy. It was true that Perl’s position as his nurse protected her from the gas chamber, but it did nothing to prepare her for the atrocities she would soon encounter as the assistant to a psychopath.
One of thirty doctors assigned to Auschwitz, Mengele was particularly driven by his desire to understand (what he believed to be) the meaning behind the physicalities of various races and was always first on the platform to greet arriving trains. Here, he was able to properly assess the new selection of prisoners and choose freely from a wide variety of human specimens. With the constant arrival new prisoners, there was no shortage of human test subjects, and Mengele enjoyed an ample supply of fresh women and children. Once he chose his prisoners, he would immediately have them transferred to his medical ward where they would receive slightly better treatment for a bit, that is until they were subjected to his operating table.
All of his medical procedures, which occurred with zero regard for humiliation, pain, or permanent damage, ended in serious mutilation, torture, and death. Simply put, Mengele was a brutal madman who had somehow been granted ultimate freedom to use human beings as specimens for his depravity–and with no consequences.
Under Mengele’s supervision, the hospital scene generally resembled that of a horror movie. Auschwitz had very little in the way of comfort– no medicine for pain, proper surgical tools, or sterilization supplies, and they were often without running water. All medical procedures conducted on inmates were done without any oversight or accountability, and, in fact, rarely had any medical benefit at all, other than to satisfy the deranged medical queries of Mengele. History confirms he often dissected his victims while they were still awake, conducted vivisections on living mothers, and purposefully infected his subjects with horrific diseases such as Typhus and Gangrene to test their resistance. And if that all wasn’t bad enough, Gisella Perl was expected to help him.
Given her role as Dr. Mengele’s assistant, Perl was required to perform surgery on pregnant women and those who has suffered from the regular practice of having their breasts mercilessly whipped by SS officers. She was forced to conduct her medical work with no clean equipment or anesthesia, all while trying to salvage some semblance of decency. In the first few days of her work, before Perl understood the extent of Mengele’s depravity, he asked her to round up all the pregnant women she could find and bring them to his ward; he wanted to be sure they were receiving enough food and care.
Believing this might offer some relief, Perl followed his request, soon delivering fifty women for his medical inspection. However, before the truth of what she had done could sink in, she watched in astonishment as the pregnant inmates were herded into a Red Cross truck and driven straight to the crematorium. Perl was devastated by her role as the unwilling pawn in Mengele’s game and was afterward wracked with guilt and grief, even downing a vial of morphine from the hospital with the hope of never regaining consciousness. Much to her dismay, however, it seemed God had bigger plans for her.
Despite Perl’s efforts to heal her fellow prisoners, the overall brutalization of women at Auschwitz was legendary, and she was deeply affected by the intensity of the senseless violence, as is reflected in her memoir, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.
Women were surrounded by a group of SS men and women, who amused themselves by giving these helpless creatures a taste of hell, after which death was a welcome friend… They were beaten with clubs and whips, torn by dogs, dragged around by their hair and kicked in the stomach with heavy German boots. Then, when they collapsed, they were thrown into the crematory–alive.
Now that Perl saw with clear eyes how Mengele conducted his work, targeting pregnant women for either torturous death or the gas chamber, she realized she must find a way to oppose his tyranny. If he was determined to bring despair to the expecting mothers of Auschwitz, she must make sure there simply weren’t any. And so, despite the protestations of her faith, she began performing abortions for women in the camp as a way to shield them from a fate worse than death. If these women could stay strong, continue working, and just keep breathing, perhaps someday they would have a shot at a new life–a new family.
With only the strength of her filthy hands, Perl performed many secret procedures for the women of Auschwitz and was said to have aborted around 3,000 babies from their mothers’ wombs in an attempt to save them from sure death at the hands of Mengele. If a pregnancy was too far along, she would force labor by breaking the amniotic sac and manually dilating the cervix. Of course, most babies who were born early in such a hostile environment perished instantly, but there were a few times when the Angel of Auschwitz was forced to bring them mercy through death. Auschwitz was not a place fit for any kind of human being, especially a new infant. As horrific and brutal as it felt, however, Perl knew in her heart she was providing salvation, not murder. As pregnant women, they were inhuman, only ideal specimens for research and tissue samples So, while the Angel of Death performed his daily horrors, the Angel of Auschwitz performed her nightly acts of mercy.
Being a Jew, a woman, a doctor, and a human being, the atrocities of her situation took a massive toll on Perl’s faith, resolve, and conscience, and she would often walk the ward at night, delivering ointment for rashes or whispering kind words to those who were sinking in desperation. She told them they would feel again. She told them they could be mothers again. She healed them with her conversation and found small ways to celebrate Jewish holidays by offering a prayer or an extra crust of bread. She was a hero to the women of Auschwitz and legendary for her medical knowledge, intense bravery, and endless compassion.
Towards the end of the war, Perl was transferred to a different camp, Bergen-Belsen, where she was soon liberated. Like most, she instantly began searching for her own family, only to discover her parents, husband, and son had all been killed shortly before the invasion. She soon left Europe for the states where she actively tried to gain citizenship; however, this was not an easy process; she was interrogated by the naturalization service to ensure she was not a Nazi sympathizer and suffered greatly from the post-traumatic stress and grief of the Holocaust. She was eventually granted U.S. citizenship in 1951. While most of the people in the camp had understood and respected Perl’s efforts to help her fellow women, her work was not always so well received by those who found her choices to be highly controversial. During her time at Auschwitz, she had performed an estimated 3,000 abortions for those in need, saving near as many lives in the process.
Even though outsiders sometimes viewed her work as unnecessary and unnatural, most knew it to be a testament to what it took to survive in such a place, where no sensible rules applied. As her story became increasingly visible after the war and she became friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt who encouraged her to return to medicine, Perl became a gynecologist once again at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York where she specialized in fertility treatment, delivering about 3,000 healthy babies during her time there. She was eternally grateful for this chance to redeem the tiny lives lost in the dark recesses of Auschwitz, and as a way to acknowledge the spirits of the past, Perl always said the same prayer at the entrance of the delivery room, “God, you owe me a life–a living baby.”
While it seemed the two angels of Auschwitz were able to exist side by side in wartime, their paths were quite different once the madness ended. Mengele devised an escape from the camp immediately before the liberation, destroying all of his precious medical data in the process–a sign that his activity was always more sadistic than academic. He secretly traveled to Argentina where he evaded capture for the rest of his life, eventually dying of old age.
Once in the states, Perl finally united with her daughter whom she had managed to hide during the war and eventually moved to Israel where she peacefully passed away in 1988. During her time as a post-war figure, she penned a memoir, inspired a film, corroborated historical accounts on the Angel of Death, wrote several important medical papers on women’s reproductive issues, and never, ever forgot the lost babies of Auschwitz.
And the rest is history.