The scope of the often horrific medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors on Jews during the Holocaust is far more extensive than previously known, according to the newly released testimonies of nearly 2,000 surviving victims.
The testimonies revealed that medical experiments were conducted not just at Auschwitz but at 30 concentration camps and ghettos, according to Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. A total of 178 different types of experiments were performed, he said.
"There were a few well-known medical experiments" that were known "but nothing about the whole range of medical experiments" uncovered by the testimonies, said Taylor, whose organization collected the information. "The Mengele twins' experiments were known, but much of the rest are undocumented and but for this effort the material would have been lost."
He was referring to Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" at Auschwitz who was known for his cruelty. Mengele weeded out those to be sent to the gas chambers and those to be kept for medical experiments.
The testimonies include the names of other doctors who similarly performed medical experiments, many whose names had been previously unknown, Taylor noted.
"Medical experiments are the least-documented atrocity," said Eli Zborowski, chairman of the American Society for Yad Vashem. "Some of the information from the testimony of the victims was known, but a lot of it is new."
Zborowski said researchers from Yad Vashem, Israel's central Holocaust memorial and research center, and the University of Haifa are now gathering information about the subject and that "the testimony will be a great contribution to their efforts."
The testimonies were collected as part of the $5 billion German settlement of Holocaust-era claims finalized in January 2000.
They come as checks for $5,400 were starting to be mailed this week to the surviving subjects of Nazi medical experiments or their heirs.
Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust expert and professor of theology at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, says the extent of the Nazis' medical experiments has "been under appreciated."
"Only the specialists who followed this can appreciate how widespread it was, how it [the experiments] infiltrated otherwise respected medical society," he said.
"I would say I could count on two hands the people who had all the details...But the details from the victims will make it more meaningful and powerful," Berenbaum said.
Patricia Heberer, a historian with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said the experiments have been known until now largely through court records and "perpetrator" documents.
"In some cases, we know very little, and this can be a boon to scholars, particularly if we can match their testimony with documentary evidence," she said. "That would be the best. Where we don't have information because the experiments were conducted in obscure camps...they destroyed the evidence or we don't have court evidence, this will fill in the holes -- we may have only the testimony to go on. That makes it very helpful."
Most of the survivors are now in their 80s. Many wrote their testimonies by hand, some typed them or dictated them to others. Many asked that their testimonies remain anonymous.
An 82-year-old man wrote that he was 20 when he and a Jewish American were "subjected to medical experiments. SS German Shepherd dogs belonging to the commander of the SS... [and] with a special poison on their teeth" were ordered to run after them and bite them.
"Afterwards, they examined our wounds, the blood," the man said. "A doctor...ripped the flesh off my legs and examined it." He said the persecution took place in Rabka bei Zakopane, a Polish village.
A 76-year-old man said his captors at Revier Melk, a concentration and labor camp, cut his arm without anesthesia with instruments that were not sterilized in order to cause an infection.
"At the time, they kept exchanging the bandages with different medicated creams and liquids," he wrote. "Each time the cut was about to heal, they reopened it and started the whole thing from the beginning. A part of the experiment was also observation, and they also checked our ability to work with the wound...After the release the doctors said that I was very lucky. There are scars until today and pain and limitations."
A 78-year-old woman who was persecuted in Auschwitz wrote that within a month after being placed in Barracks No. 10, she and other female prisoners stopped having their monthly periods and experienced instead "terrible effects of a rash" that the inmates believed came from drugs placed in their soup.
She said it was necessary to cover the rash when Mengele inspected the women because if he saw "even one sore, our life would be over."
Taylor said these victims were discovered when they applied for German compensation to former slave and forced laborers. Of these 250,000 survivors who applied for such compensation, 1,897 in 33 countries checked off a box saying they had been subject to Nazi medical experiments. They were then asked to detail the nature of those experiments.
Among the victims receiving the $5,400 checks, 119 have died since applying.
Irene Hizme of Oceanside, L.I., who along with her twin brother, Rene Slotkin, was subject to medical experiments, said the money is no kind of payment.
"Five-thousand dollars is a joke," she said. "But it's wonderful to have this information. The historical contribution [of this project] is crucial."
Eva Mozes Kor, 70, an Auschwitz survivor who founded the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Ind., dedicated to recounting Nazi experiments on twins, said the money was welcome for survivors who are in poor health.
Her 1999 lawsuit against the pharmaceutical giant Bayer alleging that it collaborated in Nazi medical experiments on Jews was a factor in deciding that victims of Nazi medical experiments would share the compensation of slave and forced laborers, Taylor said.
"What was done to us was quite scientific," said Kor. "There was a rumor that the experiments were pseudo scientific, but they were scientifically directed by the most prominent scientific institute of Germany at that time.
"They were studying eugenics," she said. "The Nazis were very interested in multiple births and they said Jews, Gypsies, the physically handicapped and others were genetically inferior."
Kor said she was injected with a deadly germ that was supposed to be fatal. She said some of the data from those experiments has been preserved but others, such as the experiments done on twins, disappeared.
Taylor said the CANDLES Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Memorial Museum would receive copies of the testimony.