Hautval, Adelaide (1906–1988)

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Hautval, Adelaide (1906–1988)

French physician who, as an Auschwitz prisoner, refused to participate in medical experiments on Jewish prisoners. Name variations: Haidi Hautval. Born in Hohwald im Elsass, Germany (now Le Hohwald, Alsace, France), on January 1, 1906; died on October 17, 1988; daughter of a Protestant pastor.

Israel's Yad Vashem recognized her as a "Righteous Among the Nations" (April 1965).

Adelaide Hautval was born in 1906 into the family of a Protestant pastor in Alsace when that province was part of the German Reich. Known to her friends as Haidi, she received a medical degree in psychiatry from the University of Strasbourg

and then returned in 1938 to her village of Le Hohwald to help in the management of a home for handicapped children. She had found employment in a clinic in southwestern France when Nazi Germany defeated and occupied France in mid-1940. In April 1942, after receiving word that her mother was mortally ill, she requested travel permits to visit her. Refused, Hautval decided to travel without authorization. She was detained at the demarcation line between the German-occupied region and the "free" area of France controlled by the collaborationist regime in Vichy. While waiting for a train on the station platform at Bourges, she witnessed German mistreatment of a Jewish family. Speaking to them in their own language, she told the Germans to leave the Jews in peace. When one of the tormentors asked her, "But don't you see they're only Jews," she retorted, "So what? They are people like any others, leave them alone." With this, the infuriated Nazis had enough of Hautval's "insolence" and took her to the local jail.

Soon after she was locked in her cell, a Jewish woman joined her as a fellow prisoner. When she noticed that the woman was wearing a yellow Star of David marked "Juif," Hautval improvised a paper star to wear herself, soon complaining to her Gestapo jailers that there was no valid reason for French Jews to be treated in such a demeaning fashion. Hautval made a detailed listing of the degrading laws imposed on Jews, including their being barred from travel on the Metro and having to ride in the rear compartments of the railroads. Gestapo officials, outraged by her bold defense of Jewish human rights, presented Hautval with one last chance to regain her freedom, offering to release her on condition that she retract her attacks on their anti-Semitic policies and persecutions. Her response remained defiant: "But why should I say anything different? The Jews are people like any others." Having run out of patience, one of the Gestapo officials in attendance snapped at Hautval, "Since you wish to defend them, you will share their fate."

For nine months, Hautval was moved to several collection camps for French Jews slated for deportation to the dreaded East. At Pithiviers, Beaune la Rolande, and finally Romainville, she experienced fear, hunger, and cold along with hundreds of her fellow prisoners, virtually all of whom were Jewish. Because of Hautval's refusal to change her attitudes, the Gestapo compelled her to stitch a Star of David on her coat along with a cloth band marked "A friend of the Jews."

In the bitterly cold month of January 1943, Hautval was deported to Auschwitz as one of a trainload of 230 French women political prisoners (mostly non-Jewish Communists). After a hellish three days, with a view of an electrified fence stretching to the horizon, Hautval and her half-starved group defiantly sang the "Marseillaise" as they were marched in fog to their barracks in the women's quarters at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Soon, all of Hautval's group were tattooed, her own designated number being 31802. Inhumane living conditions quickly took their toll; within three months of their arrival, 160 of the 230 French prisoners had died. Although still alive, Hautval had lost much weight and began to suffer from spreading ulcers on her legs.

At this point, one of Auschwitz's Nazi doctors, Dr. Eduard Wirths, asked Hautval if she wished to practice gynecology. She thought the request was odd, given the fact that the officials were aware that her medical specialty was psychiatry. Suspicious, she asked Wirths precisely what kind of medical activities he would expect her to be involved in. His refusal to provide an answer deepened her concerns, but she accepted the "invitation," knowing she was now playing an extremely dangerous game with her captors. Hautval was convinced that if she managed to survive Auschwitz, whatever details of Nazi criminality she might witness would prove to be of significance when the time came to bring Hitlerism to the bar of world justice. She would be able to offer specific testimony against physicians who ignored the humane ideals embodied in the Hippocratic Oath they had once sworn to uphold.

Soon after her conversation with Wirths, Hautval was transferred along with ten Jewish women to Block 10, one of the most notorious blocks in the main Auschwitz camp. A crudely constructed two-story building, it held about 100 Jewish women mostly from France and Greece. Soon it became clear to Hautval that Block 10 contained individuals earmarked for medical experiments. In time, Block 10 would become abysmally crowded, somehow housing between 400 and 500 women, many of them in poor health and all slated to be victims of inhumane experimentation. From the start of her incarceration in Block 10, Hautval took great risks in saving as many lives as possible. On one occasion, after a convoy of women suffering from typhus arrived from Birkenau, she was able to hide them on the Block's top floor, treating them as best she could and saving a number of lives. Had the camp officials discovered the existence of the group, all would have been sent en masse to the gas chambers. Hautval was certain at this point that neither she nor any of her comrades would survive Auschwitz, but she did all she could to uphold essential standards of human decency. She told a fellow prisoner, "None of us are going to get out of this alive, but so long as we are here we must behave like human beings."

