Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Strange Career of Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen

I'm usually sceptical whenever I hear someone from an ethnic or religious minority being accused of "selling out" or suffering from "self-hatred", but the career of the little known Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen, documented in Edwin Black's War Against the Weak, ought to serve as a corrective to the notion that no instances of self-hatred and identification with the powerful exist.

Despite his Catholic observances, after the 1935 Nuremberg Laws Katzen-Ellenbogen found himself defined as Jewish. Like many practicing Christians of Jewish ancestry, he followed a typical route of flight evading fascist persecution. First, he crossed into Czechoslovakia, then Italy, then France. After war broke out in September of 1939, he escaped to France. But when the Nazis bifurcated France in 1940, Katzen-Ellenbogen was caught in the occupied zone in Paris. Like many foreigners living in Nazi-occupied Paris, Katzen-Ellenbogen was ultimately arrested several times for questioning. The final knock on the door came at six in the morning, in the late summer of 1943, when Nazi security agents came for him.

Many eugenicists considered Nazi racial policies a biological ideal. Katzen-Ellenbogen discounted his Jewish ancestry, considering himself a eugenicist first and foremost. This made him different, and almost appealing to the Gestapo. The war-stretched Nazis needed doctors, especially in occupied lands. As a distinguished physician and psychiatrist who spoke German and also enjoyed American citizenship, Katzen-Ellenbogen became very useful to both the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht. Though a prisoner, he was twice brought to the Reich military prison in France to examine a German soldier suffering from mental problems. Katzen-Ellenbogen even testified as an expert at the soldier's court martial.

Katzen-Ellenbogen found himself in a somewhat unique position. "I was the only doctor in France, a psychiatrist," he recalled, "who was [also] qualified in Germany as a doctor, and they didn't have anybody [with those skills] in the army." Eventually, the overworked regular German army doctor visiting the military prison asked Katzen-Ellenbogen, "As you speak French anyway and other languages, relieve me here. And when something very important happens, they can telephone for me." Thus, Katzen-Ellenbogen became a general practitioner for the German military in Paris even as he remained in custody. Eventually, Katzen-Ellenbogen's services were requested for German military men outside the prison. But in September of 1943, when orders came from Berlin to transfer prisoners in France to slave labor camps in the Reich, Katzen-Ellenbogen was put on a train and shipped to the dreaded Buchenwald.


Cruel and painful medical experiments were conducted at Buchenwald, especially in Block 46, known for its frosted windows and restricted access. Nazi physicians deliberately infected prisoners with typhus, converting their bodies into so many living test tubes, kept alive only as convenient hosts for the virus. Doctors then carefully observed the progress of the disease in order to help evaluate potential vaccines. Some six hundred men died from such infections. In addition, Russian POWs were deliberately burned with phosphorus to observe their reactions to drugs. Those who survived these heinous tests, or otherwise outlived their usefulness, were often murdered with injections of phenol.

Large electric lifts continuously shuttled corpses to waiting crematoria, which operated ten hours a day and produced prodigious heaps of white ash. Death was an hourly event at Buchenwald--ultimately more than 50,000 perished. But before the victims were burned, they performed additional service to the Reich. Pathologists in Block 2 dissected some 35,000 corpses so their body parts could be studied and then stored in various jars on shelves.


Most new arrivals at Buchenwald were instantly shocked by the camp's brutality and the physical cruelty heaped upon them by the guards. But Katzen-Ellenbogen seemed fascinated. Recalling his first moments in the camp, he said, "I was really amazed about the efficiency and quickness about everything that happened there." He added, "We were treated not badly there." Katzen-Ellenbogen was in fact privileged from the moment he entered the camp. While other prisoners at that time were forced into tattered zebra-stripe uniforms, the doctor was permitted to wear civilian attire, including a three-piece suit and tie. Yet he complained that the shirt with its button-down collar was too small, and the trousers too long. His warm furry hat and medical armband gave him a distinctive look as he toured the barracks.

Early on, Buchenwald administrators learned through the prisoner grapevine about Katzen-Ellenbogen's helpfulness to the Gestapo in France. He quickly became a trusted prisoner to the camp's medical staff, as well as its SS officers, especially chief camp doctor Gerhard Schiedlausky. Katzen-Ellenbogen announced to everyone that he was an American doctor from New Jersey, and a skilled hypnotist to boot. None of this failed to impress the camp administrators, who often referred to him by the name Dr. K. Ellenbogen. One senior Nazi medic dared Katzen-Ellenbogen to demonstrate his skill as a hypnotist. A test subject was brought over, and within five minutes Katzen-Ellenbogen successfully placed him in a trance.

