How a Jewish Hospital Survived the Holocaust

By Suzan Sherman

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Refuge in Hell: How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis

By Daniel Silver

Houghton Mifflin, 295 pages, $24.

* * *

On April 24, 1945, when Soviet troops liberated a Berlin hospital, they discovered the unfathomable inside its doors. Two years after Joseph Goebbels had proudly professed the Nazi capital Judenrein, there functioned a Jewish hospital, where Jewish doctors and nurses had treated Jewish patients throughout the war.

The survival of Berlin’s Jewish Hospital during the Holocaust is as astonishing as the scarcity of scholarship that has been written about it. Daniel Silver, former chief counsel for the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, spent more than 20 years researching the hospital’s history and, more recently, interviewing surviving staff and patients. His impressive new book, “Refuge in Hell: How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis,” reads like a novel imbued with the richness of a strong narrative and the depth of compelling characters.

Described repeatedly as “a miracle,” the hospital’s survival, Silver posits, is partially due to the bureaucratic finesse of its medical director, Walter Lustig. An ambitious, assimilated Jew in Berlin’s professional class, baptized and married to an Aryan, Lustig nonetheless had his medical license revoked under the Nuremberg racial laws. Like a number of prominent Jews, he became enmeshed in the Nazis’ cunning scheme of manipulating Jews for their bidding. Much controversy still surrounds the people who accepted such roles; indeed, some recent scholars have posited that the Final Solution would have been unthinkable without Jewish cooperation. Were these men collaborators who expected to be spared in exchange, or were they quasi-heroes who attempted to safeguard the few they could manage? Or were they neither, but rather, a paradoxical combination?

Lustig, Silver tells us, has been vilified by some as “an unscrupulous anti-Semite” and a sexual predator who took full advantage of his position at the hospital. One nurse recounted to Silver that “it was good not to be pretty.” A contrasting portrait arises from Lustig’s secretary, Hilda Kahan, who remembers his efforts to protect orphaned children and who described him as “a very courageous man…. In my eyes, he was a genius.”

The Jewish Hospital was utilized for a hodgepodge of purposes during the war, some having little to do with medical treatment. Jewish spouses of Aryan women were interned there, in an outrageous attempt to separate husbands and wives in the hope of dissolving marriage bonds (and thereby paving the way for the men’s deportation). Some residents bought protection; it was rumored Rothschild family members lived there. Those Jews who fell ill at police stations, prisons or concentration camps were brought to the hospital in an unnerving example of Nazi bureaucracy, only to be exterminated when their health was restored. A high number of patients attempted suicide. The staff, knowing what lay ahead for them, occasionally allowed elderly patients to die, while concentrating their efforts on those with the best chance of surviving the camps. Evidence suggests a few unnecessary procedures were performed to allow patients to avoid the transports, which left Berlin on a weekly basis. The saddest patients were pregnant women, who after giving birth were placed on transports with their infants. In some instances, Jewish doctors and nurses were ordered to be escorts, to assist in disguising these “resettlement” journeys. No hospital staff ever returned, and it was common knowledge that escorts were receiving death sentences.

Soon after liberation, Lustig disappeared. Last seen leaving the hospital with two Soviet officers, no one knows for certain whether he was assassinated for collaborating with the Nazis or had shrewdly staged his disappearance. What happened to Lustig remains as much a mystery as his wartime agenda.

In the book’s final chapter, Silver offers a series of astute questions and answers, one of which is, “Why has the hospital’s story drawn so little attention?” Silver posits that this may be because many survivors were intermarried, thus “it may not have been ‘politically correct’ in some Jewish circles to acknowledge that intermarriage contributed, even to a minor degree, to Jewish survival in Germany.”

Silver aptly concludes his book with a portrait of the hospital today, located in what is now a working-class neighborhood. Jewish doctors, including one who is the Israeli son of a German Jewish refugee, remain employed there. The hospital’s patients are no longer mostly Jews, but Muslim “guest workers” from Turkey and the Middle East.

Suzan Sherman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Observer and BookForum, as well as the fiction anthology “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge” (HarperCollins, 2003).






Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.