First person: Applying the lessons of the Holocaust to a medical education

Yale School of Medicine student Priscilla Wang spent two weeks this summer in Europe learning about medical ethics as a fellow in the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics program.
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Shoes from concentration camp prisoners — the red from a high heel in the center retained its color.

Yale School of Medicine student Priscilla Wang spent two weeks this summer in Europe learning about medical ethics as a fellow in the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE) program. FASPE offers students studying medicine, law, business, journalism, and religion an opportunity to explore contemporary ethical questions through the historical lens of the Holocaust. Fellows visit sites associated with Holocaust events, engage in seminars, attend lectures, and meet a Holocaust survivor. Wang, who is in her fourth year at Yale School of Medicine, shared her experience with YaleNews.

Understanding an atrocity

Barracks buildings at Auschwitz I, the first in a network of concentration camps operated by the Third Reich during World War II.

One of the main reasons that I wanted to participate in the FASPE program for medical students was my interest in the tension between individual responsibility, cultural and systemic norms, and population-level goals. As history has demonstrated, mass atrocities are often not one-off acts committed by individuals, but the result of a complex interplay of factors. The doctors in Nazi Germany did not operate in a vacuum. Looking back now, we condemn the horrors they committed, yet somehow, during that time period, their actions rang too few moral alarm bells.

Through FASPE, I hoped to explore the factors that enabled shifts in the medical ethics code, as well as how physicians rationalized their individual actions in relation to the broader system at play. I hoped to learn about the impacts and fates of those who did speak out against questionable actions. I also aimed to gain more perspective on the conflict between individual and public welfare, which is still very relevant today. I believe strongly that a well-rounded medical provider must understand the context of care — the community environment and healthcare system in which patients live and providers practice.

Preparing for the program

Priscilla Wang

As part of the preparation process, the program asked medical students to complete a packet of readings on medical ethics-related subjects, ranging from discussions about end-of-life goals to the use of mitochondrial DNA replacement techniques. Students were also asked to read “War and Genocideby Doris Bergen and an autobiography of Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish physician and prisoner of Auschwitz known for assisting the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele in his concentration camp experiments. I have a personal interest in the history of World War II — I’m fascinated by the confluence of ideologies and events that led to it, and sobered by the fact this occurred in my grandparents’ generation — and spent time reading historical nonfiction and memoirs related to WWII and the Holocaust, and watching films and documentaries.

Take-home lessons

I plan to practice medicine but also hope to be involved in health policy, health justice advocacy, and health systems leadership. Given my interest in public policy, FASPE made me think deeply about the tension that can exist between public and individual welfare. During the history sessions on the trip, it was deeply sobering to learn that a key way the German medical profession rationalized their actions (such as promoting “euthanasia” of the mentally ill) was by emphasizing the importance of the health of the “national body.” I believe deeply in the importance of medical professionals understanding the healthcare system in which they practice and taking steps to improve that system. FASPE reminded me that I want my drive for systems-level change to rest on a foundation of profound respect for the intrinsic value of each individual human life.

Memorial at Berlin-Grunewald Track 17 with silhouettes in memory of the deportation of Berlin’s Jews.

FASPE also underscored for me the importance of appreciating and allowing room for nuance. I found it extremely jarring how physically beautiful many of the infamous historical sites we visited were. The house where the Wannsee Conference took place — when senior Nazi officials discussed implementation of the “final solution to the Jewish question” — was situated in front of a beautiful, peaceful lake. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s ponds, where countless loads of human ashes were deposited, were surrounded by waving stretches of long green grass and the occasional wildflower. It felt like a physical metaphor for the coexistence of the beautiful and the horrific in the human condition, and the importance of always acknowledging this complexity.

Finally, by enabling discussion with uniquely thoughtful peers and providing historical grounding in the shadows of the Holocaust, FASPE cultivated in me a sense of humility, reverence, and respectful fear about the power of the medical profession to promote “good” or “evil.” It was undoubtedly one of the best and most thought-provoking experiences that I’ve had during medical school, and I am deeply grateful to have participated.

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