Friday, 15 May, 2020 - 12:00 pm

I want to share with you a story which dates back to the early 19th century

As a young man, Rabbi Hillel heard of the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and sought to meet with him. But the opportunity seemed to forever elude the young prodigy.

In anticipation of his encounter with Rabbi Schneur Zalman, Rabbi Hillel had “armed” himself in Talmudic study. At that time, the young scholar was studying the tractate Erchin, or “Appraisals,” the laws of how to appraise the value of one's pledges to charity, discussed in our Torah portion Behar-Bechukotai. He hid under the bed. From his hiding place, Rabbi Hillel heard the Rebbe enter the room. But before he could make a move, he heard Rabbi Schneur Zalman exclaim, in his famous heart-stirring sing-song:

“If a young man has a question regarding ‘Appraisals,’ he had the best first appraise and evaluate himself.”

The prodigy under the bed fainted on the spot. When he came to, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was gone...

Reb Hillel never ended up seeing the Rebbe, only hearing this one line from him—a line that changed his life.

But what did the Rebbe mean with these words? What was the Rebbe trying to teach him?

Torah states that we all stand equally before G-d. Even as the Torah distinguishes between ages and genders, nonetheless within each age and gender, the numbers are uniform for all, no matter how great or small, strong or weak, holy or unholy, brilliant, or boorish. This is the message the Torah attempts to inculcate through this mitzvah of appraisals.

But can a person truly view his fellow as his equal when it seems to him that he is superior to him in talent and achievement?

Now we can appreciate the depth of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's remark: If you have a question regarding “Appraisals,” if you find it difficult to relate to the Torah's evaluation of human worth, you had best take a long hard look at yourself. An honest appraisal of your own character and behavior will show you how much it is for you to emulate and learn from those who are supposedly ‘inferior’ to yourself.

Every human life is absolutely unique and irreplaceable. Each one of us contributes something to the cosmic symphony that nobody else can contribute. There is something I can learn from everyone.

When I look deeply and honestly into myself, says the Rebbe to Reb Hillel, my sense of pride will be matched by a sense of humility in the presence of every human being.

And I want to share a story with you it will explain to us the depth of the above mitzvah, what is it that constitutes the value of life.

The surgeon needed to call a time-out in the middle of the surgery. She had already cut into the patient’s knee for what she thought would be a technically challenging but straightforward operation: freeing a nerve that had gotten so badly pinched after several knee replacements that it was causing unbearable pain.

The pain was so horrific that if the surgery didn’t work, the 50-year-old patient told Dr. Susan Mackinnon of Washington University in St. Louis, she wanted her leg amputated.

But now Dr. Mackinnon, one of the country’s most renowned nerve surgeons, was stumped. She couldn’t trace the saphenous nerve and its branches (the nerves located above the knee). To figure out where the nerve wends its way between and around and under the muscle and connective tissue and free it, in order to free the patient from the insane pain, she needed to consult the best anatomical maps of peripheral nerves ever created. So she asked her colleague, Andrew Yee, to dash into her office, grab what is known as the “Pernkopf Topographic Anatomy of Man,” photograph the right illustration with his iPhone and email it to her in the OR.

Yee did just that. Dr. Mackinnon projected the iPhone image on a screen, figured out where the nerve was, and successfully completed the surgery.

But soon after this 2014 operation, she began worrying whether she had done the right thing.

You see, the meticulous, four-color masterful paintings in the Pernkopf book, were created by Eduard Pernkopf (1888 – 1955), an Austrian professor of anatomy who later served as rector of the University of Vienna, his alma mater. He produced a seven-volume anatomical atlas, prepared by Pernkopf and four artists over a 20-year period. While it is considered a scientific and artistic masterpiece, with many of its color plates reprinted in other publications and textbooks, it has been in recent years found that Pernkopf and the artists working for him, all of them ardent Nazis, used concentration camp inmates or condemned political prisoners as their subjects.

The Viennese medical illustrators were such ardent Nazis they included swastikas and lightning-bolt SS symbols in their signatures. The drawings of the human body were compiled by an Austrian medical school dean who fired all his Jewish professors after the Anschluss (Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938). The first of the two volumes were published in 1937, the second in 1941, in the midst of the Holocaust, all the maps the human anatomy using innocent corpses murdered by the Germans.

So why not just use other anatomy maps? Well, here is the crazy thing. Even now, in 2020, the Pernkopf illustrations are unsurpassed in their accuracy and detail, especially their depiction of peripheral nerves. All other anatomy atlases pale by comparison. It is sad to say but the seven volumes of this Nazi are considered by the medical community unsurpassed in comprehensiveness and precision.

Although a few journal papers may have an equally good, single illustration, finding the right paper takes time that Mackinnon did not have as she stood over her patient in the middle of surgery. What was she supposed to do?

