A special guest of this event was 96-year-old Dr. Wanda Półtawska, who testified as a young girl scout from Lublin on her experience in the Ravensbrück camp. She was in the first group of women subjected to pseudo-medical experiments. She said that for years she had fought for the knowledge of these crimes to see the light of day. She discussed how all doctors should know the history of Ravensbrück because it is a history of doctors’ disgrace.
“When learning medicine, they should know what they are allowed and what they are not allowed to.” This was a strong message she presented to the audience. She called for students to be taught not only knowledge, but also ethos. She sensitized the participating medics to always take the side of life. She postulated that future doctors from all over the world should familiarize themselves with the dark history of medicine in German Nazi concentration camps during their studies. And that this lesson should be a clear warning for those who take the Hippocratic Oath.
Dr. Półtawska attended high school and led a scout troop while deciding to enter the underground Polish resistance. Unfortunately, in February of 1941, she was found out, arrested, and later incarcerated for months in a Lublin prison. In September of that same year, together with other Poles, she was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. There she stopped being a person, someone with a first and last name, and removed from her family. Instead, she became known by her prisoner number: 7709. By the end of the war, 130,000 women had been sent to Ravensbrück. Of the 40,000 Poles, only 8,000 survived imprisonment. She is one of 3 women still alive today to share and tell her story.
Półtawska was not put to death by a Nazi firing squad. However, she suffered a crueler fate. She became a “Kaninchen”, a prisoner ordered to participate in medical “experiments” at the nearby SS clinic directed by Dr. Karl Gebhard. In short, she was turned into a human guinea pig. The “medical experiments” caused her tremendous pain and she almost lost her mind. Fortunately, her concentration camp was liberated on April 30, 1945 and Półtawska moved from Lublin to Krakow after the war.
Changing cities did not erase her nightmares of war and captivity. After this hardship, she thought long and hard about human nature and how man was even capable of committing such atrocities. During those difficult years, she met a man, a priest who knew how to console and help her. His name was Fr. Karol Wojtyła who became our beloved Pope John Paul II. A phrase that resonated deeply with me that day when meeting her:
“Never surrender your heart.”