Learning from the Holocaust: Acts of Courage

  • Published
  • By Maj. Julie Anderson
  • 92nd Medical Group
This year, the Holocaust Remembrance Week precedes Nurses Week. In reflecting upon the fighting spirit of Holocaust survivors and how this contributed to the advancement of humankind, the actions and contributions of women who were nurses imprisoned in the concentration camps and how they were able to nurse and care for fellow prisoners in the camps,  has largely gone unnoticed.

When I think about the Holocaust, and the fighting spirit and courage of those who survived, one word comes to mind: Resiliency. The acts of courage and selflessness of prisoners towards one another - that were demonstrated within the confines of the concentration camps - are well documented. To be fearless and unwavering when faced with adversity, are spiritual concepts that can't be taught. Likewise the spiritual concepts that nurses embrace, such as compassion and empathy, provide a humanitarian focus to the art of healing and caring. There are many stories of concentration camp survivors, but the trained nurses among the prisoners in concentration camps are a forgotten example how determined  the fighting spirit can be.

These are some of their stories: 

Irene Gutowna was a 17-year-old Polish nursing student when she was captured and was forced into labor in a concentration camp. She was eventually moved to the home of a German officer, where she did household labor. Over time, she used her position as a maid in the house to save 12 Jews by hiding them in the German officer's home, right under his nose.

Stanislawa Leszczynska worked as a midwife in the camp hospital at Auschwitz. This heroic Polish nurse is said to have helped deliver more than 3,000 babies in Auschwitz, each time risking her own life.
Ruth Lebram Knopp is a nurse who cared for ailing prisoners in the Theresienstadt camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Daily, she risked her life to help fellow prisoners who were in suffering, dying and in pain.

Daily, each of these women faced death at the whim of Nazi soldiers; helping other prisoners was justification enough to be put to death. Yet, compassion and empathy for prisoners who were suffering from physical, psychological and emotional pain created a higher calling for them. They engaged their inner selves to aid and comfort those in the camp that needed nursing.

These women are an inspiration to me because within the struggle for existence in the concentration camps, they managed to create and live a life with a purpose. As fellow nurses, they are heroines to me because they embody the true spirit of nursing. They honored the spiritual beliefs of caring, honoring and cherishing life by treating fellow prisoners who were ailing and suffering from disease, starvation, pregnancy, fractures and more. Even under the direst circumstances of living in the concentration camps, they were able to manifest spiritual energy into their consciousness as a means to carve out a life of meaning within the horror of camp life. Having the courage to face adversity, these women, by simple acts of caring and compassion for other prisoners put a humanitarian face on the mad world of the concentration camps.

Holocaust survivors have come face-to-face with humanity at its very worst, and it's very best. The ultimate tasks of survival and nursing are to be able to transform our own and others suffering. These women survivors of the Holocaust don't have well-known names like Oskar Schindler, or Raoul Wallenberg, but they are every bit the hero to the countless prisoners whose suffering they helped to ease in the concentration camps. After liberation from the camps, they moved on and had families, careers and lived long and productive lives.

"Do small things with great love."- Mother Theresa

 Minute by minute, they made a difference in the lives of the other prisoners around them.