Although usually seen as winged seraphs of the heavens, ancient biblical stories tell us angels can appear in both light and dark forms, some seeking to inflict pain as others offer salvation. Such opposing symbols were not only represented in celestial dramas but sometimes took shape in the real events of history, manifesting the classic battle of good versus evil. During the darkest days of World War II, when Europe had succumbed to the doctrines of political lunacy, two such angels worked side by side in one of the grimmest environments known to humans, the medical ward at Auschwitz. Now regarded as one of the most lethal concentration camps of the Holocaust, Auschwitz brought an end to more than 1.1 million Jewish people, most of whom died as a result of starvation, disease, execution, or medical experiments. 

The Angel of Death

The Daily Mail

Among the doctors who conducted human trials was a man named Dr. Josef Mengele, known to the prisoners of Auschwitz as the “Angel of Death.” Facilitating endless suffering through his unorthodox methods, Mengele was an unstoppable force of medical depravity who did what he liked, as he liked, with the bodies of the helpless.

The Angel of Auschwitz

The Footsteps Team

But hiding in plain sight was another angel, one of compassion and strength, who opposed his efforts at every turn and retrieved many innocent lives from his grasp. While brutal figures in SS uniforms seized every opportunity to rip decency from the lives of their prisoners, a woman named Gisella Perl, dubbed by those who loved her as the “Angel of Auschwitz,” used her unique position to quietly defy one of the most terrifying regimes in history.

Useful Prisoner

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While most women were jammed into appallingly tight quarters where they would soon face grueling work or, even worse, the gas chamber, Perl's background as a doctor set her apart from the others. Her practical medical skills were valuable in an environment where people were chronically ill, and so the Nazis pragmatically decided to use her rather than kill her. Thus, Perl was assigned work in the camp's medical ward under the direct supervision of the notorious Dr. Mengele who was busy using his position to further his ghastly research into the secrets of heredity and human abnormalities.

Human Experiments

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Depending heavily on human experimentation, Mengele pursued his interests in identical twins, dwarves, or people with physical abnormalities such as heterochromia iridum, or eyes of two different colors. He was free to use his human subjects in any way he deemed appropriate, mostly because his research into the physiological differences of Jewish prisoners bolstered the Nazi agenda and spoke directly to the belief in Aryan supremacy. It was true that Perl’s position as his nurse protected her from the gas chamber, but it did nothing to prepare her for the atrocities she would soon encounter as the assistant to a psychopath.

Imported Goods

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Mengele was particularly driven by his desire to understand (what he believed to be) the meaning behind the physicalities of various races and always enthusiastically greeted arriving trains. On the platform, he was able to properly assess the new prisoners and choose freely from a variety of human specimens. With the constant arriving prisoners, there was no shortage of human test subjects, and Mengele enjoyed an ample supply of fresh women and children. Once he chose his "patients," he would immediately transfer them to his medical ward where they would receive slightly better treatment for a bit, that is until they were subjected to his operating table.

Living Specimens

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All of his medical procedures, which occurred with zero regard for humiliation, pain, or permanent damage, ended in serious mutilation, torture, and death. Simply put, Mengele was a brutal madman who had somehow been granted ultimate freedom to use human beings as specimens for his depravity, and with no consequences.

Pregnant Targets

ATI

Given her role as Dr. Mengele's assistant, Perl was required to perform surgery on pregnant women and those who has suffered from the regular practice of having their breasts mercilessly whipped by SS officers. She was forced to conduct her medical work with no clean equipment or anesthesia, all while trying to salvage some semblance of decency. In the first few days of her work, before Perl understood the extent of Mengele’s depravity, he asked her to round up all the pregnant women she could find and bring them to his ward; he wanted to be sure they were receiving enough food and care.

Lesson Learned

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Believing this might offer some relief, Perl followed his request, soon delivering fifty women for his medical inspection. However, before the truth of what she had done could sink in, she watched in astonishment as the pregnant inmates were herded into a Red Cross truck and driven straight to the crematorium. Perl was devastated by her role as the unwilling pawn in Mengele’s game and was afterward wracked with guilt and grief, even downing a vial of morphine from the hospital with the hope of never regaining consciousness. Much to her dismay, however, it seemed life itself had bigger plans for her.



Resistance

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Now that Perl saw with clear eyes how Mengele conducted his work, targeting pregnant women for either torturous death or the gas chamber, she realized she had to find a way to oppose his tyranny. If he was determined to bring despair to the expecting mothers of Auschwitz, she must make sure there simply weren’t any. And so, despite the protestations of her faith, she began performing abortions for women in the camp as a way to shield them from a fate worse than death. If these women could stay strong, continue working, and just keep breathing, perhaps someday they would have a shot at a new life and a new family.

Mercy

ATI

With only the strength of her filthy hands, Perl performed many secret procedures for the women of Auschwitz and was said to have aborted around 3,000 babies from their mothers' wombs in an attempt to save them from sure death at the hands of Mengele. If a pregnancy was too far along, she would force labor by breaking the amniotic sac and manually dilating the cervix. Of course, most babies who were born early in such a hostile environment perished instantly. Auschwitz was not a place fit for any kind of human being, especially a new infant. So, while the Angel of Death performed his daily horrors, the Angel of Auschwitz performed her nightly acts of mercy.

Liberation

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Towards the end of the war, Perl was transferred to a different camp where she was soon liberated. Like most, she instantly began searching for her own family, only to discover her parents, husband, and son had all been killed shortly before the invasion. She soon left Europe for the states where she actively tried to gain citizenship, which she was eventually granted in 1951. While most of the people in the camp had understood and respected Perl's efforts to help her fellow women, her work was not always so well received by those who disagreed with her choices. During her time at Auschwitz, she had performed an estimated 3,000 abortions for those in need, saving near as many lives in the process. As a free woman, she suffered greatly from the post-traumatic stress and grief of the Holocaust.

Honored Past

ATI

Although the two angels of Auschwitz existed side by side during wartime, their paths were quite different once the madness ended. Mengele escaped immediately before the liberation, destroying all of his precious medical data in the process, a sign that his activity was always more sadistic than academic.

Perl united with her daughter and eventually moved to Israel where she peacefully passed away in 1988. During her time as a post-war figure, she penned a memoir, inspired a film, corroborated historical accounts on the Angel of Death, wrote several important medical papers on women’s reproductive issues, and never, ever forgot the lost babies of Auschwitz.