Which brings us to a bigger question. Is it moral to use Nazi medical data to enhance our health?

Let me give you a chilling example.

The U.S. military redesigned Army flak jackets so downed airmen had a better chance of surviving the cold.

Based on what did they do this? The Nazis exposed Jewish prisoners to freezing and poisoning, so they can do “scientific” studies on hypothermia and phosgene gas. The US used this Nazi data to help US soldiers survive the cold.   

Dr. Susan Mackinnon of Washington University who performed the surgery was feeling guilty and uncertain.

What would you say?

Herein lies the paradox of the Pernkopf Atlas, as a legacy of the Third Reich: the fact that Pernkopf and his illustrators, by embracing Nazi ideology and benefiting from the atrocities committed, created a Nazi anatomy atlas in which irreconcilable opposites were forcibly reconciled. Beautiful anatomical drawings were created, but this was only made possible by the unethical and unlawful procurement of the anatomical remains of murdered victims of an evil Nazi regime–thus beauty and evil were fused. This fusion not only perverts and diminishes the status and content of the Pernkopf Atlas but also explains why it should be rejected.

Well, who did the nerve surgeon who used the drawings of Pernkopf decide to consult? Two religious Jews: The famous Jewish scholar, psychiatrist and professor of bioethics at Boston University, Dr. Michael Grodin, an expert on Nazi medicine, who spent his life studying survivors of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz; and his colleague at BU, Rabbi Yosef Pollack, both Torah observant Jews.

Dr. Grodin, who studies Torah and dons Tefilin daily, had this to say: “The highest value in Jewish law is life. If the illustrations in Pernkopf can save a life or alleviate suffering, most rabbis would not just permit using it but say it was mandatory!”

Rabbi Polak added a stipulation: “As long as physicians and educators remember its origins and pay respect to those who were killed to create it. Every time someone uses one of these pictures, they need to say where it came from,” said Rabbi Polak, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a child.

It is fascinating: The Nazi's way of life represented the ultimate disregard for human life. Mice were treated better than Jews. We Jews represent the very opposite philosophy: The unwavering dignity and sacredness of human life. (Maybe that’s why they hated us so much.) For them, the anatomy maps were pure cold science. They would not mind using the corpses of murdered innocent people. For us, these very maps are used to save and help heal another life. Even if emotionally disturbing, a Jew knows that saving a life overrides everything, even the emotional justifiable disgust of using Nazi data.

As for Mackinnon’s patient, she recovered fully and was pain-free for the first time in years. Dr. Mackinnon never told the patient the story behind the surgery.

That brings me to my next story, which happened just recently.

It was late at night and a group of Jewish teenagers, yeshiva boys, we're on a walk around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Massachusetts.

Boston College Police Officer Carl Mascioli was on patrol.

“As I approached them, two of them ran up to my car,” said the patrolman. “There was a body in the water.”

Mascioli ran down the embankment and found a man partially submerged and not moving.

The man was dying; he didn’t have much time left, and if it hadn’t been for the teenagers, he would have died.

“While I was pulling him out of the water, I also observed that he had a swastika on his hand,” said the police officer.

The students, who study at a Yeshiva high school in Brighton, were not permitted to speak with the man, but they had a message for the officer to share with the man they helped rescue.

“They wanted just to let him know that it was four young Jewish boys who helped save his life.” The policeman said the students had no regrets about helping a man with an anti-Semitic tattoo. “A good deed is a good deed and that’s part of life. We should be helping everybody out.”

He said that he shared with the man the unique twist of his salvation: it was a group of Jews who saved his life!

The headline carried by many a newspaper was this: “Boston-Area Jewish Teens Don't Regret Helping Save Man With Swastika Tattoo.”

Let’s hope this man will change his mind and wake up to the reality of who really are the people he loathes so much: the people that would save him even while knowing how much he hates them.

For this is what these Yeshiva boys, like almost every Jew, absorbed in the milk they nursed from their mothers: The value and dignity of life is absolute, unequivocal, and infinite. No matter who, when, and where.

This is the message every child must learn from their youngest years. Every person in a position of influence must use his or her influence to turn this into the most important message to be communicated in every classroom and every home.

We may all be different from each other. But the value of a life can never be measured, not against anybody else. It is absolute and infinite, rooted in the Creator of all of life.

This teaches the Torah, you must always know. You can never fathom the true value of your life and of every life. Rain or shine, in a good day or a challenging day, a day when you are on top of the world, or you wish to quit, you must always remember the truth: The day you were born was the day G-d declared, “This world is incomplete without you!” Your life matters because birth is God saying, “You matter. And you matter infinitely.”

Shabbat Shalom and Chazak,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky



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