I STILL HAD NO CLEARLY DEFINED JOB. During a visit around the camp in the company of a French doctor, I noticed a sort of annex jutting out from one side of a KZ barracks. From the outside it looked like a toolshed. Inside, however, I saw a table about as high as a man’s head, built of unplaned, rather thick boards; a chair; a box of dissecting instruments; and, in one corner, a pail. I asked my colleague what it was used for.
“That’s the KZ’s only dissecting room,” he said. “It hasn’t been used for some time. As a matter of fact, I don’t know of any specialist in the camp who’s qualified to perform dissections, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that your presence here is tied in with Dr. Mengele’s plans for reactivating it.”
The very thought dampened my spirits, for I had pictured myself working in a modern dissecting room, not in this camp shed. In the course of my entire medical career I had never had to work with such defective instruments as these, or in a room so primitively equipped. Even when I had been called into the provinces on cases of murder and suicide, where the autopsy had had to be performed on the spot, I had been better equipped and installed.
Nevertheless I resigned myself to the inevitable, and accepted even this eventuality, for in the KZ this was still a favored position. And yet I still could not understand why I had been given almost new civilian clothes if I were slated to work in a dirty shed. It didn’t make sense. But I decided not to waste my time worrying about such apparent contradictions.
Still in the company of my French colleague, I gazed out across the barbed wire enclosures. Naked dark-skinned children were running and playing. Women with Creole-like faces and gaily colored clothes, and half-naked men, seated on the ground in groups, chatted as they watched the children play. This was the famous “Gypsy Camp.” The Third Reich’s ethnological experts had classified gypsies as an inferior race. Accordingly, they had been rounded up, not only in Germany itself, but throughout the occupied countries, and herded here. Because they were Catholics, they were allowed the privilege of remaining in family groups.
There were about 4,500 of them in all. They did no work, but were assigned the job of policing the neighboring Jewish camps and barracks, where they exercised their authority with unimaginable cruelty.
The Gypsy Camp offered one curiosity: the experimental barracks. The director of the Research Laboratory was Dr. Epstein, professor at the University of Prague, a pediatrician of world renown, a KZ prisoner since 1940. His assistant was Dr. Bendel, of the University of Paris Medical School.
Three categories of experiments were performed here: the first consisted of research into the origin and causes of dual births, a study which the birth of the Dionne quintuplets ten years before had caused to be pursued with renewed interest. The second was the search to discover the biological and pathological causes for the birth of dwarfs and giants. And the third was the study of the causes and treatment of a disease commonly called “dry gangrene of the face.”
This terrible disease is exceptionally rare; in ordinary practice you scarcely ever come across it. But here in the Gypsy Camp it was fairly common among both children and adolescents. And so, because of its prevalence, research had been greatly facilitated and considerable progress made towards finding an effective method of treating it.
According to established medical concepts, “dry gangrene of the face” generally appears in conjunction with measles, scarlet fever and typhoid fever. But these diseases, plus the camp’s deplorable sanitary conditions, seemed only to be the factors that favored its development, since it also existed in the Czech, Polish and Jewish camps. But it was especially prevalent among gypsy children, and from this it had been deduced that its presence must be directly related to hereditary syphilis, for the syphilis rate in the Gypsy Camp was extremely high.
From these observations a new treatment, consisting of a combination of malaria injections and doses of a drug whose trade name is “Novarsenobenzol,” had been developed, with most promising results.
Dr. Mengele paid daily visits to the experimental barracks and participated actively in all phases of the research. He worked in collaboration with two prisoner-doctors and a painter named Dina, whose artistic skill was a great asset to the enterprise. Dina was a native of Prague, and had been a KZ prisoner for three years. As Dr. Mengele’s assistant she was granted certain privileges that ordinary prisoners never enjoyed.