The Nazi Doctor Who Came to Israel to 'Cure' Kids With Down Syndrome

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Prof. Hellmut Haubold, the Nazi doctor who came to Israel to ‘cure’ kids with Down syndrome
Prof. Hellmut Haubold, the Nazi doctor who came to Israel to ‘cure’ kids with Down syndromeCredit: Robert Lackenbach/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In retrospect, it’s hard to see why no one in Israel raised an eyebrow at the reports of a German doctor who arrived here in 1960 to treat children born with Down syndrome. Haaretz, like other media outlets at the time, saw no need to examine the physician’s past, despite his nationality and the fact that World War II had ended just 15 years earlier.

“A pediatrician from Munich arrived in Israel several days ago to treat children born with mental retardation, using a new scientific method that is unknown in Israel,” Haaretz reported in mid-January.

A report in Haaretz from January 1960 about Prof. Hellmut Haubold. The headline notes 'doubts' about the 'cellular treatments'Credit: Haaretz (archive)

During his 10-day stay in Israel, Prof. Hellmut Haubold treated 50 children. His controversial treatment included “injecting dried cells from a healthy organ of some animal into the organ of a patient, such as into the brain of a retarded infant,” as Haaretz described it.

At the time, neither the parents nor the Health Ministry officials were aware that during World War II, Prof. Haubold was a senior SS physician who conducted experiments on prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp, a friend of prominent Nazi war criminals who committed suicide after the war.

The news about the German doctor’s dark past was recently disclosed by Professor Oded Heilbronner, who teaches history and cultural studies at Israel’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Designs and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This is a chilling and extremely strange story,” he told Haaretz. “This isn’t about some low-ranking person who had served in the Wehrmacht like many others but rather a doctor in the SS, who conducted experiments on prisoners and 15 years after the Holocaust flew to Israel and injected substances into Jewish children at the request of their parents.”

This story came to light entirely by chance, in the course of Heilbronner’s research on mental illness and suicide in Israel. He was astonished to find, in the minutes of a Knesset committee session from January 1960 on psychiatric hospitalization, the following exchange: “I want to add a question about a current event. I read in the press about the arrival in Israel from Germany of a professor in order to treat 50 cases of mongoloidism, which insofar as we know are hopeless with respect to their cure. This professor has performed experiments ... and here he is, coming to Israel now,” said MK Shimon Kanovitch, himself a German-born pediatrician.

Kanovitch was not disturbed by the fact of a German doctor coming to Israel to conduct experiments on children, shortly after the Holocaust, nor did he ask whether the doctor might have been a Nazi. What concerned Kanovitch was his treatment method.

This April 1945 file photo shows children and other prisoners liberated by the 3rd U.S. Army marching from the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.Credit: Byron H. Rollins/AP

A senior representative of the Health Ministry told Kanovitch at the meeting that there was indeed cause for concern: “In the context of great distress and hopes, the group of parents has grasped this doctor, who has a very modest place in the medical world, and although he is indeed a professor he does not practice medicine but rather works at a certain agricultural laboratory in Germany,” said the ministry offical.

Heilbronner says a number of red lights went off in his head as he read the transcript of the 1960 committee session. “A German doctor from Munich, who performs all kinds of experiments, who has a farm and who is invited to treat children. ... The first thing this brought to mind was SS head Heinrich Himmler, who conducted experiments on chickens on a farm outside of Munich, and figures such as Dr. Josef Mengele, who did experiments on children,” he says.

Heilbronner’s curiosity sent him to newspaper archives, where he found a great deal of material about the affair, including Haubold’s name.

“When I typed his name into Google I was stunned to discover his very doubtful past,” he says. What the top Health Ministry officials and the children’s parents could not do in 1960, decades before Wikipedia, Heilbronner did in seconds. “Hellmut Haubold was a German endocrinologist and SS officer,” says the first sentence in the entry on him in the German version of the online encyclopedia.

The entry goes on to say that Haubold joined the National Socialist Party in May 1933, a few months after the Nazis came into power in Germany, and the SS at the end of that year. In 1939 he joined the organization’s military arm, the Waffen SS, members of which carried out many war crimes.

Heilbronner delved more deeply into Haubold’s past, turning to the archives of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich and the Office of the General Prosecutor in Munich. Among other things, he discovered that Haubold had belonged to the Scientific Research Institute of the SS, which had tried to develop a vaccine against the typhus that was killing German soldiers at the front as well as many Jews in the camps.

