The summer I turned thirteen my family moved to Berlin from Canada. Although we were an essentially secular Jewish family, I had a basic Jewish education and quite a developed awareness of the history of World War II and the Holocaust. Like many young readers, I had been captivated by “The Diary of Anne Frank”. I’d also been to museums and seen plays, movies, and read many stories about the period and the plight of Europe’s Jews under the Nazis.
So although I was well aware of Germany’s brutal history, I wasn’t prepared for its omnipresence in everyday life in Berlin. Subtle, almost banal traces of the Nazi past were everywhere: in discreet memorial plaques on buildings, in the names of subway stops, or even on the ground beneath one’s feet, where the names of deported Nazi victims were engraved on special brass cobblestones in the sidewalks in front of the victims’ former homes.
But for Harvard anatomist Sabine Hildebrandt, growing up in postwar Germany meant being surrounded by a lack of evidence of her country’s dark past. Absent Jewish neighbors, abandoned synagogues, and uncomfortable silences: that was her experience. From the silence a curiosity emerged, a need to know that was the impetus for her ongoing quest to excavate the past, to understand it and to memorialize it. And that’s what she does in her book, “The Anatomy of Murder: Ethical Transgressions and Anatomical Science during the Third Reich”, the first systematic study of anatomy under National Socialism.
Sabine Hildebrandt is an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She also teaches anatomy and history of anatomy at Harvard.
I knew I wanted to speak to Sabine when I saw her name mentioned in not one, but two stories in the New York Times related to German anatomy’s Nazi past; one about the notorious Pernkopf anatomical atlas, and the other related to her work as a member of the Historical Commission on the University of Strasbourg, which was taken over by the Nazis during the war and was the site of some harrowing abuses. I’ve linked to both articles below.
Speaking to Sabine was interesting on many levels. The history she has systematically laid out in her work is horrific, but unquestionably fascinating and valuable in its own right. But what is so special about her work, I think, is the way it prompts us to reflect on medicine’s relationship to power, and the discipline’s intrinsic potential not only for good, but also for evil.
On that note, a brief warning. My conversation with Sabine includes the discussion and description of medical violence and outright crimes in a context of tremendous brutality and disregard for human life. So please listen with caution and care.
Recorded October 12, 2022
Music: Mr Smith
Art: Jeff Landman