A debut novel about the Holocaust explores the role of physicians.
The book’s title refers to the Hippocratic oath, which is fitting since this story deals with the Holocaust and its aftermath from the point of view of doctors in Auschwitz and the parts they played. The chief villain (there are plenty) is Dr. Hans Bloch, protégé of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The conflicted hero is Dr. Michel Katz, a French Jew who is taken to the Nazi death camp. He curries favor with Mengele in a desperate hope to save his family from the lethal gas and the ovens. He winds up performing autopsies for Bloch. Other characters include Martin Brosky, a survivor and avenger, who witnessed the killing of his parents, and Tamara Lissner, a Czech teenager whom Katz hides after she miraculously survives the gas “showers.” Katz, Lissner, and Brosky lose all their loved ones to the Holocaust. The war ends, and the SS brass and others make desperate plans to save themselves. Bloch manages to get to the United States under Operation Paperclip (with Wernher von Braun, et. al), later changing his identity. Katz, a displaced person, arrives in the U.S., too, and resumes practicing medicine but as a haunted, half-broken man. Brosky tracks down the officer who killed his parents. Now he targets Bloch and enlists Katz, who, with Lissner’s help, has become almost morally whole again. The novel is beautifully written with rarely a misstep. At one point, Brosky reflects on identity: “It was inevitable, death. To some, it came when they forcibly removed you from your own home and placed you in the ghetto. For others, demise followed the forced march out of the squalid tenements to the train. Death of your soul commenced once the doors of the cattle car were slammed shut and locked. And if you lasted that long, upon entry to the camp, you became an invisible being—faceless, nameless, and without spirit.” Some of the descriptions (of firestorms, for example) are almost too vivid to bear. Stein, a doctor himself, fearlessly handles the numerous moral questions, with the characters’ responses to those issues subtly nuanced. There is much to think about even 70 years later (the author includes an extensive bibliography). The Holocaust reverberates here, as it should.
A vivid, multilayered tale that focuses on doctors in Auschwitz and their fates after the war.