One of the documents he found was a letter dated December 1942 in which Haubold boasts of having carried out experiments with various compounds on prisoners in Buchenwald. The documents indicated that among his professional colleagues were a number of notorious Nazi war criminals. One was Erwin (Ding) Schuler, who conducted experiments on hundreds of prisoners and committed suicide after he was arrested by American soldiers in 1945.

Adolf Eichmann stands on trial in Jerusalem. The 1961 trial in Jerusalem was considered a turning point in Israeli attitudes toward the Holocaust.Credit: AP

Another was Eugen Gildemeister, chairman of the famous Robert Koch Institute, who also performed experiments on prisoners and committed suicide after the Battle of Berlin, which ended the war in Europe. Haubold, however, was not arrested and did not commit suicide. After the war he opened a treatment institute in Munich and engaged in research on preventing cancer and child development.

And then, in 1960, he was invited to Israel by a group of parents of children with Down syndrome.

“The Health Ministry has allowed the German doctor to treat retarded children but the responsibility is on the parents’ shoulders,” reported Haaretz on January 18 of that year. A number of Israeli doctors agreed to work alongside Haubold during the experimental treatments he carried out at the private Ein Gedi Hospital, on Mazeh Street in Tel Aviv.

Haubold spoke about his treatment method at a public lecture he gave at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, while concealing his Nazi past. “I began to take an interest in the problem after World War II,” he said, “when the most broken-hearted mothers began to come to the hospital where I worked. After their children had perished in the war, they tried to start families anew and the child who was born was a mongoloid.” According to him, “In the medical textbooks it was explicitly stated that there was no hope for these children. I refused to agree with this defeatist outlook. I began to conduct research on my own and subsequently in cooperation with doctors who were interested in my theory.”

The mistaken conclusion he reached was that these children were born to mothers who had suffered from malnutrition and certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies during their pregnancies. In the course of his lecture Haubold showed photographs of children “before and after” his treatment, in an attempt to prove the its success. The treatment included injections of “ground glandular tissue, produced from fetal animals” into the children’s muscles, as Haaretz explained.

Today it is known that Down syndrome is caused by a genetic defect and it is impossible to be “cured” of it. Even at that time, the Haaretz medical reporter attacked this treatment method and argued that it “is not fit for use” and was even liable to cause the children’s death. It was also written that “the treatment causes unjustified suffering to the children themselves.” Haaretz concluded the report thus: “If the interest the visiting professor’s method is arousing increases concern for retarded children — perhaps it will be of some use.” The Health Ministry also had reservations about the treatment proposed by the German doctor and stated that “there is no theoretical scientific basis for the treatment method he is proposing.”

The mass circulation daily Yedioth Aharonoth, however, evinced some optimism. “The mongoloids — not incurable” was the headline of a report from January 21, 1960, at the end of Haubold’s visit. “They went in one by one, or couple by couple, furtively, with downcast eyes. The came out with heads held high and a spark of hope in their eyes,” wrote the newspaper about the parents of the children with whom the doctor met.

Many disturbing questions remain open, first and foremost: Did the parents knew about the doctor’s Nazi past when they asked him to treat their children? Heilbronner assumes that among the parents there were some who had grown up in the lap of German culture and continued to remain in touch with the homeland even after the Holocaust. Thus it is possible that they had heard about Haubold’s activity and decided to invite him — privately and at their own expense — to treat their children in Israel.

To Heilbronner, this is a fascinating history lesson that can teach us about the “indifference and ignorance about regarding Nazi Germany” before the Eichmann trial. The 1961 trial in Jerusalem was considered a turning point in Israeli attitudes toward the Holocaust, breaking the silence of survivors and their families. With due caution, Heilbronner suggest a hypothesis to the effect that the parents of the children with Down syndrome may have been so “devoted and close to German culture” that they were willing to turn a blind eye to the possibility that the doctor was “tainted with Nazism.”

At the end of his visit, Haubold radiated optimism about his treatment but expressed disappointment about official Israel’s attitude toward him. “It seems to me that I have discovered a way to overcome the disorder but I have not yet discovered a way to overcome the Israeli Ministry of Health,” he said.

Haubold was supposed to return to Israel six months later to examine his patients, but history intervened: In May 1960, the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina and brought to Israel, where he was tried and executed.

“After they captured Eichmann, the whole atmosphere changed with regard to the Nazis and the Holocaust,” says Heilbronner.

In 1965, Haubold was investigated by prosecutors in Munich on suspicion of involvement in the killing of a Jewish patient in a Berlin hospital, but no evidence against him was found. Haubold died in 1968, aged 63.

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