Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day so it seems like a good moment to remember an extraordinary scientific study carried out by a group of doomed men and women in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Following the conquest of their allocated share (under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) of Poland the Germans annexed the prime agricultural areas with the remainder of conquered Poland forming the General Government. This rump did not produce nearly enough food to feed the inhabitants and the Nazis were not particularly interested in doing much to alleviate this situation for their perceived racial inferiors.
As a result, by 1941 General Government was an area of hunger. The Jews who were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto were the worst off, with daily food intakes well below starvation levels. It was in these circumstances in late 1941 a group of doctors decided to study the effect of starvation on the people of the ghetto.
The study was the idea of Israel Milejkowski, the head of the Judenrat Health Department and carried out by a group of 28 Jewish doctors at hospitals within the ghetto. Work was halted in July 1942 as the Nazis started deporting the residents of the ghetto en masse and further study became impossible. During a temporary lull in the deportations, what data had already been gathered was collated and written up.
This information was then smuggled out to Professor Orlovski, chairman of the department of medicine at a university hospital outside the ghetto in Warsaw. Orlovski was given instructions to have it published after the war if none of the researchers retrieved it.
One of the researchers, Dr Apfelbaum escaped the Ghetto in 1943, survived the war and after retrieving the manuscripts passed them on to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He died shortly afterwards in 1946. The majority of the other researchers did not live to see the end of the war. The project’s instigator Israel Milejkowski was sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka.
Nevertheless they left behind a set of highly valuable and meticulously recorded scientific data. Extraordinarily, the studies carried out by this small group of doctors were incredibly detailed and of very high quality despite the extraordinary conditions under which they worked. Their studies were of a type that cannot normally be ethically carried out and as a result are still enormously valuable. One of their findings was that the best way to treat starvation is to refeed people slowly. Had this been known by the Allies, it could have saved the lives of many of those subsequently liberated from concentration camps. These survivors were often given large amounts of food quickly, which proved fatal.
More information on the extraordinary people involved in this chapter of medical history can be found in “The uses of adversity: Studies of starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto” by Dr Leonard Tushnet. Those of the records that survived have been published as a book under the heading “Hunger Disease: Studies by the Jewish Physicians in the Warsaw Ghetto”.