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October 25, 2012 8:23 pm

YU Conference: Medical Dilemmas Born out of the Holocaust

avatar by Hannah Dreyfus

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Students at the Yeshiva University Medical Ethics conference. Photo: YU.

Yair Saperstein, first year student at Einstein School of Medicine, Yeshiva University 2012 valedictorian, and a nominee for The Jewish Week’s “36 under 36” last year, has quite the chivalrous flair. But, on Sunday, October 21, the lady on whom he dutifully waited was a bit older than his regular accompaniment. And, while she toted neither heels nor a suave blazer, it was Irene Hizme, 73 year old Holocaust survivor, and subject to Josef Mengele’s twin experimentation in Auschwitz, who held the room spellbound.

“My story is a tie between past and future,” said Hizme, in a whisper, exhausted after sharing her personal story with an audience of nearly 400.

Tie between past and future was exactly the mission statement behind Yeshiva University’s 7th annual Fuld Family Medical Ethics Conference, “Out of the Ashes: Jewish Approaches to Medical Dilemmas Born out of the Holocaust.” The conference, run by the undergraduate Medical Ethics Society (MES) in conjunction with the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), an organization operated through Yeshiva University, sought to view the complex ethical questions aroused by the Holocaust through a modern lens. The audience, a diverse amalgam of university students, visiting guests, and high school students, listened to opening remarks and plenary presentations (during which Mrs. Hizme spoke), before breaking-out into smaller, more focused afternoon sessions, topics ranging from the Nuremberg Laws in light of 21st century medical ethics to trauma and resilience in the second and third generation after the Holocaust.

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“There are a surprising number of modern-day, medical-ethics dilemmas sourcing back to the Holocaust,” said Dr. Michael A. Grodin, professor at Boston University and director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies. “Physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, physician aid in capital punishment, physician involvement in torture, genetic engineering, state-prescribed reproductive policies, to name a few hot-button issues. The painful history of the Holocaust demands we view these questions with the knowledge that dehumanization, and treating the state instead of the patient, begins with small steps.”

Both presidents of MES, Mordechai Smith and Yosefa Schoor, are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. “Naturally, that had a huge impact on our selection of this topic for the conference,” said Smith. “It’s a certain sense of responsibility—to take what happened and inform our own futures.” Both Smith and Schoor plan on attending medical school.

“I’ve always had difficulty confronting the Holocaust,” said Schoor. “My grandmother is a survivor, and it’s so profoundly affected my mother. She’s the type who collects any and all information about the Holocaust, and plays it back to me. It’s her way to fight back. But it’s left me overwhelmed. This conference was my way, almost subconsciously,” she laughed to herself as she spoke, “to confront in me what threatened to become a deafening silence. It was a tangible way to grasp what happened to my family and give my unspeakable fears a productive, forward-thinking outlet.”

“It’s a scar without the wound,” said Dr. David Pelcovitz, foremost child-psychologist addressing the Holocaust’s effects on the second and third generations. “From enmeshment—the, ‘I’m cold, go put on a sweater’ syndrome—to a real terror of letting children go, survivors leave their mark on the next generation. The tried-and-true method of coping is assigning words to the pain. Not only for survivors themselves, but for the children and grand-children, speaking about what happened allows movement past what happened.”

Interestingly, the other two characteristics “emerging from the vast majority of studies on resilience in the second and third generation is a focus on gratitude in one’s personal life, and a determination to give back to others,” said Pelcovitz. “A focus on giving of oneself has always served to ameliorate inner pain and stress.”

Rushing off to the engagement party of his first son, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the CJF and special mentor to MES, was only there for the conference’s opening remarks. “As the child of survivors myself, my answer to the Holocaust is exactly where I’m headed right now: an engagement party for my child,” said Brander, before hustling off the platform.

Punctured by refreshments and several well-placed breaks, the conference, running from morning to mid-afternoon, proceeded without mishap. MES members and volunteers ran from participant to participant distributing water-bottles and neatly-stuffed folders, even standing on corners in the morning chill with “Do you have any questions?” picket signs.

“Seeing all these young people, so alive, so healthy gives me peace,” said Hizme, as Saperstein wheeled her carefully down from the platform after her speech. “For weeks, I was scared to speak. Again and again I was on the phone with Yosefa. And, again and again she told me, ‘Irene, we want to hear you. We need to hear you. It’s our future, too.'”

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