Hautval was informed by Eduard Wirths and his brother Helmut Wirths, a Nazi stormtrooper who described himself as a gynecologist, that the goal of their experiments was to discover a cure for cancer of the uterus. After examining a number of women suffering from pre-cancerous uterine growths, Hautval became suspicious of the high incidence of the disease in the small group of women available and informed Eduard she could not continue to carry out examinations. Eduard ordered her to report to Professor Carl Clauberg, who was carrying out sterilization experiments by injecting caustic fluids into women's uteruses, which invariably caused atrocious pain. Asked by Helmut what her views on sterilization were, Hautval responded that she was "absolutely opposed." Surprised by her answer, Helmut argued that a psychiatrist like herself should be sympathetic toward a procedure aimed at race preservation; she replied that the process was highly debatable and subject to abuses. Helmut was incredulous and tried to reason with her. After all, he said, all the patients are "only Jews." Hautval shot back, "We have no right to dispose of the life and destiny of others." The medical staff refrained from assigning her to Clauberg's group.

The group headed by Carl Clauberg included other doctors (including Josef Mengele, Horst Schumann, and a Polish physician, Wladyslaw Dering) who experimented on hundreds of Jewish and Polish women, as well as women of other nationalities, either by exposing them to high dosages of X-rays, or by surgically removing their ovaries. The goal of this "scientific research" was to perfect a means to one day, after the victory of Nazi Germany, carry out on a worldwide scale the sterilization of all half- and quarter-Jews who remained alive. Hautval quickly discovered evidence of these plans in considerable detail.

On one occasion, Hautval gave in to the intense pressure of the Nazi medical experimenters. She was called on to anesthetize two young Greek Jewish girls, both still in their teens, whose cervixes were to be removed in the interest of experimentation. The surgeon in this instance was Dr. Maximilian Samuel, a distinguished German-Jewish gynecologist who had been awarded the Iron Cross in World War I and was strongly nationalistic. Possibly for these reasons, when he arrived at Auschwitz he was temporarily spared from the gas chambers even though he was in his 60s and in declining health. Samuel was described by Hautval as a broken man "overwhelmed by fear and a desire to please the authorities." Ultimately, he failed in his attempts to save the life of his young daughter by offering to collaborate in Nazi medical experiments (his wife had been gassed upon his family's arrival at Auschwitz), and he was shot when younger Jewish doctor-inmates arrived at the camp. After this experience with the two young girls, Hautval refused to work for Samuel, and because of this he denounced her to Eduard Wirths.

When Wirths confronted her and demanded to know if she had in fact refused to participate in the "experiment" by not giving anesthetic to the next group of women, Hautval admitted that Samuel's accusation was correct. Wirths asked why; she answered that it was contrary to principles she held as a physician. "Can't you see that these people are different from you?" asked Wirths. "Dr. Wirths," replied Hautval, "there are a great many other people who are different from me, starting with you." Though Hautval feared the worst sort of retribution after this encounter, she was only transferred back to the nearby Birkenau camp. There, she practiced medicine as best she could, saving lives, until she was transferred in August 1944 to the infamous Ravensbrück women's concentration camp. Despite ongoing hardships, Hautval survived Ravensbrück and was liberated in April 1945. After her health was restored, she returned to her medical practice in France and wrote her memoirs, though they were not then published.

Adelaide Hautval survived to present damning testimony against the Nazi doctors at Nuremberg after the war. She appeared again as a witness in the dramatic libel trial that took place in London in April and May of 1964. One of the Auschwitz physicians, the Polish-born Dr. Wladyslaw Dering, sued Leon Uris, author of the novel Exodus, for libel because he had been mentioned as one of the Nazi staff who carried out the infamous medical experiments in Auschwitz. After weeks of detailed, ghastly testimony, one of the most memorable episodes of the trial took place with the testimony presented by Hautval. Her story made it clear that unlike Dering, who argued that it would have been futile and suicidal to refuse to obey orders in the world of Auschwitz, she had rejected the SS commands to participate in the sterilization of women and still survived. In his summation to the jury, Justice Frederick Horace Lawton described Adelaide Hautval, who had refused to obey orders from Nazi doctors on four separate occasions, as being "a most distinguished person … one of the most impressive and courageous women who had ever given evidence in the courts of this country."

A year after the trial, in which Dering was awarded derisory damages of one half-penny, Hautval was invited to Israel to receive the award of the Medal of the Righteous. On that day, April 17, 1965, her response was modest, first noting that only God, not mere mortals like herself, deserved such an honor. "What I did," she said, "was perfectly natural, logical and derived from a moral obligation." Noted Leon Uris: "If we had had more friends like Dr. Hautval, there could never have been a Nazi era." Hautval revised her memoirs in 1987. Though they were published in 1991 as Médecine et crimes contre l'Humanité, she did not live to see that day, having terminated her own life on October 17, 1988.

Following her death, the story of Haidi Hautval and her refusal to become an accomplice in an infamous chapter in the history of medicine has continued to provide a powerful instance of Zivilcourage in the face of evil. French and German sympathizers have met in her home village of Le Hohwald to commemorate her acts of courage at Auschwitz and the other camps she survived. In October 1998, on the tenth anniversary of her death, a large gathering carried out a "March Against Our Forgetting" from Le Hohwald to the nearby memorial site of the former Struthof Nazi concentration camp. In November 1991, Le Hohwald had honored its most distinguished native daughter with a memorial fountain inscribed with one of Hautval's aphorisms: "Think and behave like the clear waters of your nature." She received an additional honor when the street facing the medical clinics of the University of Strasbourg was renamed. Strasbourg mayor Catherine Trautmann noted in her dedicatory address that the individual whom the street had previously commemorated, French Nobel Prize-winner Alexis Carrel, no longer deserved such a distinction, having been exposed as a champion of euthanasia and as a scientist whose definition of a desirable eugenics policy included the gassing of individuals "of poor quality." In July 1993, Adelaide Hautval's name replaced his.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia