Perl, Gisella

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PERL, Gisella

Nationality: American (originally Romanian: immigrated to the United States, 1947, granted U.S. citizenship). Born: 1907. Family: Married (died); one son (deceased) and one daughter. Career: Gynecologist and director of hospital, Sighet, Hungary (now Romania). Prisoner and camp physician, Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944-45; prisoner, Bergen-Belsen, 1945. Physician, New York, 1947-79. Moved to Jerusalem, 1979. Volunteer consultant in gynecology, Shaare Zedek Hospital, Jerusalem, beginning in 1979. Died: 1988.



I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz. 1948.

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Gisella Perl was trained as a gynecologist and obstetrician. With her surgeon husband, she operated a hospital in Sighet, Hungary (now Romania). As wife, mother, and physician, Perl enjoyed a successful and rewarding life. All of that changed when the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944. Forced from their home, Perl, her parents, husband, and son were sent first to the ghetto and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her daughter, Gabriella, was hidden by non-Jews and survived the war.

Perl recorded her experiences in a brief memoir, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz (1948). Most of the memoir focuses upon Perl's time as camp gynecologist in Birkenau. The book also recounts Perl's struggle to survive after she was taken from Birkenau, finally arriving at that most horrible of destinations, Bergen-Belsen, where the Nazis dumped thousands with neither food nor shelter.

Perl wrote only one book about her Holocaust experiences, but in this single small work she created an unforgettable portrait of women's suffering and courage. In a series of interlocking episodes, Perl describes a world where three uncooked potatoes are worth a bag of diamonds; where a piece of string to tie one's shoes can mean the difference between life and death; and where telling a Nazi guard that one is pregnant is a death sentence. It is a world where trying to maintain a semblance of human decency—cutting off a piece of cloth from the camp uniform to cleanse oneself from the latrine—is considered a crime.

Perl describes a world gone mad, where she feels compelled secretly to kill newborn babies in order to save the lives of their mothers, for if a pregnancy were discovered, both mother and child would be killed. It is a world of unfathomable cruelty and extraordinary compassion, a world where Perl and her nine women colleagues at Birkenau, doctors and nurses, band together as sisters, committed to one another and to the more than 30,000 women within their care.

As the Russians drew close to Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, the camp physician, tore Perl away from her "camp sisters." She was sent first to Berlin, then to a labor camp near Hamburg, and lastly to Bergen-Belsen, where she survived in the midst of mountains of corpses until she was liberated by the British army in April 1945. In yet another cruel twist, liberation brought Perl to new depths of suffering, for it was only then that she learned that her husband and son, along with her parents, had perished. Overwhelmed by despair, Perl sought to end her life. She was pulled back from the brink only by the loving care of a young Catholic priest whose compassion and kindness served as the antidote for the poison she had taken.

Dr. Perl came to the United States in 1947 as an "Ambassador of the Six Million," as she called herself, speaking to physicians and nurses about her experiences. The following year, in which I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz was published, she was granted citizenship by a special act of Congress. She opened a practice in New York City, where she became an expert in the treatment of infertility and delivered 3,000 babies, many to women for whom she had cared in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. In 1979 she moved to Jerusalem, fulfilling a vow she had made to her father as the family was being deported to Auschwitz. She spent her final years as a volunteer consultant in gynecology to Shaare Zedek Hospital.

—Marilyn J. Harran

See the essay on I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.