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Facing Hard Truths about the Holocaust, Medical Science, and Bioethics

Holocaust Remembrance Candle

Holocaust Remembrance Candle

From Peter H. Schwartz, MD, PhD, Director of the IU Center for Bioethics:


This weekend and early next week, Dr. Sabine Hildebrandt will lead a series of events as the inaugural lecturer for the Dr. William S. Silvers Holocaust, Genocide, and Contemporary Bioethics Lectureship.   At the various events, Dr. Hildebrandt will describe how anatomists used the bodies of Nazi victims in education and research, committing many serious ethical transgressions. Anatomists even experimented on living prisoners, and two anatomists contributed to the murder of these prisoners.  The Pernkopf Atlas of Human Anatomy, which was produced during this time, was widely respected and used by anatomists and surgeons into the 1990s, when researchers uncovered the use of images of Nazi victims and close ties between the authors and the Nazi regime.


Dr. Hildebrandt will describe how historians and anatomists have brought these ethical transgressions and the complicity of anatomists in Nazi Germany to light and, equally importantly, have started to systematically restore the biographies of the victims, so that they are once again known to the world by name.


The discussion is painful for every human being to hear, since it reminds us of the existence of extreme human cruelty.  For people in healthcare, it is an especially painful reminder that the high ideals of medicine do immunize against base impulses.  At the time of the Nazi’s, Germany had the world’s leading centers of learning and research in medical science, but physicians and scientists collaborated with the Nazi’s in the Holocaust and other acts and programs that are now almost unthinkable.


At the same time, even if it is difficult to hear and think about, this remembrance and reflection on the lowest points of modern medicine are essential for those in medicine now.  We know that we would never do what they did, but their actions and moral failures can lead each of us to recognize ways that we, and all people, can be led astray.  By reflecting on the worst that has happened, we can understand how to do better, and what moral dangers we should avoid in our own lives and professional work.  If we can face the hard truths about what they did, we may achieve a better understanding of our own limitations and possibilities.


Such reflection and possible growth are a key goal of the Silvers Lectureship. By leading us to confront the Holocaust and other cases of genocide, the lectureship strives to focus healthcare workers on the morality of their actions and to ground contemporary conflicts in the lessons of history.  The Silvers Lectureship will bring a visiting scholar to campus each year to provide a lecture at IU School of Medicine and lead a community event.


Dr. Hildebrandt’s visit is occurring during the International Holocaust Remembrance week, and on Eva Education Day in Indiana, for Eva Kor, a survivor of Dr. Mengele and Auschwitz, and the founder of the CANDLES Holocaust museum.


There are multiple events that Dr. Hildebrandt will be leading and that people may wish to attend for Holocaust Remembrance over the next few days:


Sunday, January 26, 10 AM – 11:30 AM:  Community event  

Nazi Anatomy:  Restoration of the Victims’ Biographies

Dr. Hildebrandt

Laikin Auditorium, Jewish Community Center, 6701 Hoover Road


Monday, January 27, 12 PM – 1 PM:  Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony

Campus Center Theatre, 420 University Boulevard

Dee Schwartz will share her family’s story of survival during and after the Holocaust. Memorial candle lighting by community leaders and IUPUI students, faculty, and staff.  Special performance of music from Brundibar & Vedem, a 4-month project presented by Indianapolis Opera in partnership with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and local Jewish community organizations, combining two operas related to the Terezin concentration camp, and demonstrating the power of music to save lives.


Monday, January 27, 7 PM – 8:30 PM:  Public Lecture

Nazi Anatomy:  Restoration of the Victims’ Biographies

Dr. Hildebrandt 

Campus Center Theatre, 420 University Boulevard


Tuesday, January 28, 1-2:30 PM:  Lecture and Class

The Vienna Protocol:  History and Legacies of the Pernkopf Atlas

Dr. Hildebrandt

Anatomy D 501, but additional students and members of IUPUI community welcome

R3 (Walther Hall) C203, IU School of Medicine


Dr. Hildebrandt is Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Lecturer in Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.  She is an anatomy educator and conducts research on the history and ethics of anatomy, specifically the history of anatomy in National Socialist Germany.


Dr. Hildebrandt’s visit has been made possible through the support of the Dr. Silvers Lectureship and the hard work and interest of multiple people and groups at the University, including:

  • Jason Organ, PhD, Assistant Professor of Anatomy, Cell Biology, and Physiology, IUSM,  and Amber Comer, PhD, JD, Assistant Professor at the School of Health and Human Sciences, IUPUI, who are leading a year-long seminar on year-long seminar series on the lasting effects of the Nazi Regime on Medical Research, funded as part of the IU Consortium for the Study of Religion, Ethics, and Society;
  • Jeremy Price, PhD, chair of the Jewish Faculty and Students Council and Assistant Professor of Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy in Urban Education, IUPUI;
  • The IU Center for Bioethics and the Department of Anatomy, Cell Biology, and Physiology, IU School of Medicine


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Katie Randall

Graduate Research Assistant, IUSM Center for Bioethics

Katie is currently pursuing her masters degree in bioethics at IUPUI. Her research interests include clinical ethics, death and dying, women's health, and human rights.