Thereafter, Katzen-Ellenbogen was assigned to the hospital at the Little Camp, which functioned as the segregated new prisoner intake unit. Unlike the other inmates who slept sixteen-deep on stark wooden shelves and were fed starvation rations, Katzen-Ellenbogen enjoyed a private room with a real bed shared with only one other block trustee. He ate plenty of vegetables and even meat purchased through black market sources in Weimar. From time to time, he even cooked his own meals, an almost unimaginable prisoner luxury. The doctor was able to count SS and Gestapo officers among his friends even as fellow prisoners detested him and despised their Nazi taskmasters. He was widely believed to be a Gestapo spy.


Even though Katzen-Ellenbogen was a prisoner, the Nazis opened up to him. For example, a bloodthirsty Austrian-born SS lieutenant name Dumböck admitted to Katzen-Ellenbogen that he was haunted day and night by the ghosts of at least forty men he had personally beaten to death. As though confessing to a priest, Dumböck admitted that sometimes when he caught someone stealing vegetables from the garden, he just "[couldn't] control himself." It would typically begin as an urge to only slap the prisoner, but then Dumböck would begin jumping on the man's body until his ribs caved in. Katzen-Ellenbogen helped Dumböck realize why he could not sleep: the killings. "That's it exactly," Dumböck agreed. Dumböck was so grateful that he granted Katzen-Ellenbogen special privileges--ironically, to the vegetables in the garden.

Back at the Little Camp, Katzen-Ellenbogen administered cruel medicine. He forced Frenchmen to exercise in the frigid outdoors without their scarves and often without their shirts--this to "cure" infected throats. He smuggled in needed medicines through the SS medics but then sold them for money or favors. Such extortions allowed him to deposit some 50,000 francs into a camp bank account. He also cached large quantities of Danish food, medicines and cigarettes in his bedroom, mainly pilfered from the Danish Red Cross packets turned over by the sick and injured.


When French prisoners approached, Katzen-Ellenbogen often chased them away, slapped and punched them, or simply "beat them with any instrument handy." Other inmates who were physicians would sometimes complain that Katzen-Ellenbogen stocked the necessary medicines, but that the Little Camp doctor would snarl that they were in Buchenwald to "die like dogs--not to be cured."

Failure to be hospitalized also bestowed a death sentence because it often facilitated assignment to the fatal work details at the nearby V-2 missile works at Dora. Dora's death rate was among the highest of any of the thousands of labor camps and subcamps in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. Transports from Buchenwald regularly delivered thousands of prisoners at a time, and some twenty thousand died in backbreaking labor.

At his trial Katzen-Ellenbogen was asked by prosecutors, "The personnel in the Medical Department…certainly knew that Dora was a death commando, isn't that so?" Katzen-Ellenbogen replied, "I should guess so."

Prisoners reported that Katzen-Ellenbogen actually encouraged unsuspecting French inmates to volunteer for "death details." In one instance, a Frenchman discovered the ruse and warned comrades to remove their names from the volunteer roster. Katzen-Ellenbogen reported the Frenchman who spread the warning and the prisoner was brutally punished.


Eugenics was always an undercurrent at Buchenwald. One block was known as the Ahnenforschung barrack, or ancestral research barrack. It was worked by a small detachment known as Kommando 22a, mainly Czech prisoners, researching and assembling family trees of SS officers. SS officers were required to document pure Aryan heredity. In addition, the SS Race and Settlement Office was systematically sweeping through Poland looking for Volksdeutsche, that is, persons of any German ancestry. When this agency discovered Polish children eugenically certified to have Aryan blood, the youngsters were kidnapped and raised in "Germanized" Nazi environments. As a skilled and doctrinaire eugenicist, Katzen-Ellenbogen was assigned to perform eugenic examinations of Polish prisoners, seeking those fit for Germanization. Eugenic certification saved them from extermination.

To protect those fit for Germanization, Katzen-Ellenbogen engaged in all manner of medical charades. "So I manufactured all kinds of new forms of insanity and made false reports about their condition," he recalled. "As the invalids were not sent out at that time, they were probably saved from being gassed at one of the extermination camps." Katzen-Ellenbogen did not save others in a similar fashion, just the fifty or so Polish prisoners he eugenically certified as possessing Aryan qualities. (emphases added)
A Jewish Nazi sympathizer! The idea seems almost too bizarre to credit: and yet that is precisely what Dr. Katzen-Ellenbogen was. His example always springs to mind whenever I hear a certain racist crank attempt to defend himself by loudly proclaiming his Indian ancestry, as if that in itself were proof enough that he couldn't be a closet Aryan supremacist. Self-haters come in all shapes and colors, and they don't all happen to look like Michael Jackson; if they're craven enough, like a Michelle Malkin or a certain unmentionable IQ crank, they might even be granted "honorary Aryan" status, at least for while, until they're no longer useful to the cause.

Some final facts that need mentioning: before moving back to Europe, Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen had once been a member of Harvard's faculty, and was also responsible for drafting New Jersey's own sterilization law. Make of that what you will.